Excerpt from the book “They Call Me Orange Juice” by Audrey McDonald Atkins
Taste this and guess what it is!” Aunt Lois says to me one Thanksgiving morning while jabbing at me with a carving fork, a piece of grayish meat dangling from the tines.
“Go on; taste it!”
Now I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to readily identify my food. Even at a young age, I didn’t think I should have to guess what exactly it was that I was about to ingest. Plus, Aunt Lois had a history of cooking things that were, uh, a little too “organic” for my taste.
For instance, I was at her house one day near lunchtime and naturally the talk turned to what we should fix to eat. Unable to decide, we did what every self-respecting Southerner might do when on the horns of such a dilemma — we went out to the garage to plunder through the deep freeze, that enormous coffin-like receptacle for all things blanched and frozen, fishy or gamey, or just plain too unwieldy for your normal Frigidaire.
Aunt Lois dug past the fish fillets, the venison steaks, and even some frog legs and pulled out a freezer bag. “Let’s eat this!” she said, holding up a bag with something near glee in her eyes. Before me dangled two little carcasses pressed flat in the plastic, nekkid, arms and legs akimbo almost like they were shocked to death and then flash frozen in their surprise.
“Squirrel!” She exclaimed, and off she went in search of the chicken fryer.
Squirrel. Oh my. Couldn’t we just have a tomato sandwich instead?
Flash forward to Thanksgiving. Aunt Lois shows up at Mama’s house with a huge roasting pan containing an unnaturally large roast smiggling around in some sort of au jus with just a few onions and mushrooms. Once in the kitchen, she sets upon it with a vengeance, wildly hacking at it with a carving fork and a large blade akin to a machete.
“Taste it! Guess!”
I thought it better to guess before eating. Just in case. You never know with Aunt Lois.
Hmmm, I thought to myself, what lives around here?
“Deer?” Please let it be deer. I’m running out of options.
I’d seen what I thought was a bear track once. Lord, I hope not. “Bear?”
“It’s moose!” she finally exclaimed. “A gift from a friend of mine who went hunting out West!”
Moose. Have mercy. No wonder it was so dang big!
For the record, if any of you, my dear readers, perchance go out West and think to bring me a gift, I’d much prefer something that either makes me look good (like jewelry) or smell good (like perfume). I would just as soon not to be remembered with a hunk of dead animal flesh, thank you very much.
But the same can’t be said for Aunt Lois, once an ace hunter her own self. Aunt Lois, who has a room full of mounted heads from deer she felled. Aunt Lois, sweet, flirty, mischievous. Aunt Lois, who can gut a fish or a squirrel or a deer without ever so much as chipping her frosty pink nail polish. Aunt Lois, who doesn’t take no for an answer.
So taste I did. Gray, dense, gamey, a little too chewy. But if you slog it through some gravy, like most not-quite-palatable things, it wasn’t half bad. In “The Maine Woods,” Henry David Thoreau likened moose to “tender beef, with perhaps more flavour; sometimes like veal.” I don’t know if I would go that far, but after a good deal of mastication it did, ultimately, go down.
Thanks to Aunt Lois, I have had to be game (pun intended) to try any number of things that I probably would not have without her insistence. Among other things, I have picked shot off my place, learned to ignore the fact that supper looked like Kermit from the waist down, and been educated as to the best way to pull the skin off a catfish. And I am a better person for it.
So here’s to mystery. Here’s to culinary adventure. And here’s to knowing what’s on your plate before the blessing is said.
Born and raised in Citronelle, Atkins shares stories about growing up and living in the South in her book, “They Call Me Orange Juice,” and at her blog folkwaysnowadays.com.