I have always been fond of balls—so dangly, cute, awkward, underappreciated. My affection for balls grew into a hunger last fall after reading a post on food writer Michael Ruhlman's blog.
A Vermont woman, in possession of 12 young bull balls courtesy of a veterinarian friend, wrote to Ruhlman for cooking suggestions. His reply: "I've never cooked balls before, but they're in the category of brains and sweetbreads... almost always fried. But there's no end to what you might do. Brown butter and sautéed napa cabbage I bet would be great." Indeed! If Ruhlman likened balls to brains and sweetbreads—two of my favorite variety meats—I figured there was no way I wouldn't love them.
The prospect of unabashed celebration of balls lured me to the 25th Annual Testicle Festival at the Rock Creek Lodge in Clinton, Montana, a few weeks ago. I went with one goal: to eat balls. And I did. They were all right (they were deep-fried, after all), but anticlimactic: thinly sliced, heavily breaded, served primarily, it seemed, as a vehicle for cocktail sauce and beer. At the festival's "nut-eating contest," I witnessed men cheering on other men glutting themselves on deep-fried testicles, screaming, "Suck down them balls!" and "You know you love those balls in your mouth, boy!" But when I found myself standing on the back of a mechanical bull, covered in grime and craning my neck above a sea of people to watch women oil wrestle under a brutal sun, I was slapped in the face by just how different the Testicle Festival was from my simple, naive ball-eating dreams. I dismounted the robot bull and left the festival, still craving balls.
Lucky for me, my father—my hero on all fronts, particularly adventurous eating—offered consolation: "I saw some balls at an Asian market here. When you come back, how about you make me balls?" My dad inspired me to think beyond the novelty of greasy Rocky Mountain oysters and consider other culinary ball possibilities. He reminded me of the episode of Bizarre Foods: Philippines that we recently watched together; the host sampled a mysterious Filipino dish—Soup Number 5—made from bull testicles and penises. Soup Number 5 is allegedly an aphrodisiac; my father could not remember if he had ever eaten it.
I went down to Viet Wah Superfoods on MLK to look for balls for me and my dad; the ones I found were frozen, sold in pairs (each slightly larger than my fist), and cost $2.69 a pound. To be totally honest, they scared me a little. But I was determined. As they defrosted, their tough outer skins (called, horrifically, the "vaginal tunic") softened to reveal a maze of blue and purple veins. I removed the vaginal tunics.
At this point, I must admit I was officially grossed out. I soaked the balls for two hours in salt water, hoping to draw out blood. As I sliced the testicles, I tried to imagine that I was cutting lobes of foie gras instead, but the orange color and veins running through their centers didn't help keep this delusion going. I cooked my balls Ruhlman-style, panfried with brown butter, garlic, and napa cabbage. The smell was heavenly, but the meat was incredibly tough and oozed a weird gray substance (I hadn't soaked them long enough to get rid of all the impurities, apparently). I was mortified; they were terrible. "Well," said my dad, "it's not tripe."
Sometimes, we concluded, even adventurous eaters must admit when they've come upon a food that they just don't like or can't quite handle. I will probably never cook balls again (though I will gladly eat some—duck, calf, lamb, whatever—if they're fresh and prepared by a chef who actually knows what he/she's doing), but I haven't given up on balls completely.
I keep thinking about the best conversation I had at the Testicle Festival. It was with John, the man operating the mechanical bull. He was born, raised, and still lives on a ranch in New Mexico. He helps his brother out in the summers by traveling with the mechanical bull—working festivals, carnivals, and fairs. When I asked him if he had eaten balls, he replied "Nah, not here. I wouldn't eat the balls here." "Why not?" I wondered. "Because they just fry them—that's not right. I roast 'em whole in an open fire. Then you peel off the outside and eat the center—it's so tender and tastes wonderful." Summer isn't over; there's still plenty of time to go camping and build a big fire.