As the only foreigner at the table, I was becoming increasingly aware of the semi-suppressed sniggering that was going on among my fellow diners. We were in a Billings restaurant and, in front of me, was a plate of Rocky Mountain Oysters, a dish that had been highly recommended to me by the assembled company.
I’d never heard of it, but even in my ignorance I suspected that there was more than a hint of the euphemistic in the title. Nothing I could see on the plate looked like seafood. Nothing I could see on the plate looked like it had bobbed around on the beds of the Atlantic or Pacific oceans, and it was hard to imagine this stuff producing anything even remotely similar to a pearl.
What I was staring at was brown and lumpy, covered in a gravy that was, well, brown and lumpy. It’s difficult to describe the aroma but “oceanic” certainly isn’t the first adjective that springs to mind. However, somewhere in the back of my mind, I was sure I’d read about FRESHWATER oysters. Had these delicacies been plucked from the clear, fast-running streams of Montana’s Rocky Mountains?
Perhaps, going back centuries, they had been a valued source of protein for the Sioux and Crow tribes of the region. Maybe early pioneers on their way to Oregon had supplemented their dwindling supplies with these delicious morsels.
“They’re bull’s balls,” said a voice from across the table.
“Aw, you shouldn’t have told him!” said another.
So that was it. I was being offered bovine testicles. I was being put to the “Bovine Testicle Test.” With all due modesty—and perhaps to the disappointment of some of my hosts—I sailed through it effortlessly, polishing off the plate in minutes.
You see, I’m Scottish, and our national dish is haggis. If you can eat the minced heart, lungs and liver of a sheep, mixed in with oatmeal and onions and then encompassed in the same animal’s stomach lining before cooking, you can certainly handle the odd bull gonad.
As a rule, I would say it’s a good thing to sample the cuisine of any country you happen to be visiting, but I’ve had a few, shall we say, interesting experiences on my many trips to Montana. On one occasion, I was offered a pizza that had some kind of cactus topping.
Look, it’s not my place to lecture you about stuff like this but have you actually looked at this ingredient? It has spikes all over it! This is nature’s way of saying, “Go away. I am not remotely edible.” I really think that large, heavily armed plants should be avoided as a source of food. I have no idea what it tastes like because I refused to eat it. Sheep’s lungs are one thing, but you have to draw the line somewhere.
I’ve also noticed that Montanans have a fondness for something called “jerky.” As far as I can gather, this product involves taking a strip of a perfectly good meat like beef and then drying it until every element of succulence and flavor has been removed. Then, to make it palatable, a few spices and a lot of sugar are added. The end result is like chewing on a leather belt that’s been dipped in molasses.
And now a confession—I love the stuff. So much so that I asked a friend in Billings to mail some to me in Scotland. This turned out to be a problem. I received a letter from UK Customs to say that my package had been impounded because, at that time, importing jerky was illegal or dangerous or something.
And yet the “Jerry Springer Show” had been allowed to enter our country and was widely available on several of our TV stations. I struggle with the logic involved.
My first experience of a Montana breakfast was both pleasant and puzzling. I was staying at the old Northern Hotel in Billings and had ordered scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns to be delivered to my room. (By the way, on a later occasion, I once ordered “hash brownies” by mistake. The rest of that day is a blur).
Anyway, the breakfast was delicious. It seemed a bit strange to me the way your bacon shatters into a thousand pieces when you stick a fork in it, but it was delicious. The puzzling element was the red thing on the plate. I poked it a few times with my knife before establishing that it was, indeed, a strawberry. Bacon, eggs and a strawberry. You’ll have to explain that one to me.
During that visit to Billings, I also had probably the most expensive coffee in the history of the world. I arrived back in the hotel one afternoon and decided that I would make use of the in-room percolator. I’m really not much of a coffee drinker and, at home, I stick to the instant variety—a teaspoon of granules in a mug, topped up with boiling water from the kettle.
It quickly dawned on me that I had no idea how to work a percolator and there didn’t appear to be any instructions. I did what any man would do in a similar situation. I phoned my wife, 5,000 miles away in Scotland. Mary talked me through the process and, with huge satisfaction, I was soon enjoying a cup of coffee.
I was very proud. This pride lasted until I got my hotel bill and realized that the phone call had cost me $42. If I’d contacted room service and asked for some coffee, it would have cost around $5. This was probably not my finest intellectual moment.
My criticism of Montana cuisine is both mild and written with nostalgic fondness. Scotland has a horrendous and wholly justified reputation for creating culinary abominations. In our Fish ’n’ Chip shops, it is possible to purchase chocolate bars that have been coated in batter and then deep-fried in beef lard. If you don’t believe me, just Google “Scottish deep-fried Mars bars.” It’s almost as though we were trying to come up with a bite-sized heart attack.
Anyway, all this talk has given me a brilliant idea. If you see someone standing on a corner in downtown Billings, holding a sign that reads “Haggis Jerky,” get your dollars out. It’ll be me.
Roger Kettle lives in Newport-on-Tay, Scotland, near St. Andrews. He has been a comic strip writer for more than 35 years. He has two long-running strips in the U.K., “Beau Peep,” a Foreign Legion spoof, and “A Man Called Horace,” a Western spoof based on Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story “A Man Called Horse,” later made into a movie. Kettle also wrote “Andy Capp” for 11 years after the death of creator Reg Smythe. He has used Billings as a base of operations to explore the American West on several vacation trips. He also wrote one of our favorite installments in the Last Best News series Lay of the Land.
The accompanying illustration is by Steve Bright, or Brighty, as he signs his work. He is one of Britain’s top cartoonists. Feast your peepers on his work at his website, http://www.brighty-art.co.uk/.