Most people do not consider eating testicles a sexually arousing act. Indeed, there are plenty of men who shrivel at the thought of gnawing on a gonad. But such squeamishness does not exist at the annual Clinton, Montana, Testicle Festival, which is one of several dozen testicular celebrations held in the western United States and Canada. The five-day gathering is less about cultivating appreciation for the culinary qualities of deep-fried bull’s balls than it is, as one visitor to last year’s TestyFesty put it, an opportunity to “get naked and drunk and have a lot of fun.”
The origins of the TestyFesty go back 30 years or so, when the proprietor of a Clinton bar called the Rock Creek Lodge wanted to offer customers a unique snack to accompany beer. Over time, this Missoula County saturnalia became known for its wet-tee-shirt and hairy-chest contests and No-Panty Wednesdays, and it remains notorious for ubiquitous public displays of rowdy libertinism. In recent years, however, TestyFesty organizers have sought to return some focus to testicles as a delicious treat and to ever-so-slightly diminish the event’s vulgar reputation. They have done away with the coed naked swimming pool, for example, and there are now free shuttle buses to Missoula so drunks don’t have to drive. It’s considered acceptable to open a raincoat and flash somebody, but unwelcome rubbing on people is no longer allowed. Still, few people will be coming to Clinton strictly for the cuisine. The underlying principle of the randy assembly remains unwavering: When you eat another critter’s sex organs, your own get happy.
It’s safe to say that testicle eating inspires (and maybe requires) a particular brand of humor. There isn’t another food with so many wacky wink-wink euphemisms, among them tendergroin, swinging beef, barnyard jewels, cowboy caviar, Rocky Mountain oysters, and prairie oysters. One of Colorado poet Baxter Black’s best-known works is titled “The Oyster,” about a cowboy and his date, a lady visiting from the East, as they order food in a restaurant. She is surprised to find oysters on the menu. She says, “I would guess they’re Chesapeake or Blue Point, don’t you think?” He answers: “No ma’am, they’re mostly Hereford Cross…and usually they’re pink.” The cowboy finally faints after she says that she likes to smash them with a stone or pry them open with a knife, then eat them raw.
Jokes aside, testicles have been a highly regarded delicacy in the West since the beginnings of the cattle business. On frontier ranches, a young steer’s severed cojones were a special treat buckaroos enjoyed for supper at the end of a hard day of branding and castrating. Even today, there’s a certain manly, mounted-longhorn type of Western steakhouse that prides itself on offering testicles as an hors d’oeuvre. A few years ago, we ate Rocky Mountain oysters in the Oklahoma City stockyards at the charcoal-perfumed Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in the company of Oklahomans Jim and Sharron Shoulders. Jim, who became rodeo’s greatest (and still unequaled) champion in the mid-20th century, and Sharron, an accomplished cook, were bemoaning a Gourmet magazine column we had recently written extolling fried clams. They winced at the thought of eating a clam, and wondered how such a civilized magazine could possibly recommend so frightening a food. All the while, Jim was popping pieces of fried testicle into his mouth with gusto. In fact, the presentation—testes cut into bite-size pieces, deep-fried, and served with a lemon wedge and cocktail sauce—really does resemble some plates of fried clams as served along Yankee shores.
One of the best places to eat testicles is Clark’s Outpost, in the Texas panhandle town of Tioga. When we first ate there, cofounder Nancy Ann Clark, now retired, explained to us that her balls were superior because she demanded that the butcher not give her big, tough ones from an old animal. “We use only the small ones,” she said. “We skin them, we cut them, and we fry them to order. We go through so many that I had to tell our butcher to start accumulating them as the spring approaches, because he doesn’t slaughter in the summer and we cannot go that long without them.” Clark’s cooks up more than a ton of the delicate organ meat each year and serves it with either cocktail sauce or peppery cream gravy.