The ads at the back of Depression-era magazines offer a variety of ways to “Make Money at Home” – everything from selling Christmas cards to painting lampshades – but the advertisement that really got my attention was this one:
Raise Giant Frogs!
I was under the impression that frogs do a pretty good job of raising themselves, without human intervention. I didn’t grasp the point of the ad until I enlarged it and read the fine print: This is an ad from . . .
The American Frog Canning Company.
It was a legitimate business located in New Orleans; online I found a photo of the canning company, a facsimile copy of the company’s book “Frog Raising,” a picture of their product ( a can of frog legs) in an article by longstreet.typepad.com , and a more extensive ad which reads:
“Raise Giant Frogs. Sell up to $5 per dozen. A New Industry! Millions used yearly! Markets waiting. Price Steady. Pleasant, outdoor work. Easy to ship to any part of the country. Nation-wide market at your command.
“A SMALL POND is all you need to start with five pairs of ‘Nuford Giant Breeders.’ Expand with increase. WE BUY! As originators of Canned Frog Legs, we are developing one of the world’s largest frog markets. In addition to other markets, frog raisers can also ship to us.
“MEN & WOMEN! Investigate this interesting, new work. . . . Send for our illustrated, FREE book [“A Future in Frogs”] explaining our offer in detail. Write today. American Frog Canning Company, Dept. 133-B , New Orleans, La.” [Today, poultry companies sell chicks to farmers to be raised, and then buy the birds back when they are ready to be slaughtered; the frog business seems to have worked the same way.]
Frog Legs for Dinner
This was not just a “Southern” or exotic food. Although I was surprised by the Frog Canning ad, I was even more surprised to find this photo of my parents’ old friends “frog gigging” [pronounced with a hard “G”] in the late 1930s or 1940s. [These are all urban people who lived in a town 27 miles south of San Francisco.]
I don’t think they intended to can these frogs; Everyday French Cooking, by Henri-Paul Pellaprat, says that when making Grenouilles Sautées Fines Herbes, Grenouilles Frites, or Grenouilles en Beignets, you should allow 6 American frog’s legs or 12 European frog’s legs per serving. (American frogs really were giants!)
My parents were adventurous eaters and cooks; having tasted frog legs at a French restaurant in San Francisco, they probably decided to duplicate the dish at home. Although I don’t have a picture of my folks holding frogs, they often went hunting and fishing with my honorary “uncle” Milt, my “aunt” Lillian, and our neighbor, Vic.
Hunting, Fishing and Foraging
Whether because of the Great Depression or just because they had adventurous palates, my parents and their friends enjoyed foraging for food long before Michael Pollan wrote about it in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. My mother could hardly pass a field of wild mustard without pulling over to pick fresh mustard greens for dinner. [Ah, the bygone days of pesticide-free fields….]
My parents took me fishing in the 1950s. I remember the taste of a freshly caught trout, breaded with cornmeal and sauteed over a campfire – a treat modern children may never know, now that many rivers and lakes have pollution levels so high that some fish are too toxic for children’s small bodies to digest.
My father and his friends also went deer-hunting every year. Out of respect for the deer, every bit of meat was used. One family friend made delicious home-made jerky to use up the scraps; another mixed lean ground venison scraps with ground pork for juicy grilled patties.)
Friends also brought us duck and pheasant in season (biting down on a tiny piece of shot that had escaped the cook’s examination was not pleasant!) I preferred chicken.
Mushrooms and Huckleberries
For my parents, mushrooming was an occasion for a picnic in the woods. However, the fact that I’m alive to tell about it is pure luck, since they believed – WRONGLY! – that, if you cooked the mushrooms with a silver coin in the pot, and the silver didn’t turn black, the mushrooms were safe to eat. This is NOT TRUE, so don’t try it! We only survived because they were better than they realized at identifying edible fungi.
Getting scratched while picking wild blackberries made me appreciate their sweetness all the more (and eating them warm from the sun – instead of putting them into the bucket – was irresistible.)
We picked wild huckleberries in the Half Moon Bay mountains every year. The coastal fog was cool and pleasant. I still love the combined smells of scrub brush and sea air. Huckleberries look rather like blueberries, but are not good to eat right off the bush. My parents made huckleberry pies, huckleberry jam and jelly, and huckleberry syrup for our pancakes (It was probably just jelly that didn’t ‘set,’ but we didn’t waste food.) When I was seven or so, accidentally putting my foot through the roof of a pack-rat’s nest in the undergrowth was always interesting: pack-rats pilfered bits of broken crockery, silverware, cigarette lighters, pens, and other small items from people’s farms and mountain cabins.
Grenouilles Sautées in the Making
By the time these frogs were collected for dinner, my parents and their friends were not foraging for food out of necessity, but for the fun and companionship of an outing in the open air, ending with a feast. And don’t feel too sorry for these frogs; they were on their way to a heavenly rendezvous with olive oil, garlic, and butter.