The offal truth about Colorado’s affection for Rocky Mountain ‘oysters’
By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(This column originally appeared in Sensi 1/19)
Until I started handling balls on a regular basis, I really didn’t feel very comfortable about the task. Frankly, nobody expects to be standing there holding large slippery testicles in their hands. You don’t think you’ll end up peeling the skin off of balls like a condom. They need to be sliced, an action that can make even stout men shrink.
I was working in a long-ago Boulder restaurant, Tom Horn’s, named after a hired killer hanged in Cheyenne in 1903 and buried in Boulder. The oysters arrived in a 10-pound frozen block that was quite a sight as the testicles gradually thawed. I was initially squeamish but after you prepare Rocky Mountain “oysters” for a while they seem like just any other cut of meat.
What is a Rocky Mountain ‘oyster?’
Rocky Mountain “oysters” – also called prairie oysters, mountain tenders, calf fries and huevos de toro – come from buffalo, beef, lambs, turkeys and even goats, and preferably young animals because the gonads of older ones taste much gamier. “Oysters” are almost always served fried in a coating or batter with spicy dips such including cocktail sauce, duk (apricot and horseradish) sauce and spicy aioli.
You needn’t hunt around for evidence of Colorado’s preoccupation with Rocky Mountain “oysters” as they are served across the state including at Denver International Airport. At Coors Field the Rocky Mountain Po’Boy comes filled with “oysters,” garlic slaw, guacamole and pico de gallo. Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing Company crafts a seasonal Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout brewed with 25 pounds of roasted bull testicles.
In Colorado Springs, the new minor league baseball team asked fans to pick its name from among five finalists including Punchy Pikas and Happy Campers. The top vote-getter was: The Colorado Springs Rocky Mountain Oysters. The team instead chose The Rocky Mountain Vibes with a s’more-shaped mascot. Squeamishness won the day. That happens a lot with balls. After all, the kick in the groin is one of the mainstays of physical comedy and adolescent humor.
Pearl-diving Colorado’s ‘oyster’ history
When you see lists of Colorado’s iconic foods, Rocky Ford cantaloupe, Olathe corn and Palisade peaches are often mentioned, along with Colorado lamb. The one dish always included is Rocky Mountain “oysters.” The question is: Other states are associated with things like cheese. How did Colorado end up with testicles?
Rocky Mountain “oysters” are part of Colorado’s ranching history celebrated each January at Denver’s National Western Stock Show. In the spring at ranches across the region young bulls are castrated in an effort to grow more meat and less bull-in-a-china-shop aggression. After harvesting, the fresh testicles are often cooked over the branding coals at so-called “nut frys.” They were done cooking when they, uh, explode.
Making sure every part of the animal is put to use and never wasted was an essential part of ranching life and the Native American belief that you honor the animals you slaughter. Besides, if you’re going to eat an animal’s butt or belly, you might as well eat his balls, too.
Organ meats – sometimes called offal – have largely disappeared from the menu, except at a few 4-star bistros and ethnic eateries where they are celebrated delicacies. The ironic truth is that organ meats are among the most nutrient dense foods and often the least expensive. Balls are low fat, high protein, packed with vitamins and mineraIs including a ton of zinc. Traditionally, consuming gonads was supposed to make the diner manlier but that effect is more symbolic than actual.
Rocky Mountain “oysters” are on menus at bars and eateries across Colorado. One of the most famous is Bruce’s Bar in Severence which dishes a sampler plate of beef, buffalo and lamb testicles and has specialized in “oysters” since it opened in 1957. The success of the biker bar prompted a new town slogan for Severence: “Where the geese fly and the bulls cry.”
Sam Arnold: He gave Colorado balls
All of these Rocky Mountain “oyster” purveyors including me owe a debt of gratitude to Sam Arnold, the man who single-handedly mainstreamed testicles in Colorado. Arnold was a Western history buff, early TV cooking show host and marketing wizard who opened the The Fort restaurant in Morrison. It was built as a replica of a Colorado frontier fort with a menu reflecting the region’s outlaw, frontier and cowboy provenance. His invitation to a curated judging of five kinds of “oysters” opened my eyes to the dish’s finer aspects.
The Fort was also the family home where the current owner, Arnold’s daughter Holly Arnold Kinney, grew up.
“My father was curious about all kinds of meats, especially buffalo, and different types of fries – calf, lamb and even turkey,” she said.
“It goes back to Colorado’s Native American and ranching history. “The ranchers would eat all parts of the animal including the bone marrow and make other parts into head cheese,” she said.
Sam Arnold was famous for his annual Awful Offal dinners at the Fort featuring buffalo tongue, “oysters,” lamb brains, sweetbreads, kidneys, calf liver and blood sausage.
“My father was a pioneer. Through his sheer personality and charisma he pushed buffalo and Rocky Mountain ‘oysters’ to the forefront by serving them in public spaces and to celebrities like Julia Child,” Kinney said.
She has seen all sorts of reactions over the years to “oysters” at The Fort. “There was one funny story. There was a woman who was a longtime customers who was going through a long bitter divorce. When it was settled she brought her girlfriends to The Fort and ordered platter after platter of ‘oysters,’” Kinney said.
The Fort sells about 200 pounds of buffalo “oysters” a week, she said, adding that Millennials and younger diners are the ones doing the ordering after watching the Food Network and travel shows like Anthony Bourdain, she said.
Denver’s Buckhorn Exchange is infused with Old West culture and is Denver’s oldest operating restaurant. Opened in 1883, the Buckhorn is decorated with Western art and artifacts including myriad stuffed animals and boasts a menagerie of meats from rattlesnake to yak on a menu.
For the first 85 years of the Buckhorn’s history, “the original sack lunch” were not on the menu, said Bill Dutton, general manager of the restaurant for four decades. “We started offering them in 1978. We wanted to honor the ranch tradition but we didn’t really know if diners would order them. Right from the start ‘oysters’ were popular,” he said.
“A lot of people order them on a dare. It’s a real tee-hee kind of dish,” he said.
Unlike in the old days, it’s not just men ordering them. A lot more women are eating them and they are not shy about it,” Dutton said. Dutton estimates that the eatery processes about 500 pounds of calf fries weekly from 12- to 16-month-old animals.
Some of the fresh interest in calf fries and other organ meats comes from new consumer interest in whole animal butchery and the rise of the high protein Paleo and Keto diets, according to Nate Singer, head butcher at Boulder’s Blackbelly Market. “People are rediscovering the nutritional value of organ meats and are reviving recipes used by their grandparents, but if you are going to eat organs you have to be aware of how the animals were raised and where they came from,” Singer said.
There is a large medical center located next to Blackbelly. “The doctors send some of their patients over for bone broth and organ meats to enhance their diets,” he said.
Calf fries are only rarely on the menu at the next door Blackbelly restaurant operated by chef Hosea Rosenberg. Since Singer and his crew butcher whole animals, the in-house supply of testicles is limited. “We do love bison balls. The golden color in the older animals is amazing. It means they were grass fed all their lives. Grass fat is gold,” he said.
Whatever you choose to call them Singer agrees that while they taste great, “oysters” do not taste like chicken. Chicken liver, perhaps, but definitely not chicken.
John Lehndorff cooks for a Boulder caterer and hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU.
Where to sample Rocky Mountain Oysters
- Buckhorn Exchange, Denver, buckhorn.com
- Bruce’s Bar, Severance, brucesbar123.com
- The Fort, Morrison, thefort.com
- Creekside Cuisine and Craft Beer, Manitou Springs, creeksidecuisine.com
- Timberline Steaks & Grille, Denver International Airport, Concourse C, flydenver.com
- Golden Flame Hot Wings, Colorado Springs, Aurora, Parker and Castle Pines, gfhwings.com
- The Gashouse, Edwards, gashouse-restaurant.com
- Lulu’s Inn, Watkins, lulusinn.com
Rocky Mountain Oysters
6 calf, veal or turkey testicles
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
Canola oil, for frying
With a sharp paring knife, cut and peel the skin away from the testicles. They will peel and slice much more easily if they are slightly frozen. Cut the testicles into 1-inch slices. In a shallow baking pan, combine the panko, black pepper, cayenne and salt. Completely coat each slice in the panko mixture. Heat the oil to 375 degrees and preheat oven to 200 degrees. Fry the breaded “oyster” for about 3 minutes, or until a light crust forms. Do not overcook them! Drain on paper towels and keep warm in the oven. Serve with cocktail sauce, sweet chile sauce, chutney or spicy aioli.
– From “Shinin’ Times at The Fort by Holly Arnold Kinney (Fur Trade Press, 2010)