The sun shines bright on Black Canyon City. I am waiting in line at a rather unusual barbecue. The young girl behind the outdoor counter waves metal tongs at me. I point to the four bins of fried food in front of her. "What is what here?" I ask. Her eyes glaze with boredom. How many times does she have to tell people the same thing? She points to a tray of white foodstuffs shaped like tiny footballs. "That's turkey," she says. "That's buffalo. This one's pork. And that's beef. You want some of each?"
Welcome to Nutcracker Sweet XXI, a.k.a. Super Ball Saturday, at Squaw Peak Steak House. How I ended up here will give you some insight into the highly technical process of assigning stories at New Times.
It started as a joke, but quickly turned into a dare. There I was, minding my own business, pulling press releases from envelopes, when Ward Harkavy, associate editor, called to me from across the room. "Hey, Penelope," he said. "Didja see that flyer about Super Ball Saturday?"
I'm always polite to Ward. I looked up from my important work. "No, Ward," I said. "What's that?"
Ward wore one of his trademark grins. "They're calling it the ultimate Rocky Mountain oyster fry. Up in Black Canyon City. I think you should go. It'd make a funny story."
"Rocky Mountain oysters, huh?~" I tossed some recipes from a chocolate manufacturer into the circular file.
"Have you ever had 'em? Maybe they're good. I think it'd be funny. C'mon," Ward said, trying his best to whip up my enthusiasm. "The Squaw Peak Steak House at the dog track exit off I-17? In Black Canyon City? How could it be anything but great?"
I began to sweat a little. Eating fried animal testicles is not my idea of a good time. I clutched a shiny metal letter opener and ripped open another envelope. A crowd of onlookers had gathered. One of them was assistant editor Anna Dooling, who hired me and edits my work.
"What's going on?" Anna inquired.
I tried to be casual. "Oh, nothing," I said. "Ward wants me to go eat Rocky Mountain oysters in Black Canyon City next weekend.~"
"Oh, how hysterical," my editor screamed. "I think you should do it."
My heart dropped a few inches closer to my stomach. I looked back at Ward. His grin had stretched into a full-fledged smile. THE FOLLOWING SATURDAY, Goat and I merge onto the northbound freeway at Indian School. I wish I could tell you we are going skiing, but we're not. Our destination is Black Canyon City. Our mission? To search out and consume fried animal testicles. Well, actually, I am the only one who will be eating so-called "Rocky Mountain oysters." My faithful dining accomplice Goat is just along for the ride. He has already told me he has no intention of noshing on any part of the reproductive system. In fact, it is only after I assure him barbecued chicken also will be available that he agrees to accompany me. So much for the myth that goats will eat anything.
I use the drive to psyche myself for the adventure ahead. The desert views help distract me from the dread that has been percolating since early morning. Eating the unfamiliar requires so much energy, doesn't it?
A half-hour north of Phoenix, Goat, who has been silent for much of the trip, speaks. "It's a lot farther than I thought," he says.
SQUAW PEAK STEAKHOUSE is not hard to find. Turn right at the Dog Track Road Exit off I-17. Make a right up the incline, pass the gas station and park anywhere. By the time we arrive, early in the afternoon, the gravel lot is full. All of these people are here for this? We park within sight of Rose's Best Little Hair House in Town and enter the dark saloon of Squaw Peak Steak House.
It takes time for our eyes to adjust. Just past the pool table, a woman with a cash box stands behind a podium. We approach her cautiously. "Are you eating?" she asks. I look at Goat. "Uh, yes," I say. "Two?" I nod and hand her $15. She stamps the backs of our hands with the inked image of a buffalo. "Go through there," she gestures. "The barbecue is outside on the patio."
We thank her and walk down a ramp into what looks like an indoor picnic area. The large concrete-floored room reverberates with the clinking sound of metal shoe taps. Young cloggers in turquoise and black costumes ready themselves for a performance later in the day. I inhale drugstore perfume and ozone-obliterating hair spray as I pass the pubescent girls.
We re-enter the sunlight. Outside, on the back patio, the barbecue is in full swing. A rootsy country band of gray-haired musicians entertains the cross section of humanity assembled. Cowboys, punks, bikers. Seniors, young folks, kids. All sit at long tables hunkered down over the plates of, um, food, in front of them. Goat and I queue up for barbecue. The young girl behind the makeshift counter looks at us expectantly. "Chicken? Or Rocky Mountain oysters?" Goat wastes no time in expressing his preference. "Chicken," he says. She piles a piece of chicken, some beans and cole slaw onto his plate. Then she turns to me.
I swallow involuntarily. I'm tempted to ask for a "No, thank you" helping, but I can't. I'm a professional eater, a seasoned veteran. "Let me try them all," I say. She heaps on some of each, fills the plate with beans and slaw and even throws on a piece of barbecued chicken--for which I am eternally grateful.
We find a seat at one of the emptier long tables. A credible, almost dissonant version of "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" drifts from the bandstand. I look around to determine the proper procedure for eating the, uh, oysters. Some folks are popping these babies down like peanut M&Ms. Others chew thoughtfully. Most people gulp them in one bite. Just like real oysters, I think: Don't chew, just swallow.
Beer appears to play an important role in the consumption of this delicacy. I notice many people quaffing amber liquid from plastic cups. It's certainly affordable. Draft beer is just twenty cents a cup if you also purchase barbecue. As I contemplate the plate before me, I wish I could down a few beers. But I'm on duty, as it were, and it's time to work.
I start with the turkey gonads. Of the four types of oyster I sample today, these are the most graphic. They look exactly as you'd imagine a turkey testicle might look: small, elliptically shaped and covered with pale white poultry flesh. They are unchanged by deep-fat frying, or perhaps these are simply sauteed. I don't know. The flavor is sweet yet potent. The mealy texture reminds me of sausage, without the gristle.
Perhaps the idea of turkeys having testicles surprises you. Maybe you've never even given it a thought. After eating one or two, I think about it long enough to call Dr. David Pearson of the zoology department at Arizona State University. In answer to my question, "Do turkeys have balls?" he says, yes, they do, but they're internal, as are the testicles of most male birds. They have to fly, after all.
Goat eats his tension-free chicken and raves about the band. "That guy on the hollow-bodied Gibson is great," he says. I'm glad he's having such a good time.
Buffalo oysters are heavily peppered and, well, smaller than I'd anticipated. Buffaloes are such big animals. My first bite reveals yellow insides resembling couscous. I allow myself a break and scoop up some pinto beans. They're nicely spiced with strips of green chile. I wish I had more. I'm hungry for safe food.
My favorite oysters are the ones that come from pigs. They taste a lot like fried pork rinds and make me think of President Bush. The beef oysters are incredibly dark. Inside, they have the gray color of cooked organ meat. A sign by the barbecue stand says refills of beef and pork are just $2 a plate. Thanks, but no thanks.
I still have a half-dozen fried testicles on my plate, but I'm ready to wave the white flag. "Want to go look at the buffaloes?" Goat, whose plate is clean, says yes. We toss our plates in the garbage and walk back through the cloggers and dark saloon.
The buffalo pen is located on the south side of the property. We follow the smell. There are four or five of them, including a baby. A big one rolls his eyes toward me, but that's the only movement we witness. They mostly stand around like living fossils. "They make rhinos look exciting," Goat quips.
My stomach is growling as we rejoin traffic on I-17. A few miles south, I spot the Rock Springs Cafe. Tires squeal as I turn off the highway. "Why are we stopping?" Goat inquires. "Because I'm hungry," I say.
The parking lot is full here, too. We walk toward the restaurant, but something catches Goat's eye. "Wow, look at all the motorcycles," he exclaims. Legions of Harley-Davidsons stand at the ready in a field. Their owners are enjoying the monthly "Hogs in Heat" barbecue on the patio below. "Let's go look at the bikes." All I can think of is the scene in Pee-wee's Big Adventure where Pee-wee knocks over a row of Harleys outside a biker bar and is forced to perform "Tequila" in order to save his neck. "Uh, let's not," I say. I've had enough adventure for one day.
On the white menu board inside the cafe, someone has drawn an American flag and written the words "Go USA." The restaurant is warm and friendly, with a pressed-tin ceiling, working fireplace, and big wooden tables and booths. I order a cheeseburger, fries and Classic Coke and begin to relax. I feel like I have just escaped from a foreign country. When the food comes, everything looks and tastes great. I eat with relish.
It's late afternoon. More customers begin to filter into the restaurant. Many of them have come for a slice of Penny's pie. Agent Dale Cooper would love the Rock Springs Cafe. The pie is darn good. I have a fantastic wedge of coconut cream filled with coconut shavings and topped with singed meringue. Goat samples the Tennessee lemon, which is tart and dense with custard. Both are excellent and "worth a drive from anywhere," as it says on the menu.
Sated and happy, we thank our waitress for a great meal, pay our bill and head for the car. We make sure to tiptoe past the gleaming motorbikes outside. Squaw Peak Steak House, Dog Track Road Exit, I-17, Black Canyon City, 395-9913. Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday. Next scheduled Rocky Mountain oyster fry: May 11, 1991.
Rock Springs Cafe, Exit 242, I-17, Black Canyon City, 258-9065. Hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday through Sunday. "Hogs in Heat" barbecue: 1 to 8 p.m., last Saturday of every month.
"They're calling it the ultimate Rocky Mountain oyster fry. I think you should go. It'd make a funny story."
He has already told me he has no intention of noshing on any part of the reproductive system.
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squaw peak steak house
I inhale drugstore perfume and ozone-obliterating hair spray as I pass the pubescent girls.
rock springs cafe
Legions of Harley- Davidsons stand at the ready in a field. Their owners are enjoying barbecue on the patio below.