Like most food writers, I figure, I get a lot of strange e-mail messages. Some threaten me with unpleasant and lasting bodily injury, naturally, or question my (pick one, please) sanity, upbringing or impartiality. Others smugly commend me for agreeing with their own impeccable taste. But the vast majority ask for information; they are last-ditch epistles penned by strangers desperately seeking the unusual, the arcane the impossible. "Where can I host a formal sit-down dinner for 50 for under $10 a person?" they ask, or "Where can I get good beef Wellington?" As opposed to bad beef Wellington, I suppose. "Whatever happened to those candies called Whats-its?" one wanted to know.
Some of these communiqués frighten me. Some pique my interest. Some gross me out. Recently I got a letter from a Seattle couple with a request that threatened to trigger all three responses. "Do you know," they asked, "where we can get 20 pounds of armadillo meat?"
I couldn't help myself I had to know more. It seems this couple hosts an exotic-meat barbecue every Fourth of July. "We eat the weirdest meats we can find," confided my correspondent, Donn Hughes. He's serious. "We've had kangaroo, rattlesnake, kid goat, alligator and of course the standby, spit-roasted pig, several years. The kangaroo with a Jack Daniels sauce was the most popular so far," he wrote, adding sweetly, "We tire of the mundane."
This was irresistible. I launched a full-scale search, drawn willy-nilly into Hughes's maniac mission. I sat down at the phone with a list of 15 Houston butcher shops and exotic-meat suppliers.
Shrieks of disbelief I got. Guffaws. "You want to buy armadillo meat?" asked the counter man at the Butcher Shoppe [13194 Memorial, (713)464-9203]. Belly laughs. "Why don't you just go out and run over one?" Disgust. "Don't they, like, carry a lot of diseases?" one woman worried. Consternation. "In 30 years, no one has ever asked me for that," exclaimed an incredulous Guy of Guy's Meat Market [3106 Old Spanish Trail, (713)747-6800]. "You know, I've got 50 pounds of legally tagged bear meat in the back. I've processed moose and emu, made deer and elk into sausage, but I've never, ever butchered an armadillo. I don't even think it's legal."
Jim Alexander of Preferred Meats [9811 Harwin No. B, (713)783-2639] was unruffled by my request. "We sell nearly everything under the sun," he explained smoothly. "But armadillo? Either the USDA won't inspect it or it's protected under the law, like game fish that can be caught but not sold commercially. Either way, I can't sell it, and you aren't going to find it in a store." He was right. I couldn't.
Frustrated, I turned to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Web site (www.tpwd.state.tx.us). Yes, the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is the state animal of Texas. No, it is not a protected species; neither are feral hogs, rabbits, flying squirrels or porcupines, for that matter. With a valid Texas hunting license, it's open season on armadillos all year round, no daily bag limit. But, advises the Web site's section for schoolchildren, "in Texas, there is a law that you cannot kill an armadillo on purpus [sic]. Many people don't obey that law." Huh?
I tried calling TP&W. "Naw, I don't know anything about that," said Andy at the Brazoria station. "Why don't you just get some of that fake armadillo meat they sell at gas stations? You know, right next to the jackalopes." Tanya, with TP&W in Austin, informed me that I'd need a special permit to remove armadillos from the wild for sale or trade; Tina, in the Permitting Section, never returned my calls. Sigh.
Meanwhile, I discovered from the International Veterinary Students' Association Web site (www.ivsa.org/public/armadillos.htm) that armadillos do in fact carry disease; they are the only nonhuman animals that can transmit leprosy. Notes Mariella Superina, a Zurich member, "The temperature of 20C on the surface of their paws seems to be ideal for the growth of Mycobacterium leprae, which is transmitted when a captured animal defends itself with its sharp claws."
Superina also has invaluable advice on the best method for pulling a recalcitrant armadillo from the narrow entrance to its burrow: "Once you are able to catch its tail, you can grasp its hind legs. Or you insert a finger into its rectum, which makes it relax all its muscles." A tricky operation, that.
I don't want to know how they're catching them, but people out there are definitely eating armadillos. Superina notes that "the white meat is said to be very tasty." The Authorized Texas Ranger Cookbook has a recipe for armadillo stew (www.virtualtexan.com/ comm/virtual/texrang8.htm); Ted Rockwell's Texas Road-Kill Chili recipe, which includes armadillo meat, can be found at easyweb.easynet.co.uk/ ~gcaselton/chile/recipes/t006; there's even a recipe for Mu Shu Armadillo at soar.berkeley.edu/ recipes/meat/mu-shu-armadillo1.rec.
But first we've got to find an armadillo. Given such ugly choices, I advised Hughes to pick a different animal for his Independence Day shindig. But he's determined to serve it, if not this year then next. If you can help, send your e-mails directly to him I don't want to see them at dhughes@visnetinc. com. In return, he'll gratefully swap you some genuine Northwest geoducks, a real delicacy, I'm told. Pronounced "gooey ducks" by the locals, they're soft, floppy foot-long bivalves that look just like a ... never mind, you don't want to know.
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