Serious Eats: Recipes

The Nasty Bits: Frankenstein's Frog, Stir-Fried

[Photographs: Chichi Wang, unless otherwise noted]

I couldn't decide whether to dispense with the frogs at the store or take them home alive. It's not often that I'm presented with the opportunity to slaughter my own dinner. The thought of the amphibians hopping and jumping around in my kitchen settled the matter. I asked for two frogs. A woman grabbed two from the bin and placed them inside a large plastic bag, and handed the bag to the fishmonger.


[Warning: NSFsqueamish-or-frog-loving-people content ahead.]


The Butcher

While the frogs were still in the bag, the butcher knocked them out with one quick blow of his cleaver. Off went the heads! He peeled off the skin - like a diving suit, the skin shimmied off in one long piece.

Then he eviscerated them, cleaned them, and handed them back to me (neatly packaged, of course.)

Reanimation

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Back in my kitchen, I placed the frogs onto a plate. The frogs lay there with their little hands and feet up in the air, very pale and very still. My plan was to keep them in the refrigerator overnight and cook them the next morning. I started to sprinkle the bodies with salt. As soon as the salt went on, the appendages began to move. I recoiled in shock. Was it normal frog-behaivor, post-mortem?

After 20 seconds or so the quivering turned into a restless jig. The legs twitched violently, pumping up and down as if they were getting ready for one last hop. Then the forelegs began to pump too, with their spindly fingers grasping upwards towards me. The chests heaved up and down as if gasping for air.

I waited for the twitching to subside. Instead, the muscle spasms continued ceaselessly, growing ever more urgent as the minutes went by. I couldn't take it anymore, so I put the frogs into the refrigerator and went to bed.

The next morning I checked again. So far, so good. No strange movements or twitching of any kind.

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During prep, I chopped the frogs into sections, soaking the parts in a marinade of soy sauce, rice wine, and cornstarch. It was only after I had washed the green onions, turning around to face the plate of frog meat, that I noticed that the lower half of a leg was still moving. It was severed from the thigh, but it was still twitching and flopping. Weird, I thought.

Mystery Solved?

Every inquisitive cook needs her own Harold McGee to consult at a moment's notice. Mine happens to be a theoretical physicist and my childhood friend, to boot.

I called and explained, regaling him with all the lurid details.

"I think the muscles twitched because the sodium activated the sodium channels of the muscle nerves," he said. "In a live animal, signals between and within the brain and muscle cells are maintained with ion channels. One of the ions that our bodies use is sodium." Then he paused. "You know, sodium chloride, as in.....salt."

"But these frogs weren't alive," I objected. "When I sprinkled salt on them, they'd been dead for hours."

"Sure, but their cells had probably not broken down," he replied.

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Luigi Galvani. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

"It's similar to the famous experiments by Galvani, when he got dead frogs to move by electrocution," he added.

"What famous experiments?" I said.

"You know, the famous Italian scientist Luigi Galvani, who inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein and prompted the creation of the word 'galvanized'—literally, shocked into action."

"Oh right. That famous Italian scientist."

"Anyway," he ended cheerfully, "You don't need to get into the specifics of how ions are involved. It's quite complicated and I'm not too sure myself."

So much for theories. Know how to get a frog to stop twitching? Stir-fry it!

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor."

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