Among certain of life's improbabilities, like the invention of knitting, is the notion that anyone should ever have looked at a frog and thought to himself, "Yum!" The frog is engaging and lovable—nothing is pleasanter than to see a frog really sitting on a lily pad, blinking his bulgy eyes—but mouth-watering? Well, apparently.
It has been thousands of years now since someone persisted past the frog's uninviting exterior and found him good, thus adding man to the frog's list of foes, which already included water rats, snakes, skunks, birds, turtles, large fish, some leeches, some plant fungi, roundworms, tapeworms and bigger frogs. A female blowfly will lay her eggs in the nostrils of an adult frog and the emerging larvae make their way to the brain and kill him. And boys—"The boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport, but in earnest," as Plutarch quoted Bion some time ago.
The frog (the term can include the toad) does not allow this to make him moody. He continues in his astonishing variety, croaking, barking and peeping, making nests in trees, under the ground and on the surface of ponds. He comes in red stripes, and black stripes on gold, in spots and in dark or bright green; he is smooth, lumpy, poisonous or hairy to the touch. He (in the larger sense) incubates his eggs in nests of frog froth, on his own back, in his own mouth and even, in some instances, within the body of the female. There are three viviparous frogs, in Africa, which seem to have been driven to this internal rearrangement by their environment.
Frogs require water, though there are only a few wholly aquatic species (which have been dismissed as large, flabby creatures, scarcely able to creep in shallow water). They occur in all the damp corners of the world except Australia and Antarctica, and if some are scarcely able to creep, others are able to fly.
The life cycle of the tailless amphibians is familiar. There must be very few people who never caught their own tadpoles or, at any rate, had a jar of them in school to watch as they proceeded from tailed raisin to frog. The North American species hatch, with rare exceptions, from eggs to tadpoles, and as tadpoles they are gilled. These gills, external at birth, are internalized as the tadpole grows. Water passes through the tadpole's mouth (which itself has only just developed) and passes out through a hole, the spiracle, in the tadpole's side. A tadpole's mouth is not good for much else than breathing for a time, and he lives on his slowly resorbed tail while he is growing teeth at the other end. The hind legs bud and are coming before the tail goes; when they are relatively well developed, the arms emerge—the skin thins and breaks down, and an arm appears. "It is held that the left arm normally comes out first, but often the right arm appears first," says the Handbook of Frogs and Toads, not getting all unscientifically excited. The function of the internal gills is taken over by the lungs; the eyes are developing, and their two sets of movable lids; the "true frog mouth begins to appear"; the intestine becomes shorter and ready to deal with worms and flies. The froglet begins to hang around the shoreline and the lily pads.
The common North American frogs vary in reaching maturity. They can take from six months to six years. The females are then capable of laying 6,000 to 20,000 eggs. Fertilization completes a process known as amplexus, which may take from eight to 36 hours. When the egg masses are to be laid the male frog grasps the female from behind. He sinks his thumbs into her fat sides and holds on, may one say for dear life? He will not let go until the eggs are laid and fertilized, so both frogs are quite defenseless until it's all over. As the female produces the eggs the male fertilizes them with a cloud of semen, or milt, after which he finally lets go and departs without so much as promising to write. If the eggs haven't been laid in "transient pools, impermanent situations, roadside ditches and temporary floodlands" and don't get eaten by enemies or caught in spring freezes, they will hatch into tadpoles and turn into froglets and then into frogs, and so on.
It is during the breeding seasons, of course, that the male frogs are so exceedingly vocal, though they have noises to be made also for wet weather, dry weather, hot spells, periods of cold and "distress from teasing, alarm, injury or capture." The range of the frog and toad voices from species to species and within a given species is tremendous. The Handbook of Frogs and Toads lists some of the adjectives that have been applied to the voice of the American frog: "bubbling, weird, plaintive, hoarse, woeful, mournful, complaining, nasal, incessant, musical, pleasant, whistling, prolonged, mellow, tremulous, squawking, shrill, deafening, ventriloquial, peeping, metallic, resonant, twittering, loud, guttural, snoring, snorting, gurgling, clacking, explosive, grating and sweet." Most of these represent subjective impressions, but deafening isn't peeping, a squawk is not a gurgle and grating is certainly not sweet. It is agreed that the cry of a frog or toad in peril is a terrifying sound. It has been called "the mercy cry" and can be made by females as well as males. "Let anyone pick up a female solitary spadefoot," the Handbook says, "and squeeze it, and he might think he had a male.... Or lay this same female on her back and stroke her belly, and she will speak vigorously...." Well, no wonder. But the enormous vocal sacs of some species are exclusively the property of the male, and throat coloring is a reliable secondary sex characteristic in some instances.
All frogs have one thing in common: good appetites. Dr. James A. Oliver, director of the American Museum of Natural History, has said that they have an almost unlimited capacity for food (in a caption under a picture of a Neotropical Giant Toad contemplating an enormous dish of worms) but they are primarily insectivorous. This makes the frog a friend to man, who throws rocks at him while he is thus engaged in putting off the day when the bugs take over.
Frogs and toads will eat only live food, which is one reason advanced for the delicacy of the frog's flesh. Nobody advances any recommendations for the toad's flesh, however. No one eats the toad, except some aborigines under considerable pressure of hunger. The skin is poisonous and, the toad's habits being more sedentary than the frog's, his legs are not developed to any appealing degree. Only Shakespeare seems to have given him any real consideration for the pot, and at that the recipe calls for eye of newt, wool of bat, Turk's nose, goat's gall and a lot of other things you'd have to go out for, just to brisk up the toad.
But it is as food or as a laboratory animal that man finds the frog of direct commercial use. Thousands of frogs a year are used in pregnancy tests, which do them no harm and after which they are as good as new, and in physiology classes, which do them lots of harm and after which they are no good at all. These frogs are caught and shipped on this continent. Frogs which are to be eaten are also preferably caught on this continent, but killed and shipped dressed. Restaurants are less ready than labs to set up froggeries, so they are at the mercy of the season, a dry spell or the free-lance froggers' having left off frogging to take up jobs in town.
Since the fresh legs are thus sometimes hard to come by, the United States imports 2½ million pounds a year, frozen, primarily from Japan and secondarily from India. Cuba used to supply us with half a million pounds a year, but since Castro we have looked more and more to India.
The United States, back in the '20s, provided Japan with its initial breeding stock; first with Louisiana jumbos (Rana catesbeiana Shaw), which proved unsuited to Japan's colder climate—or it to them—and then with the hardier bullfrog from Wisconsin. Elmer Steinhilber, of Steinhilber & Co. in Oshkosh, Wis., remembers sending frogs over in 1927, and more after the Depression, and they have thrived. Japan's circumstances are nearly ideal for frog raising. It's only necessary to throw the breeding frogs into the rice fields. Suitable conditions pre-exist, and labor too. A worker in the paddies can discourage predators, augment the food supply and harvest frogs when the time comes, at a minimum wage. In this country dealers buy their frogs from, say, farm boys in small lots, or systematic froggers in large ones, but in either case frogging is an activity in itself and the frogs come high. Steinhilber & Co. is one of three firms in the U.S. dealing in a full line of frogs (live, for food and laboratories, and dead, with dye-injected arteries, veins and vascular systems, for study). From Oshkosh, Steinhilber works five nearby states and California, and has branches in Texas and Louisiana. The 1962 crop of 1½ million was the largest ever in Steinhilber's 40 years of harvesting. Steinhilber estimates these were caught and brought in by some 400 or 500 hunters. Mr. Steinhilber can sell you live grass frogs from 95¢ to $5 a dozen, depending on size; jumbos can run you as much as $3 apiece. Their average weight is one pound, but they can go up to two or three. In many parts of the country the fat frogs are prized for the skillet, but in New York the chefs in the better restaurants shudder. The general manager at Voisin says of a three-pound jumbo, "This is not a frog anymore! You could put a leash on it and walk it." And Henri Soulé of Le Pavillon said, revolted, "They have the legs like those of the bicycle champions. Frogs' legs, the smaller the better, though they have to have meat on them—they should be plump. And absolutely, they must be fresh."
Agreement is complete that frogs' legs should be cooked fresh, even among those who compromise and serve them frozen when no fresh ones are available. In the 1920s there was a try at capitalizing on this preference; there was a rash of frog-farm promotion and earnest advertisements about starting a frog farm in your backyard. There was good money to be made, they said; all you needed was the advertiser's breeding stock.
Elmer Steinhilber and Dr. James Oliver, for two, claim that there never has been a successful frog farm in this country. But the era produced an enchanting if not entirely dependable book, Frog Raising for Pleasure and Profit by Dr. Albert Broel. You open Frog Raising for Pleasure and Profit and are faced, at once, all unprepared as you may be, with the photograph of a female Nufond Giant, "Actual Size." Her nose and her tail run off an 8-inch page, and she is fat, vulgar and complacent. Her photograph is followed by others, like one of a butcher displaying a frog, holding it by the legs, to a female customer. The butcher looks unconvinced; the lady, on the other hand, is looking almost maniacally pleased, and the caption reads, "Live Giant Bullfrogs can be kept in cooler at about 40 degrees and sold at the meat counter." Well, it never caught on, which is not surprising. It seems very little fun for anybody.
Dr. Broel was happy raising frogs and, he claims, did very well, though his company closed down for just the reasons Oliver gave for the failure of frog farms—you can't make enough profit to support a real industry with employees, packing plants, etc. Dr. Broel's reason for going into frog farming was motherly advice: "As far back as I can remember, my Mother used to say:—'Son, it you want to make a success in life—Raise Frogs.' ...She always claimed that frogs saved her life, and that gave her undying faith in them." Dr. Broel's mother had been sickly in her youth and couldn't eat. But it was found that she could digest frog meat, which sustained her until she became strong enough to eat chicken, and then beef, and finally she recovered and was well enough to bear Dr. Broel.
Dr. Broel's book tells you in great detail how to set up and run your frog farm; there's a world of information, under such headings as TOADS DO NOT CAUSE WARTS, HOW MANY FROGS CAN YOU RAISE IN A BACKYARD? and HOW BULLFROGS ACT IN AN IMPROPER POND. "When a frog is placed in a pond where it cannot crawl under some protecting plant or log, it begins to droop its head, lack appetite and gradually lose its strength. It will get under a blade of grass and remain there until too weak to move. Now, if this same frog is taken out of such a pond, fed by force feeding and put in a pond containing the necessary shade and cover it will immediately regain strength, hop around and feed itself and again be the healthy, vigorous frog it was in the beginning. You can see why it is of utmost importance to have a PROPER pond AWAITING the frogs when they arrive." Lest his readers expect too much of a mere proper pond, however, Dr. Broel is careful to follow this section with HOMELIKE SURROUNDINGS WILL NOT CURE AN INJURED FROG. A broken leg is a broken leg.
Dr. Broel tells us other useful things. He worries that people are prejudiced against the toad, and assures us that "those who really know his habits can speak naught but good of him." He discusses the uses of the frog—the frog as food, for research, for jumping contests, for display ("Can you imagine HOW MANY MORE people would stop to look at a window full of giant bullfrogs?"). Of them as pets he says, rather carefully, "A number of our customers have been surprised at how tame giant frogs become sometimes."
When you are finally shipping your frogs to a customer (whether for food, display, research, jumping contests or companionship), Dr. Broel suggests, "If getting good prices, you will find it worth your time to insert a crawfish or tadpole in each frog's mouth before shipping, to give it added strength for the journey."
Dr. Broel concludes with a very long list of recipes involving the bullfrog, since he seems to feel that people don't realize all of the bullfrog's culinary possibilities. He is quite right, and among the people who never realized any of the following possibilities, one can't help thinking of Monsieur Henri Soulé: Giant Bullfrog Sandwiches; Giant Bullfrog Fondue; Jellied Giant Bullfrog Creamed Salad; Giant Bullfrog Omelet; Giant Bullfrog Cream Broth: Giant Bullfrog Charlotte; Giant Bullfrog Short Cakes. And Dominant Mayonnaise Dressing for Giant Frogs. The adjective "dominant" in this last recipe is never explained, and the more one thinks about it, the more peculiar the possibilities that present themselves. Is the giant frog served alive and held down on the plate only by dominant mayonnaise?
Eh bien, bon appétit, indeed.
FROGS' LEGS PROVEN√áALE
24 small or 16 medium pairs frogs' legs, soaked in 1½ cups milk
4 tablespoons flour
‚Öì cup olive oil or 4 tablespoons butter
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 tablespoons finch chopped parsley
Soak frogs' logs in milk for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Pat dry with paper towels and coat lightly with flour, shaking off excess. Chop garlic and parsley together. Heat oil or butter in a skillet; add frogs' legs and sauté over brisk heat until golden brown on both sides (5 to 7 minutes), turning carefully with a spatula. Do not overcook. When done, season with salt and pepper and toss in the garlic-parsley mixture. Serve with lemon wedges. Serves four.
FROGS' LEGS IN BATTER
24 small or 16 medium pairs frogs' legs, soaked in 1½ cups milk
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon corn oil
Soak frogs' legs in milk for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Combine flour and salt in a bowl. Beat slightly 1 whole egg plus 1 yolk, and mix with 1 cup milk. Gradually stir into Hour until smooth. Add oil. Just before using, fold in the remaining egg white, beaten until it holds a point. The batter should have the consistency of heavy cream; if it appears too thick, stir in a little more milk.
Pat frogs' legs dry and dip into batter. Shake off all excess batter and fry in deep fat previously heated to 370°. Do not use deep-fry basket. Fry for 3 or 4 minutes until crust is golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Frogs' legs can be served with tartar or rémoulade sauce, but they taste best with only lemon wedges. Serves four.