A neighbor in New Mexico once told me that it's bad luck -- not to mention bad form -- to kill a rattlesnake. Unfortunately, he told me this after I'd already killed one.
It was sleeping in the garden, beneath a tomato plant, when my wife noticed it. There's something about a snake in the garden, even to a Hebrew-school dropout like myself, that's creepier than a snake anywhere else. It didn't help that my wife was barefoot and pregnant. The snake wasn't bothering her, she said, so she continued picking tomatoes, with frequent glances at the slumbering serpent.
When she mentioned the encounter, my own reptilian brain took over. I grabbed a square-edged shovel and used the flat blade to pin the snake behind its head, and then finished it off with a machete. I threw the head into an arroyo behind the house and tossed the body into the chicken yard. I thought the hens might peck at the dead snake, as they often do with meat scraps. They wanted nothing to do with it.
My neighbor had lived on that mountain most of his life, and he was at peace, if not in love, with its snakes, including rattlers. Although he'd never been bitten, he had lost dogs. The snakes were here first, he told me, and they're better for the landscape than we are. If you kill one, he said, you will be the last thing it sees, and your image will remain in its eyes. If another snake looks at those dead eyes, it will know who killed it.
I promised myself I'd never kill another snake.
A few weeks later, arriving home from a night out, I went into the chicken yard to lock the coop, leaving the car's headlights on so I could see. As I passed the place where the dead snake had been, I narrowly missed stepping on another, live rattler.
It hissed, its mouth open wide, and rattled furiously, like a helicopter taking off in fast-forward. It was a high-pitched sound, not unlike the screech I let out as I jumped onto a boulder. I didn't know if the snake had come for me, the chickens, or the eggs. But the coop is much closer to the house than the garden is, my wife was even more pregnant than she'd been when I killed the first snake, and I never -- for a second -- considered not killing this one.
When I moved in with the shovel, the snake struck it. My hands felt the shock and my ears heard the ping of fangs on metal. I backed off, grabbed some baseball-size rocks, and pelted the snake. After a few hits it was stunned, and I went back in with the shovel. Just like that, I'd done it again. This time I buried the head, and ate the body.
It was my first time cleaning a snake, but it was hardly different from any other animal. I skinned and gutted the body. A hollow tube remained, defined by a dense shield of delicate, circular ribs covered in a thin layer of flesh. I soaked it in a pot of salt water. After a few hours I rinsed it, let it air-dry, and put it in the fridge.
The next day, I threw the snake on the grill alongside some burgers. The flesh was a bit tough, and it was hard to extract decent-sized pieces from the bones. I had intentionally cooked the snake with no seasoning, wanting to experience its true flavor. Cliché be damned, it tasted almost like chicken. I put the leftovers in the fridge, unsure of what to do with them.
The answer arrived during a run the next morning. The prickly pear cactus fruit were ripe and purple. Coyotes had gobbled all but the most inaccessible ones, which I gathered. I simmered the snake in water for about two hours, until the flesh was soft. I strained the water and teased the flesh off the bones, ending up with about a cup of snake meat.
I baked the meat at 350 in a cast-iron skillet. Meanwhile, I scraped the prickles off the prickly pears with a butter knife under the faucet, and added them to the skillet. Once in the pan for about 25 minutes, the pears started to collapse, and I added chopped garlic. The prickly pear fruits, sweet and fragrant, were the highlight of the dinner. They made the rattlesnake, which by now tasted like crispy, dried-out chicken, more edible.
I hope it's the last snake I eat.
Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated column service of High Country News. He writes about food and food politics in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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