How to cook a rattlesnake – if you have to

 

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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a friendly, detail-oriented, and self-motivated Development Coordinator to provide administrative support to the Development department. This position will report to...
  • FIELD ORGANIZER, MONTANA
    Help Northern Plains Resource Council protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the...
  • FOR SALE
    Successful llama trekking business with Yellowstone National Park concession for sale! A fun and enriching business opportunity of a lifetime! Call 406-580-5954
  • ALBUQUERQUE VACATION HOME
    Centrally located. One bed, one bath, lovely outdoor patio, well-stocked kitchen.
  • NEW AGRARIAN PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Quivira (www.quiviracoaltion.org), a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that aims to shift current practices of agriculture and land stewardship to those that produce good food, support meaningful...
  • SPECTACULAR SCENIC MOUNTAIN VIEW HOME BUILDING SITE
    Located on top of Sugarloaf Mtn. 5 mi W of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. $80,000.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    opportunity in Eugene, Oregon! To learn more and to apply, visit our website at www.bufordpark.org.
  • FUNDRAISING & OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Does the prospect of working to protect one of the Southwest's last remaining flowing rivers get you excited? Join the team at Friends of the...
  • DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT SPECIALIST
    Position Summary Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a dynamic, organized, and creative Digital Engagement Specialist to be an essential part of our growing Communications Team....
  • NORTH IDAHO FIELD REPRESENTATIVE
    Founded by sportsmen and women 1936, the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to conserving and enhancing Idaho's natural resources, wildlife, habitat,...
  • SMALL HISTORICAL FARM FOR SALE - NEW MEXICO
    23-acres, adobe home, shop, barn, gardens, pasture, orchard. https://www.zillow.com/homes/222-Calle-Del-Norte,-Monticello,-Nm_rb/ or call 575-743-0135.
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year round outdoor living. REDUCED to: $1.17 MM 575-536-3109
  • GRANTS MANAGER AND EDITOR
    Are you a strong communicator who excels at building relationships, writing winning grant proposals, and staying organized? You sound like a good fit for our...
  • REPORTER
    The Wallowa County Chieftain, has an opening for a reporter. Experience with and understanding of editorial photography also required. Journalism degree or equivalent, an understanding...
  • 2017 JOHN DEERE LAWN MOWER Z930R
    15 hours on it, 3 years warranty, 22,5 HP, $1600 Sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • HEAD BREAD/PASTRY BAKER AND ASSISTANT POSITIONS
    Hiring Part/Full time for Summer Season - entry level & experienced positions. Year round employment for optimal candidates. Pay DOE.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921