Sunday, April 1, 2018

Detroit-Style Frog Legs

Sam Blythe, a columnist for the New York World, once wrote, "if you have never eaten frog legs in Detroit, you have something to live for, something for which to strive."  He wrote those words in 1905.  A mere five years later, according to Bill Loomis in his article When Frogs were King, "Detroit produced, shipped and consumed 12 tons of frog legs, 6 million pairs of legs (called saddles)."  Bill Loomis also noted that hotels in Detroit served 800 dozen saddles per day back at that time.  That is a lot of frog legs.  So much so that, one year later, the New York Times reported the seemingly obvious: "Detroit is famous for frog legs."  

That frog legs would feature prominently in the cuisine of Detroit does make some sense. After all, Detroit was originally settled by the French.  The Canadian French would head out on the hottest days of the summer along the banks of the St. Claire Flats or the marshes at Monroe near Lake Erie.  The fishermen used a variety of means to catch the frogs, such as tiny "cat and rat" shotguns with mustard seed shot or  a fishing line with a red flannel cloth as a lure (apparently bull frogs were attracted to that lure).  Some used frogging forks, spears and even clubs.  If one knew what he or she was doing, that person could catch as many as 200 frogs per day. 

Given those hauls, it is no wonder that the frog legs were found on many a menu at restaurants and roadhouses around Detroit.  Its introduction into Detroit cuisine was bottom up.  It first appeared on the plates of working class people, prepared in a very simple way.  The saddles were just dipped in milk, then flour and pan-sauteed in butter, and finished with some lemon juice and parsley.  That's it.  If you happened to be at one of the roadhouses around Detroit, which served more rugged and casual food, the cooks used crushed soda crackers for the breading before sauteing the frog legs in butter.  A diner could get a meal for just 20 cents, and, often times, it was an all-you-can-eat buffet of frog legs. 

Eventually, the saddles found their way onto plates placed on white tablecloths.  They also were prepared in a variety of ways.  According to Bill Loomis, Michigan cookbooks included recipes for frog leg salad, frog leg ravioli, picked frog legs, and a frog leg pie.

There were even criteria for what were the best frogs for cooking. The rule was that frogs had to be between 2 and 5 years old.  The problem is that it is fairly difficult to tell a frog's age.  (After all, the frog is not going to volunteer it to you.)  What is perhaps more likely is that the best frogs were determined by their size.  If the frog was too large (and presumably too old), its leg meat would be too tough with a fishy taste.  

However, too much of a good thing is definitely not good, especially for the frogs.  Over-frogging led to declines in the population around the Detroit area.   Even at its height during the first decade of the twentieth century, there were complaints about a dwindling numbers of frogs.  Demand had far exceeded the supply. There were efforts to stave off that decline.  For example, a law was introduced in 1913 that banned the hunting, sale, storage and service of frog legs at restaurants from June to November.  While hotels and restaurants in the city obeyed the law, the roadhouses did not.  Cooks at the roadhouses sold the frog legs under the counter.  Those roadhouses were too dependent upon the sale of frog leg dinners to stop serving them for five or six months a year.  It is recounted that, in 1915, a deputy game warden placed phony orders from roadhouses and returned with 1,000 dinners.   Demand and, eventually, pollution did the frogs in.  

Despite the fall of the frogs in Detroit, one can still find frog legs on menus at local restaurants.  Those frogs are not from the marshes at Monroe or the banks of St. Claire Flats.  Instead, the frogs are imported from India, Indonesia or Vietnam.

That is probably where the frog legs came from for this dish  I found frozen legs at my local Asian grocery store and thought I had to make a dish with them.  That is how I found the Detroit-Style Frog Legs.  An ingredient and a simple Google search resulted in an educational experience and a delicious dinner.  What a time that we live in!

Serves 2

4 frog legs
1 cup of milk
1 cup of flour
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 lemon, juiced
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1.  Saute the frog legs. Dip the frog legs in milk, then in flour and saute them slowly over medium heat until golden brown all over, about 6 to 8 minutes.

2.  Finish the dish.  Remove the frog legs to a hot serving dish, season with salt and black pepper.  Sprinkle with the lemon juice and garnish with the finely chopped parsley.  Pour what is left of the browned butter in the frying pan over the frog legs and garnish the dish with a slice of lemon.

If you want to learn more about the history and role of frog legs in the cuisine of Detroit, check out the Hour Detroit article written by Bill Loomis, the Spendid Table interview of Bill Loomis, or one of his books.


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