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Foraging for upscale restaurants conjures up an image of delicate flora being found in forests or fields, and then turned into fey little green things applied with tweezers to artful dishes. It does not, to most city-dwelling sophisticates, suggest stabbing things in the night with a big pointy pitchfork. But for Iliana Regan, of Lincoln Square's Michelin-starred Elizabeth, foraging is as much about collecting fauna like frogs as it is delicate flora like milkweed pods or Queen Anne's lace. And frog-giggin' (the proper pronunciation, her girlfriend Tonya Pierce informs me) is going to be a messy business. At least that's what I'm told as they pick me up in Regan's Hummer outside the restaurant a little before nightfall. With their dog Grizzly in tow, we set off on the hour-and-a-half drive to a golf course in Crown Point, Indiana, not far from where Regan grew up.
"I've had frog legs plenty, I've had them fresh. I don't think I've ever had them this fresh, but they're really hard to get," Regan says. "When I opened Elizabeth I inquired with a lot of the fish purveyors if they had them, and most of the time they just came in big one-kilogram blocks" of frozen frogs from Asia, she says. Worse, they had the mushy texture often found in frozen fish—"I don't know where places get them when they're really nice." I mention that there used to be a restaurant famous for frog legs in the area—Phil Smidt's in Hammond, which lasted from 1910 to 2007—but she expects that whatever they were serving when it opened, an era when you could imagine local fishermen making a livelihood out of catching frogs for the restaurant, they were almost certainly serving an imported frozen product in later years.
Regan doesn't remember Phil Smidt's, but she says "when I was growing up there was a place called the Beer Barrel—we had a ten-acre farm and we lived on a street called 73rd, or Lincoln Highway, and right behind that was U.S. 30. And right across from us on 30 was the Beer Barrel, and I remember on Fridays, it was the popular place to go to have frog leg dinners." She admits, "Of course I was a little girl, and there was no way I'd eat them."
The point is that giggin' your own frogs is not some fine-dining affectation; it's one more piece of the rural midwestern food culture Regan grew up in, and that she turns into fine dining at Elizabeth. That said, her own experience working with frogs is not deep, starting with the stickiest part, which is dealing with the injured but usually some-ways-from-dead frogs. (The last time she brought a cooler full of them back to her kitchen, one of them got loose and into the alley, and she chased it to the back door of Rainbow Thai.)
That's why we're going to Hobart, Indiana, to pick up a childhood friend, William "Getty" Sikora. Getty maintains a couple of local golf courses and, as an avid hunter of nearly everything, is well plugged in to what you'll find and where you'll find it in the area. And he has a line on another golf course a friend manages, one that has water hazards are supposed to be bountiful with nice, fat frogs.
This being the 2010s, she hadn't spoken with Getty for some years when she reconnected with him on Facebook. "He said I have some venison, I have too much, do you want some? And this is when I was doing the dinners at my house. And he gave me some venison loin and I cured it and dried it and made jerky. He'll get pheasant, he'll get goose, venison, raccoon, all those things. He gave me squirrel. He hunts all season long, as soon as the season starts—because that's when the golf season pretty much ends."
"He says he'll take a vacation for like two months and hunt something every day," Tonya adds. "Every season and every day, he can find something different to hunt." The one thing Iliana serves that he draws the line at is bear—she's gotten some from a friend's father in Alaska, but Getty doesn't like the way bears are hunted in the lower 48, basically baited while you wait to shoot them from a tree stand. "He says it doesn't feel like a sport," Iliana explains.
We take the Skyway to Indiana, then wind in darkness through the towns (and strip malls and fast-food joints) of northwest Indiana, discovering along the way that Dairy Queens in the area inexplicably don't have butterscotch topping for their dipped cones. Eventually we reach a residential street in Hobart—which they all pronounce Hobert, the way a frog would say it (hobert, hobert). Getty packs the back of the wagon with coolers, then stretches the gigger between us in the backseat, like a warrior making a point of displaying his spear.
But he's in hearty good humor, so it seems unlikely I will be gigged in place of the frogs. "This is going to be fun," he says. "I haven't been on this golf course before, so this is a real shot in the dark. No pun intended."
Getty doesn't have restaurant experience, but he was a caterer for four years—which in a small town pretty much always means he did weekend pig roasts—and he's as self-reliant a home cook as anybody who works in a kitchen professionally. He just got a new grill, some kind of contraption that uses propane, infrared heating, and charcoal for smoke all at once, so we talk about the finer points of barbecuing squirrel (general conclusion: the loins are pretty nice, but the legs get chewy; brining might help). He sums up the general attitude toward food in the area, though: "If you ain't deep-frying it, you're doing it wrong." That leads to a conversation about how foraging has become a city craze. "It must be nice to be one of the pioneers," he says to Iliana.
"Yeah, but the thing about that is, sure, people can buy it from others, or buy things that are cultivated that are typically wild, but I don't think a lot of people can do it at the level we do," Iliana says. "One, because they don't know how to what to get, you can't just be a chef—"
"A chef knows what he wants, but he has a runner to go hunt it down," Getty says. "I see that a lot on the food networks. There's always one guy who's the go to guy. Maybe that'll be me in the future. 'What do you do?' 'I'm a gofer.'"
"But like you were saying one time, unless you're going out and getting it yourself, you're not going to find the really great things," Iliana says.
"No," Getty says. "If you want the best meals there are, you'd better go get it yourself."
We arrive at the golf course, the entrance to which is blocked by a swinging metal gate. This is how you know you're in a small town: we park next to the gate, and Getty borrows a pen from me to leave the police a note explaining who we are and why our car is there so we won't get towed or arrested.
We climb through the gate and start down the entrance to the golf course—Iliana carrying Grizzly and a trash bag for our haul. At the clubhouse, Getty sees that his friend has left us a map of the golf course on the ground, the way you'd find one in a video game. He orients himself, and we head for one of the ponds.
It's too dark to exactly see that we're on a golf course, but the regularity of the ground we cover suggests it—and thankfully makes us much less likely to step into a hole or stumble face first into a pond. Getty explains what he's looking for—too small or shallow a body of water and big frogs won't live there, too little in the way of moss and reeds around the edges and frogs will get picked off by the bass they're stocked with before they can grow to full size. The first pond, a small one, has a number of smaller frogs, but none big enough to be worth catching. We trudge off to the next pond, and very soon they've spotted a good sized frog, sitting with his eyes and the ridge of his head poking out of the water.
Tonya is the designated "stunner"—which just means she has to shine her flashlight in the frog's eyes, hypnotizing it. Then Getty takes the gigger, aims, and thrusts it hard into the spot where the frog is. With all the flashlights pointing at the same spot in the water, the moment of impact looks explosive, a burst of white light and splashing water like sparks. He brings the end of the gigger up with a kind of scooping motion, and sure enough, there's a frog impaled on the points of the gigger, along with a hunk of vegetation dragged up with it.
On the way up we'd talked about how you prep them, with some sensitivity (or at least squeamishness) toward the prospect of dispatching still-living creatures. (It takes a lot to actually kill a frog, apparently.) Iliana had talked about asking Getty for advice on how to dispatch them, and he suggested clipping the heads off with scissors or a cleaver. "Will they hop around after?" she asked a bit fearfully, to which Getty had replied, unhelpfully, "Sometimes!" She settled on near-freezing them and dispatching them while in that state as the least perturbing way to terminate a frog.
But now the exhilaration of chasing and catching food has squeezed out feelings about the creatures we're hunting. "He's cute," Tonya declares of the creature we've just stuck with a fork, while Iliana comments on the fatness of the legs, the edible part, as she tosses the frog in the bag she's carrying in one hand, her dog in the other. "Let's hope it stays like this," Getty says.
And it does. Within a few minutes we've caught four in the same way at this pond alone, so the golf course is living up to Getty's hopes. We take about the same from each of three or four more ponds, and before long Iliana is carrying a heavy bag, which sways beside her, full of frogs.
I ask Getty how often he eats something he hunted. "I would say, almost every week I eat something I've caught. At least once. And in the wintertime, probably three times a week. Hunting season is in the fall, so I get enough where I basically don't even have to go to the grocery store."
Meat isn't the only part of it by any means, though; a few minutes later they fall into a discussion of crabapple jelly, made with that wild fruit, and Getty takes special pride in his pickles, made with foraged dill flowers. He tells a story (the kind of small-town story that involves a new truck and the guy you bought it from who's a relative of somebody else you would know if you lived there) in which people who were given some of the pickles were straight up drinking the pickle juice. The story ends, "I said 'You got to be kiddin' me,' and he said 'I'm on the list for next year, right?'"
In about an hour and a half, we have about 20 good-sized frogs to take back to the restaurant, though Getty will keep a few of them to cook for himself. By their own expectations, it's a good haul, but I can't help but think that on a basis of nutritional economics—calories expended versus calories foraged—frog gigging may not be that great a deal. I ask Getty what makes it worth it.
"You can get them at the store, and I don't know how they manage to put a processed taste into a frog, but they do it," he says. "These taste so much sweeter, they taste totally different. Once you try them, you'll know."