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The Testicle Festival, for Those Who Can Stomach it.

The Testicle Festival, for Those Who Can Stomach it.

Oysters from lambs

Patricia Leigh Brown | International Herald Tribune

The judges gathered around the pool table at the Union Brewery Saloon, their palates attuned despite thick nicotine haze. They were here to assess the taste, texture, appearance and creative flair of a not-for-the-faint-of-heart culinary tradition known as the mountain oyster – the Wild West on a plate.

Of all the country’s gastronomic competitions, perhaps none compare to the challenge facing the harried chefs assembled here in a parking lot for the 18th annual International Comstock Mountain Oyster Fry. Classically dipped in cornmeal and then fried, or artfully concealed in scrambled eggs, bordelaise sauce or sushi, these oysters were not of the Chesapeake or bluepoint variety but, rather, a cornerstone of Western ranching culture involving testicles from gelded lambs and calves.

“It takes a strong stomach,” said Nicki Wilson, 33, an office manager for a towing company who has an oyster taco recipe laced with tequila, cumin and cayenne.

The cooking of testicles – also known as calf fries or lamb fries – is a living tradition on ranches throughout rural Nevada and the Intermountain West down through Central Texas (the annual fry here is nicknamed the “testicle festival”).

This feat of derring-do harks back to the days when every part of an animal was used, and settlers by necessity “had a rather investigative spirit when it came to food,” said Cathy Luchetti, the author of “Home on the Range: A Culinary History of the American West.”

Liz Chabot, 77, who grew up on a ranch near Paradise Valley, Nevada, described the delicacy as “a taste like none other,” and recalled how the fries were thrown into the fire at branding time, pulled out with a stick and then peeled and eaten like a fresh fig.

“They couldn’t get them done fast enough,” Ms. Chabot said by telephone. “Generally, after a mountain oyster feed, there were no leftovers. It was a celebration with family and friends. Of course, it wasn’t a social event for the calves.”

Although animal rights groups decry the castrating of cattle, pigs and sheep as cruel, it is a common agricultural practice intended to make males more manageable and their meat tender.

The oyster fry continues to be a communal ritual where physical distance is a fact of life – an excuse for men who have spent the day wrestling, branding and vaccinating 400-pound, or 180-kilogram, calves “to sit under the trees, eat and tell stories,” said Carolyn Dufurrena, a school principal who lives on a ranch outside Winnemucca, Nevada, and is the co-author of “Sharing Fencelines: Three Friends Write from Nevada’s Sagebrush Corner.”

The oysters are sometimes saved and served as hor d’oeuvres at wedding receptions, Ms. Dufurrena said.