I stared in horror at the giant, overflowing bowl of frogs sitting by the seat of honor, my seat, at the feast we were about to eat. They were adult bullfrogs, cooked whole and stacked precariously above the rim such that the ones on top appeared ready to leap down.
I gulped, “Uh, you do know that I study frogs, right?”
My translator nodded enthusiastically, “Yes, they know. They think this your favorite animal. This is why they choose this dish.”
What else could I say? In my world it wasn’t customary to eat your favorite animal, but this clearly wasn’t my world. And while this was a worst nightmare for a vegetarian conservationist like myself, it was clear that they were honoring me by serving what they perceived to be my animal of choice. This was no small honor. We were in northern China, across the river from Siberia in the middle of winter. The dividing river that transported freighter loads of timber in the summer was now frozen solid, supporting semi-trucks carrying equally impressive loads of lumber. These were not local frogs and undoubtedly came at a cost dear to my hosts at a time of year when the average meal was forced by circumstance to consist of watery rice porridge and pickled cabbage. The price would have been especially painful for this family, living in the maze of mud huts outside the town center where money was clearly limited.
I had eaten dinner in dozens of homes over the last three months as I lived here to teach English in a community that had never before encountered a native English speaker. It took me several days when I first arrived to realize that my fellow English teachers at the local schools were actually trying to speak English to me. All my previous dining engagements had been in modern homes in the city center. As it turned out, these were pre-screened and approved invitations, designed to ensure a comfortable experience for me and a modern image of this remote piece of China. This invitation was different.
A small, third-grade girl shyly approached me after my presentation at the elementary school. I could barely hear her whisper her rehearsed English request that I come to her house for dinner. Naturally, I accepted. I heard nothing else until one evening, the English teacher from that school arrived at my door with this student to take me to dinner. They stealthily led me through back streets, fearful that we would be discovered and forbade from completing our plans. We walked quickly and silently until we were safely within my student’s home.
It was a small house with thin, mud walls, a corrugated iron roof and no indoor plumbing. The extremely negative temperatures from outside were barely thwarted and it wasn’t until several shots of local whiskey later that winter coats began to unzip.
So here I sat, eye to eye with a bowl of my beloved frogs in a room full of people who had clearly made sacrifices to provide me with this treat. My stomach churned as the patriarch of the household toasted me with one of the frogs, then plunged it into his mouth head first. The back end of the frog bulged, shooting the hind legs straight out as the inner organs rearranged with the pressure of his bite. I felt sick. I smiled weakly as the mother proudly placed one of the largest frogs in the middle of my plate, nodding with encouragement. All eyes were on me. I timidly picked up my frog and ripped off one of the thighs with my teeth.
“Hen hao!” I proclaimed with a grin, provoking another round of whiskey shots.
During the clamor, my English teacher colleague and friend discreetly traded plates with me. I glanced down at the pile of empty bones in front of me and smiled at him gratefully. The warmth of the people more than compensated for our differences, and the frigid surroundings!