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The Best Balls I Ever Ate

Years after the ‘nose-to-tail’ trend took off in American restaurants, animal testicles remain an exotic, frightening prospect to most diners. But these culinary gonads deserve respect — and a place on our menus

April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re grabbing it right by the balls. Every day for the entire month, we will be publishing a new story aimed at getting men to better consider — and cherish — their family jewels in hopes of helping prevent a diagnosis that, if caught early enough, shouldn’t prove fatal. Read everything here.

The first time I ever ate a testicle, I was a curious seven-year-old growing up in a suburb outside of Dallas, always on the hunt for something new and delicious to eat. 

I can’t remember which steakhouse my parents and I ended up at, what the occasion for the outing was, nor the exact offerings of the menu. But I do remember seeing a novel appetizer listed as a “house speciality” — it was a dish called “calf fries,” fried until golden brown and served with remoulade sauce. My dad, being utterly in love with french fries, suggested that it might be worthwhile. It was the signature appetizer, I figured. 

Little did we know that the dish that arrived at the table would have nary a fry in sight. Instead, there was a mound of golden strips, speckled with cornmeal and black pepper. Wondering whether we had received the wrong order, the three of us shrugged and took a piece each. I can still remember the contours of that first bite: A loud crunch, then soft, rich tenderness. It reminded me of country fried steak, but with a more delicate, clean beef flavor

We only found out at the end of the meal what those “calf fries” really were: Thinly sliced pieces of cleaned bull testicles, which our server indicated by cupping her hand and gently shaking it in front of her, as if weighing an invisible ballsack. My dad clapped his hands and laughed like a kid at the realization, while my mom nodded quietly to herself, as if suddenly enlightened: Huh, beef testes are good! 

Two decades since that momentous meal, not much has changed around the discourse of testicle-eating in America. No matter whether you call it calf fries, Rocky Mountain oysters, prairie oysters, cowboy caviar, tendergroins or swinging beef, the reality is that Americans hardly consume this part of the beast, even despite the massive influence of the “nose-to-tail” culinary movement that’s made mainstream America familiar with “off cuts” like marrow, cheeks and collars. Eating animal testes is an act that, even today, remains more punchline than delicacy — and there’s nothing on the horizon that suggests a shift is coming. 

Which is weird, considering that the rest of the world has been digging into animal nuts for a very, very long time. Humans have been consuming such testes since antiquity, with evidence of ancient Egyptians, Indians and Greeks (among others) cherishing the delicacy as an aphrodisiac and booster for male performance. Many thousands of years after its historical consumption as a medicinal supplement, animal gonads — whether beef, lamb, poultry or fish — remain a favorite treat across Asia and Europe, especially in areas where raising livestock remains a part of the local culture. 

This is a key reason why America’s own love of eating beef nuts begins, and basically ends, with the lifestyle and mythology of cattle-herding cowboys. The rise of a booming cattle business in the 19th century, enabled by westward expansion and more money in the pockets of Americans, led to the industrialization of the meat industry. Farms were raising more cattle than ever before — and that meant needing to castrate more bulls, leaving a surplus of beef nuts hanging around. 

These days, you can find all manner of festivals and restaurants in America’s heartland that celebrate “Rocky Mountain oysters” as a key part of their history and culinary culture, but that’s where the acceptance seems to end. It’s only beyond North America’s borders that we start to see real diversity and acceptance of how delicious animal testes can be, when cooked with respect, creativity and knowledge. 

Even after I ate my plate of calf fries in suburban Dallas, I didn’t think much of the value of eating testicles until I read Anthony Bourdain’s 2001 travelog A Cook’s Tour. In one chapter, he details his dreams of eating meshwi, or whole-roasted lamb cooked in the North African style, roasted in a pit until crisp and lacquered in rivulets of its own rendered fat. He eventually finds a crew of Tuaregs in Morocco and a live lamb worthy of a journey into the desert, and this is where Bourdain tries testes for the first time in his life. 

“The chef made a quick motion with his dagger and lifted free a dismayingly large testicle from the lamb’s crotch. With some ceremony, and a few appreciative smiles from around the table, he deposited the crispy, veiny object in front of me, then sat down and helped himself to a thick slab off the other nut,” he writes

There is trepidation in the air, as Bourdain confronts how he must accept this treasured first bite, or potentially offend his hosts. He tears off a “sizable piece of gonad,” and puts it in his mouth while preparing to flash his best poker-face grin. Instead, it’s an actual revelation: “It was sensational. Tender, even fluffy, with a subtle lamb flavor less intense than shoulder or leg; the whole experience, the chewing and swallowing, was reminiscent of sweetbreads. It was certainly the best testicle I’d ever had in my mouth,” he proclaims. “I’d do it again in a hot second. If I served it to you at a restaurant, as long as you didn’t know what it was, if I called it, say ‘pavé d’agneau maroc,’ you’d love it.” 

I have yet to taste lamb nuts, but roasting them whole is just the start when you consider the full spectrum of animal-nut dishes. I recall trying a plate of rooster balls, each the size and shape of an overgrown white bean, stir-fried with Thai basil and chili sauce by a night market vendor in Southern California. It was unlike anything I’d tasted, literally bursting with chicken flavor and a custardy texture. Then there’s fish milt, which I’ve eaten poached in Korean seafood stews and at Japanese sushi restaurants; the sperm sacs are mellow and soft, reminiscent of tofu. 

These aren’t ingredients you have to drown in sauce to make palatable, although nuts are a phenomenal vehicle for other intense flavorings. Josh Scherer, director of culinary content for Mythical, discovered the innate deliciousness of beef balls while devising an all-testicle breakfast burrito for his Mythical Kitchen show on YouTube. As he made a glazed, smoky “testicle bacon,” Scherer decided to try a bite of plain poached bull gonad in between takes. 

“Of all the parts of the cow, testicles contain the most pristine beef flavor, and that’s never a sentence I thought I’d say. I’ll never forget the flavor. It was this clean, slightly metallic, pure beefiness akin to the best piece of strip loin you’d ever had. It legitimately changed the way I felt about testicles — from Fear Factor punchline to a legitimate culinary treasure,” he tells me. 

Everyone who’s tasted animal testes seems to believe that it’s mildly strange at worst and outright craveable at best, so why does it remain such a trepidation in America? Perhaps there’s a level of Freudian angst at play, given how sensitive men are about their genitals (and injury to the sack, in particular). And who could blame such a subconscious connection, when the supposed “Viagra effect” of eating nuts has always been a part of the mythology? I can’t help but think that America’s longstanding tropes around gayness and homophobia probably plays a role, too — the “haha, you’re eating sperm” gag, if you will. 

Matthew Kang, editor of the food news site Eater L.A., recalls hosting a poker night in college some two decades ago, with the requirement that every eliminated player take a bite out of a plate of bull’s testicles, sauteed in butter. He recalls being horrified by the cleaning of the testes — “Why are there so many veins???” — and the hooting and hollering of his friends every time a loser took a bite of nutsack. 

The reaction was far bigger than the actual flavor of the dish: “It’s funny because beef testicles are way less offensive than eating like, liver or kidney or maybe even tongue for some folks,” Kang tells me. “But it was a big, funny dare for us. You think about the overtly sexual implication of semen, and then realize, ‘Oh, what I’m eating is creamy. Why is it so creamy?’ It’s almost like you can’t help but think about it.” 

Nevermind the hypocrisy of Americans gulfing down the other set of gonads, aka eggs, both as everyday staple and delicacy — see chicken eggs and caviar. The reputation of eating animal balls remains as exotic as anything else in huge swaths of Western culture. But I have hopes that this mentality could change, especially given that eating animal balls is less of an acquired taste and more of an acquired vibe. Consider the take from Will “Sonny” Sonbuchner, the host of YouTube’s popular Best Ever Food Review Show, after he spent an entire day in Vietnam only eating male gonads prepared in a variety of regional styles. “It’s got genuine culinary merit… they’ve made an art out of it,” he says, almost sounding dumbstruck.

To be fair, so did our very own American cowboys, who learned that a bull’s nuts are delicious even if you don’t bread and deep-fry them in oil. A culture of waste-not, want-not led cowboys and meatpackers to continue embracing testicles as a nutritious and always affordable meal in the 20th century, whether sliced and thrown onto a hot branding iron or served up for lunch in a 15-cent sandwich. 

In fact, it remains a celebratory act to eat them during cattle branding season, as spring fades into summer. “I know many ranches that will collect them during branding and when they are all done, they will have a party afterwards,” James Hoy, professor at Emporia State University in Kansas with a specialty in the folk life of ranching, told Modern Farmer. “The oysters will be the main meal — a full course to go along with the beer and whiskey.”

Even with these traditions living on today, there is so much more to discover when it comes to the joy of eating animal nuts. There is a moral principle to this: There’s no reason to be wasting edible parts of an animal when we know the harms of livestock agriculture and the cost of treating sentient lives as a commodity product. But more than anything, given that various animal gonads are craveworthy ingredients, it’s hypocritical for us to reject them as unpalatable. Why not embrace the unfamiliar? Why not lean into the absurdity of consuming meat, as Scherer describes it?

“I understand why people are grossed out by testes, in theory. Most people have an intimate connection to their genitals, and that’s also rife with undertones of shame and disgust. But eating meat is disgusting in general,” he observes.”You’re turning life into a commodity, ripping through animal flesh with your teeth and covering it in fun little sauces and letting it pass through your whole body and shitting it out.” 

“All food is gross,” Scherer concludes. “Let’s eat some balls.”