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Monday, January 9, 2012

A Vietnamese Delicacy


(C) James J Alonzo

When I was in Viet Nam, 1967 & 1968, I had the luxury of being able to speak Vietnamese fluently, compliments of the military language school at Monterey California. After I got to Asia, I liked the culture and tended to learn as much as I could. One way is to learn about the types of food that the people eat, like dog, insects, monkey, and snakes, besides the normal staples of pig, rice and numerous other types of vegetation.

One day my gunner J J Jackson and I took a vehicle and drove to Saigon, off duty assignment-to view the scenery, enjoy a few bars, and find some female company. After parking our vehicle, we started to stroll down TU DO street, where we could find the things we were looking for, passing many bars, restaurants, including small food stands.

"What the Hell is this?", J J said looking at a stand that had assorted snakes, some dead on in jars and some secured but alive! "Jim these !#%*\} people are crazy!"

"Damn J J, that's a delicacy! " I said exited, "Let's try it, that way we can further understand the people and the culture!"

"Jim, you go understand the people and culture, all I want is to get drunk! What's the matter with you white boys? I an't eating anything that has fangs!"

Laughing at J J's discomfort, I walked up to the snake stand. After some hesitation J J followed me. The stand consisted of tables with umbrellas and chairs, next to a make shift grill with racks and a high food preparation tables.

"Xin chao bao nhieu con ran?" (Hello, how much is the snake?") I asked.

She smiled her toothless smile,

"Do do ban noi ngon ngu cua toi" (so you speak my language") mama-San said laughing, then continued speaking,

“You have two ways to buy G I, a whole snake for five piastas or half a snake for 250 piastas the old woman says, “For five, I gut a live snake in front of you and pour its blood into a shot glass. Then you eat the heart while its still beating! Its very good for you! Bam le Ba (beer) is 100 piastas." (one dollar to a hundred piastas)

I told J J what she said, but J J wasn't going to have any part of this,

"Are you f/$&!)%+ nuts!" J J said, more like a declaration of fact, instead of a question.

"Come on J J, it's not just a job, it's an adventure! So try to feel the freedom of adventure,"

I realized that I would not be able to easily convince my friend to indulge in Cobra easily, but I would try to work him. I had tasted grilled garden snake in Hong Kong, and it was delicious.

"Hey J J," i said trying to convince my friend, "Vietnamese snake meat is world famous!"

"No! So %#\!*off!" J J spoke defiantly, as he sat down at the table, “I don’t eat reptiles, or the devil's spawn,” he proclaimed with arms folded, "but I will have some beer."

“It’s delicious, and a great experience!” I chided, as if encouraging him to eat a bug in front of a group of peers on the school playground. “J J don’t be a punk, it will be really cool to do it together.”

" You are so \#%*!ed up on your definition of “cool.” J J replied, I could hear in his voice he was thinking of doing this.

Mama-san was very patient with us as she went about her work. If she didn't understand what we were talking about, it wouldn't be hard to figure out we were debating about eating her food.

"Come on J J, try this, you will thank me years from now for having done this. You'll be able to tell you grandchildren you ate snake."

"Okay, let me understand this", J J asked, " is the eating crushed up ribs and spine followed by a shot of a snake seeped in fish oil your kind of cool?"

“Yeah! Are you going to try it?" I asked, "or you going to wimp out?" I was putting my life on the line saying this to J J, since he was a very muscle bound, 6'2", 200 lbs, and I was only 5'10", 160 lbs.

“Well, if you going to eat it," J J replied, "I will. But if I get sick, your a dead man!"

"Yeah, let's do it dude." I said, wondering if I went too far with J J. I translated to mama-San that J J threatened me, and she laughed.

Mama-San, a small tired looking Vietnamese woman in her fifties reassured us,

“Dont worry G I, the venom is not dangerous if it goes in your stomach, only if it gets in your blood stream.” which I translated into English to J J.

I’ve never been suicidal in my choice for exotic food, but I’ve eaten a number of odd meats in the states and abroad, rattlesnake in Texas, some kind of snake in Hong Kong, bugs in Thailand, dog in Viet Nam We came this far, so I wanted to live to tell the tale of eating cobra.

Mama-san may have been old but she had the reflexes of a cat the way she seized and handled that live cobra! Showing us the live Cobra, she let the snake wriggle in her hands. We decided we only wanted half a snake. Without the blood, without the still palpitating heart, without the potential for mass slaughter and without the half alive wriggling body parts!

Lucky for us, she just happened to have half a cobra in a bucket of ice. Where she got the ice was beyond me, and I didn't ask. The meat appeared limp and gray, like mackerel that rots in the sun. It smelled like the swamps, and the shape made clear that it once was a legless, carnivourous serpent.

So we sat there, drinking our Vietnamese beer, while waiting for the food to be prepared and cooked. We flirted with the young beautiful Vietnamese girls that walked by in their native AO DAIs. (ow yei) We watched and laughed at the jesters of the Vietnamese police officer trying to control the heavy traffic, all in vain, for these cabs, scooters and bikes didn't seem to pay any attention to the police or the traffic signs!

After what seemed like an hour, but only 20 minutes, of mincing, chopping and filleting, punctuated by the occasional shouts, horns blowing, from the street chaos, and our laughter, we heard moma-San ask,

“I’m pulling out the intestines, would you like to taste the nerves now?”

"No that's okay!" J J said, slugging down another beer.

The woman brought out two small dishes. They included spring roll, snake cake, and snake patty, and two more beers.

Cautious, J J and I eyeballed each other to see if either one of us would punk out. Trying each piece with caution, and a huge smile, we listened to moma-San speaking and I would translate for J J.

I asked Mama-San if she had been bitten and she showed me marks on her arm, presumably snake bites. Mama-San explained that growing up around snakes, she has been bitten so many times that the venom is less deadly to her now. But she is still careful because a bite can make her very sick, even if it is not fatal.

We blindly stuffed our mouths. Mama-san kept a close watch to see how much we were enjoying it (or faking it). Mama-san began telling stories, about the snake community before the Vietnam War. As a young girl, she was the fastest to climb trees and catch the snakes so she could earn money for her family.

Later, she learned to cook snake and serve them in many different dishes and spices., She refused to give the recipe, but talked about how Cobra is a favorite of locals who will eat the snake for virility and energy.

Cobra meat is said to be an aphrodisiac, and people who eat the meat or drink the whiskey are believed to take on the snake spirit. Prior to the War, commoners and aristocrats could enjoy the protein of a snake for dinner. Nowadays most snake traditions, especially Cobra eating, is only for the very rich.

Reminiscing on her city, she pointed to the buildings that replaced her jungle trees, illustrious of the dying traditions being replaced by Saigon's growth since the war began.

After about 30 minutes, the snake had been prepared, and was ready to eat. The meal began with Mama-San pouring 2 shots of snake whiskey, one for me and one for J J. Additionally, I asked for a beerto wash down our meal with. I actually thought the snake whiskey was pretty good.

I felt cautious, aware of our power and subjectivity as visiting soldiers. I continued translating, and told J J to smile with every bite, that way we showed respect for the snake eating tradition.

J J didn't look too happy and said,

"If I didn’t know it was Cobra, maybe it would taste good. But I can't stand eating this !*%#}!, the gnashing of bones, and the smelly meat makes me sick!"

"Just drink the whiskey and the beer, and eat the snake spring roll." I advised, "It will help you keep it down."

Being stationed at Ft Campbell Kentucky and Ft Benning Georgia and having visited Thailand for 7 days, I have experienced spirits some home made some commercially made from different places. The snake whiskey was much smoother than I expected, but still retained all the kick of moonshine. Not to brag, but I swallowed mine like a champ. J J, who shall not be named, did not even finish his and the little that J J drank, was sipped in tiny amounts.

Still, I could not get the taste of spine out of my mouth. In a last ditch effort to enjoy the experience and not offend Mama-san. I stored the snake in my cheeks like a cartoon character. I thought I could pretend it didn’t exist, and spit them out later, but Mama-san caught my game. Mama-san asked laughing,

"Are you feeling alright, your face was swelling up?"

I stuffed another mouthful in and said “Delicious!” in Vietnamese, "khaoi tra", smiling with meat clinging to my teeth, my nose running.

After we took pictures of each other eating snake, and toasted each other, we walked away from the snake stand, J J kept complaining about nausea and he may shortly evacuate his stomach,

"When I feel better I'm going to kick your butt for talking me into this adventure!"

I didn't say anything because I concealing two cheekfuls of snake lodged in my cheeks.

*****

“I’m glad I did it, partly because it was worth it, but mostly because I shall never have to do it again”- Mark Twain

© Copyright 2012 James J Alonzo All rights reserved.
James J Alonzo has granted Agent Orange Legacy its affiliates and syndicates non-exclusive rights to display this work.

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