I ate rattlesnake soup

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By Travis Mayfield

When I say (or type) it, I cannot help but feel a bit of pride.

I ate rattlesnake soup.

Eating authentically when I travel is something I really enjoy and our recent trip to China was no exception.

What I find interesting is how many other people want to know about what we ate as well.

Co-workers, friends, family members have all asked about the food. I have gleefully recounted everything we ate (and didn’t eat). But the rattlesnake soup just keeps floating to the top.

People are either fascinated or horrified

We were two weeks into our trip and had just arrived in Zhangjiajie in the Hunan Province. After visiting Hong Kong, Macau and Beijing we had already seen and done a ton of stuff. We had also eaten lots of amazing meals.  Little did I know the meal I was about to sit down to however would be the one I am likely to talk about for the rest of my life.

“Do you want snake soup?” my mother-in-law asked as she looked up from the menu.

“Sure why not,” I replied with a shrug. As I mentioned I love to eat authentically and to try things I’ve never tried before.

My mother-in-law spoke to the waitress in Mandarin and put in our order. A few minutes passed and we all enjoyed some tea and a brief respite in the midst of a busy travel schedule. Suddenly a kitchen staffer waved to my mother-in-law and she turned to me.

“Would you like to see the snake?”  she asked. 

I opened my mouth but sound didn’t really come out.

“We need to make sure it is fresh,” she said matter-of-factly. 

So I followed her down the steps and into a back area of the restaurant. As I rounded the corner I saw the kitchen staffer holding a net bag that seemed to be wriggling and thrashing on its own.

“That’s it,” my mother-in-law said.

Looking closer through the netting I realized that was a snake that had to be 5 or 6 feet long and at least 4 or 5 inches thick. Its tail section was vibrating and rattling.

“That’s a rattlesnake,” I stammered. “And it is alive.”

“We call it a five-step-snake,” said my mother-in-law. “If it bites you then you can take just five steps  before you die.”

Shots anyone?

We walked back to the table and I tried my best to put on a brave face. I have a tiny phobia involving snakes and I have to admit I was a little disturbed by what I had just seen.

Still I took a deep breath and resumed the conversation with the rest of the family.

That’s when a little old man silently appeared at the table with two small clear plastic cups. One contained a small amount of clear liquid. Floating in that liquid was a gray bean shaped bit of clearly organic material. The second cup was about ¼ full with a deep red liquid. There were red droplets around the rim of the cup and when I touched the outside of that cup it was warm.

“That’s the fresh blood and the gallbladder,” translated my mother-in-law as the older man spoke quietly.

“From the snake?” I groaned.

“Take each with a shot of local alcohol,” said my mother-in-law. “It’s good for your health.”

As my stomach turned I absolutely knew that doing a shot from either of those cups would not be good for MY health. So I politely declined.

I felt better when everyone in the family declined and we gave the cups to our locally hired driver instead.

It tastes nothing like chicken

Over the years I’ve heard people talk about snake soup and I always assumed we were talking about little garter snakes or something of the sort. I also distinctly remember being told how the meat tastes just like chicken.

This is what I had been expecting when my mother-in-law asked originally if I wanted snake soup.

I wasn’t expecting rattlesnake.

I wasn’t expecting live rattlesnake.

I wasn’t expecting rattlesnake gallbladder or rattlesnake blood.

And I certainly wasn’t expecting what was delivered to our table next.

It was a giant metal bowl filled to the brim with cloudy broth. Floating in that broth was a dozen large chunks of rattlesnake. This was not skinned or deboned snake. These chunks of meat still had scales in diamond patterns, rib bones and vertebras.

The entire snake’s body had literally been cut into cross sections and all of those cross sections had gone right into the soup pot.

My mother-in-law spooned one such chunk into her bowl and deftly popped the entire thing into her mouth where she cleaned it of skin, scales and meat, then delicately spit out the bones and swallowed.

So I tried it too.

The taste wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t amazing either. The scales had a soft and fatty texture. The meat was a little ropy and needed some chewing. The bones however were thick, sharp and certainly not digestible.

It’s tough to describe the exact taste. I would say gamey and wild for sure. Beyond that I was so consumed with simply not being sickened by the texture or choking on the ribs all I can really say is it did not taste like chicken.

Nightmares and scorpions

After it was over we thanked our chef and made our way to the hotel. I think I hid my discomfort well. Yet over the next few nights I did have several nightmares in which I had live snakes in my stomach. I also lost my appetite for a few days and declined the offer of turtle, salamander and only ate a few small pieces of the frog which was ordered.

Now that we are home I can look bad and joyfully tell the story. I can brag about what we ate. I can also confidently say it won’t change the joy I have for traveling or eating authentically.

While in China we ate so many wonderful meals and over my years of traveling I’ve discovered so many incredible dishes in unusual places because I haven’t been afraid to try things.

I can only recommend to anyone who travels to say yes when someone asks if you want to try something, even if it is rattlesnake soup.

But I must admit I can say all of that because the experience is over, behind me and the rattlesnake is officially out of my system.

Now it’s a good ‘story’ from our trip.

I do have one more confession that seems relevant as well.   When I was offered fried scorpion on a stick at a Beijing night market, I did politely decline.

That’s a story I won’t be telling and I’m not upset about it.

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