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- June 10, 1985
- Vol. 23
- No. 23
The World Is Bar Owner Bruce Ruth's (rocky Mountain) Oyster, and That's No Bull
The first thing you ought to know is that they remove them after the bulls are slaughtered.
Then, and only then, do they slice them very thin, deep fry them, add a secret seasoning (it seems to involve cracker crumbs, salt and pepper) and every month turn out 4,000 pounds of—voilà!—Bruce's Rocky Mountain oysters.
How's that? What are Rocky Mountain oysters, you ask? Er, prairie oysters. Bull fries. Swinging steak. Or, as one Denver broadcaster put it during the Great Rocky Mountain Oyster Controversy, with more directness than tact: "Bull balls."
That's right—taurine testicles. And according to Bruce Ruth, proprietor of Bruce's Bar in the aptly named town of Severance, Colo., whose attempts to go national with his product were at the heart of the G.R.M.O.C. for as long as it lasted, "Bull nuts are booming."
It all began, they say, on the range as a rite of cowboy machismo, a product of the same virile mind-set that brought us the mechanical bull at Gilley's. A bunch of old hands would be sitting around the campfire after castrating calves, and one of them would toss one of the objects in question into the flames. It would give a little pop, he would fish it out again and—Colorado gross out—swallow it whole.
Some might find this act unworthy of emulation, but there's no accounting for testes. Soon bars all over the West began to offer prairie oysters as a novelty. One of these was Bruce's, which seated only 20 people when the owner began serving the delicacy in 1957. Prairie oysters, served with a ketchup and horseradish sauce, changed Ruth's life. "We used to put them out on Friday afternoons for free," he remembers. "That went over real well. So I started to put them out all day Friday. Then all weekend. Then any day you walked in the door, they were on the menu."
Before long Ruth found himself with a unique problem: a bad supply-demand ratio. "I'd call slaughterhouses," he says. "I would go to little packinghouses in Denver, rummage up a hundred pounds here, some there." Before too long he was keeping 10 tons of testicles in a freezer and contracting for shipments from as far away as Australia. So great was the oysters' draw to residents, journalists and the just plain curious, that the Bar That Ruth Built has been expanded 14 times and now seats 300. One attraction is waitress Betty Schott, who has been serving up the specialty of the house for 27 years with lines like: "As they say, come to Severance and have a ball."
Why are bull fries so popular? Well, it may be the taste, although after all that breading, frying, salting and peppering, no one really knows whether they have any taste of their own at all. Or it may be, Ruth confides, that male connoisseurs feel the bull's loss is their hormonal gain. "There's a myth that they make men macho," he explains, "or however you want to put it." But when Ruth looked at receipts a few years ago and realized he was selling two tons of them a month, he decided the appeal might be national.
He found a firm called Ramarc Foods in Oak Forest, Ill. that would use his recipe, scour the country for dead bulls (testicles of castrated calves, says a Ramarc representative, "don't taste the same") and, most important, buy Ruth's trademarked name for the product, "Bruce's Rocky Mountain Oysters." Ruth would do a quality check on the product now and then, and they would all grow rich off swinging steak.
And then suddenly the G.R.M.O.C. blew up. Halt, cried an inspector in the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this year. How could a product gathered from all over and boxed in Ramarc's plant in Indiana call itself Rocky Mountain anything? Surely this was consumer fraud. Ramarc was told to drop the brand name.
Not for long, though. There are still statesmen in the West, tall-walking men, men of the people in the oratorical mold of Sam Houston. Colorado State Senator John Donley, cued in by Ruth, sprang into the fray with perhaps the most eloquent defense of bulls' testicles ever made. "Is the federal government now going to start checking restaurants' menus and tell us we have to censure Dover sole?" he thundered. "Louisiana shrimp? Kentucky Fried Chicken? Boston baked beans? Does anybody really believe that Bermuda shorts are made in Bermuda?" Donley even took Ruth's cause to Washington. Attending a White House meeting at which Agriculture Secretary John Block was speaking, he presented Block with a T-shirt and hat bearing Bruce's logo—a bull holding a sign that reads, "Unfair."
Whether or not as a result of Donley's trip to Washington (the Agriculture Department claims the decision was made earlier), the ban was lifted. "The term 'Rocky Mountain oysters,' " explained a spokesman, "is widely understood throughout the industry."
And perhaps, someday, even beyond. With the G.R.M.O.C. behind them, Ramarc is producing up to 12,000 pounds (or $30,000 worth) of swinging steak, or bull fries, or whatever they are, a month. The company has recently received an inquiry from a businessman in Singapore about exporting bull oysters to mainland China.
As they say, come to the Great Wall and have a ball.
- Mary Chandler.
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