How to Eat a Rattlesnake

My mother made a point of raising well-spoken Oklahomans. In her household, country participles like “brang” were tantamount to slurs. I was a soft boy who spent most of my time indoors, leafing through Mom’s glossy magazines or choreographing dances with my sister to the theme song of “Three’s Company.” Well-meaning adults pushed me toward an array of alternative activities: sports of all kinds, hunting, shooting guns, driving A.T.V.s. As it turned out, I was totally lacking whatever instinct propelled other little boys toward breaking rules and bones. Instead, I ended up engaged in the most perilous sport of all: being a pansy in rural America. At home and at school, I racked up quite the list of nicknames, including crybaby, sissy, fairy, or—as I was known to telemarketers who called on the landline—“Ma’am.”

My only exposure to stereotypically masculine pursuits came from my mom’s brother, my Uncle John. He would arrive at the house with little notice, wearing hiking boots and a short-sleeved shirt with sunglasses tucked into the front pocket. He was unusually tall for a Hernandez sibling, just over six feet, with salt-and-pepper hair. My sister and I would put on sneakers and follow him to his pickup truck and the adventures, for better or for worse, would begin. “If you fall, fall to the left!” he would shout, as we teetered across a concrete dam in a wildlife refuge, with water on one side of us and a long fall on the other. “Don’t make any sudden moves!” he’d command, when a herd of bison set upon his truck as my sister and I clung to each other in the open bed. “Eh, it’s nothing,” he’d say later, sitting at Braum’s, the ice-cream place where all excursions ended, as blood seeped from a gash in his leg.

John was an avid and eccentric interpreter of country customs. He enjoyed committing asymmetrical warfare against the squirrels and grasshoppers who ravaged his garden; he would sometimes decapitate the insects and mount their heads atop his fence. (He did not, thank God, try this with the squirrels.) Each Christmas, he’d gift us decorative gourds that he’d painted himself, inlaid with delicate pine-needle stitching that he’d done while watching basketball on TV. He was the darkest-skinned sibling in the family and enjoyed making people squirm by referring to himself and his wife, my aunt Pat, as “chocolate and vanilla.”

Few events combined John’s interests in the natural world, craftsmanship, and danger like the annual Rattlesnake Festival, held in the nearby town of Apache. The spring I was nine, he took my sister and me. There were some perfunctory carnival rides—runtish roller coasters and a swinging Viking ship—as well as a competition for the best-dressed cowboy and cowgirl. But these were hardly the main draw. For fans of the Western diamondback rattlesnake, this was Woodstock. Craft booths sold snakeskin boots, saddles, wallets, and belts. Uncle John bought me a keychain fashioned out of a rattlesnake head, which seemed to both of us the height of fashion. The star attraction was the so-called snake pit, inside an old saloon, where the creatures were exhibited before being skinned.

LIVE RATTLERS,” a sign on the door promised. Behind a fenced-off area, a stubbled cowboy in rubber boots and denim stood in the center of a slithering heap, like a redneck Saint George and the Dragon. In his craggy hands he held a snake out for the crowd to admire. It flicked its tongue, curving its body into a muscular “S.”

“After this, we’ll eat one,” Uncle John told us.

“A rattlesnake?” It was as though he’d proposed feasting on flamingo meat, or roasted kindergartner.

Like many proud Americans, Oklahomans excel at deep frying everything from chicken to Oreos. The state fair, in Oklahoma City, even claims to have discovered a way to fry coffee. We left the snake pit and passed food trucks crowded with less adventurous patrons buying funnel cakes and corn dogs, until we came to a booth called the Fried Snake Shack. An aproned attendant proffered little paper boats filled with what at first looked like fried catfish tenders, battered and golden brown. But a closer inspection revealed evidence of an unfamiliar, sinuous anatomy, which I tried to push from my mind as I took my first bite.

“How does it taste?” Uncle John asked. The meat was stringy and full of small bones. The taste was hard to detect given the ratio of paltry meat to crispy coating.

“Like chicken,” I remember I said, trying to impress him with my nonchalance.

The Western diamondback rattlesnake is among the most dangerous snakes in the United States. Named for the signature zigzag pattern of its skin, it is aggressive and known to stand its ground against predators and intruders. It can detect body heat and has excellent aim. Its venom is hemotoxic, attacking the blood. In some sense, though, the creature could be considered unusually gracious. Its rattle serves as an audible warning system. Anyone seeking to handle a rattlesnake must brazenly disregard this evolutionary “fuck off” feature, and for what? As Anthony Felder, Jr., an Oklahoma rattlesnake wrangler who was hospitalized with bites on three separate occasions before being fatally bitten, in 2016, aptly summed it up, “I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane once, so why wouldn’t I play with rattlesnakes?”

Apache isn’t the only Oklahoma town to host a rattlesnake festival. In Waynoka, an area near the panhandle that’s mysterious even to Okies, the snake pit is known as “the Den of Death.” The town of Okeene touts itself as the originator of the so-called rattlesnake roundup, the name of the hunting events where snakes are collected. The roundups began as a way for ranchers to protect their cattle. They would go out, shoot as many rattlesnakes as they could, then nail the limp bodies to the sides of their wagons and roll into town to display their spoils. In Sweetwater, Texas, where the largest annual rattlesnake roundup is held today, amateurs can join in the hunts for a small fee.

I’d grown up around cowhands, hunters, and farmers, whose unflappable competence seemed always to rest on a pragmatic approach to the animals they dealt with. Mating season, birthing season, and hunting season were dictated by the dispassionate rhythms of the natural world. Rattlesnake hunting, in contrast, astounded me with its total lack of utility. Despite decades of roundups, the snake population remains substantial, and, besides, snake attacks aren’t common or fatal enough to warrant yearly culls. The creatures certainly don’t provide much in the way of nourishment. Even the scrawniest birds offer different cuts of meat to choose from, whereas the meat of a rattlesnake is confined to a single, skinny loin running down either side of the spine. The extremities of the creature are dramatically inedible, the rattle being made of keratin, the same material as human fingernails, and the head being where the venom is stored. Hunting them, handling them, eating them: it was all pure theatre, a rugged and risky masculine burlesque. The meat was a trophy, edible proof that you’d been willing to tangle with death.

This might be why rattlesnake hunters, when asked about the meat’s flavor, tend to insist, a bit defensively, that, no, it’s nothing like chicken at all. “It tastes like snake,” they’ll say.

I can’t deny my attraction to the ideal of the Oklahoma man—a bit reckless but relentlessly capable, always ready to test himself against nature’s hostile terrain. The first local boy I fell for was a high-school classmate whom I’ll call Corey. During the summer before junior year, Corey found God, and he returned to school a proselytizer. Where he’d once swaggered through the halls, chest puffed, cheeks red, a haughty curl in his lower lip, he now seemed determined to convey an air of approachability. “Yo, what’s your relationship with Christ like?” he’d asked me, extending an invitation to church.

Corey’s congregation was Pentecostal, which, though bewildering to my Catholic sensibilities, wasn’t the wackiest flavor of Protestant that Oklahoma had to offer. (For one thing, unlike some Pentecostal churches in Appalachia, the ones in my vicinity involved no rattlesnakes.) Still, going to a megachurch at the edge of town to hear my classmates speak in tongues sounded deeply unappealing. I told Corey that I wouldn’t go to services but that I would meet him for lunch instead.

Soon enough, we’d established a daily routine. Corey would drive the two of us to a gas station, where we’d pick up hotdogs. Then we’d sit in the parking lot in his car, eating and fighting about God. When we grew bored of this, we’d go to Corey’s place, where our pursuits were considerably less theological. We’d play video games while dutifully ignoring his dad’s angry stomping fits through the house. Whenever Corey and I were alone in a room, we’d close the door, lock it behind us, strip down, and “wrestle.” Then, in breathy interludes between bouts, we would jerk each other off.

It was a meagre form of intimacy, but I didn’t dare ask for more. The idea of being openly gay was unfathomable to either of us. In middle school, I’d probably heard “faggot” more than my own name. I would hide out in the empty auditorium during lunch hour, to avoid a group of boys who’d made it a habit of tormenting me. I learned that gay people were targets who existed to be mocked and condemned, that “smearing the queer,” in the slang parlance of bullies, was another way for guys to prove their manhood. I intended to remain as unobtrusive as possible until I got out of Oklahoma, assuming that I ever did. Corey, for his part, told me that he wanted to be “normal” and was pursuing relationships with girls.

After high school, I moved an hour and a half away, to the city of Norman, to attend the University of Oklahoma, but I made regular trips home, where Corey had stayed for college. During one such visit, the two of us went for a hike near Elk Mountain, a popular spot in the wildlife refuge close to my parents’ house. On the trail, we happened upon a mass of reddish-brown fur, which poked up its head and looked at us with bulbous eyes: a baby bison. There are around six hundred and fifty bison in the refuge. Their enormous turds loom on the trails as fragrant reminders that they are the largest land mammals in North America. Tourists pull over to the side of the road to take the bisons’ pictures, but it is risky to get too close. Corey and I had both grown up hearing stories of students who bragged about touching a bison on the head, as well as urban legends of kids who’d been gored to death doing so.

“Bro!” was all Corey had time to say before a mother bison hurtled out of the brush. We flung ourselves down the mountainside, half running and half tumbling, rocks and branches scratching us as we descended. By the time we stopped and dusted ourselves off, we realized we’d lost the trail.

We wandered around looking for it, to no avail. After a couple of hours, I grew nervous. People wouldn’t realize that we were missing until nighttime.

“Corey,” I said. “We need to call the rangers.” My own phone was dead, so we’d need to use his.

“Nah,” he said, picking his way through the brush. “We’ll be fine.”

“We’re lost.”

All of a sudden, I heard a rattling sound and looked down to see a tight coil by my hiking boot: a beautiful diamond pattern, a flickering tongue, a vibrating tail.

I’d seen rattlesnakes before in the wild. Once, when my sister and I were little, one threatened us in the garden, until Abuelo retrieved a rusty shovel from the garage and decapitated the creature with one mighty stroke. “Watch out for snakes,” we’d always tell each other before going on hikes, as a way of saying “travel safe.” But this was the first time I’d encountered a rattler on my own.

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