When Frogs Were King
Memories of a legendary — and nearly forgotten — Detroit-style delicacy
Before Detroit’s reputation was earned for cars, music, or even stoves, the city was legendary for one thing — frog legs.
Detroit-style frog legs were President Grover Cleveland’s favorite meal. Samuel Blythe, a columnist for the New York World, wrote in 1905: “Frog’s legs — the American Brand — were invented and patented in Detroit. All others are imitations and infringements. None is genuine without the Detroit taste....” He went on, “...if you have never eaten frog legs in Detroit, you have something to live for, something for which to strive.”
Lester Gruber, the founder and owner of the London Chop House and the Caucus Club, was interviewed by the New York Times in 1956 and said that even though Detroit was once French, the only vestige of French cuisine left in Detroit was our love for frog legs.
In 1910 Detroit produced, shipped, and consumed 12 tons of frog legs, 6 million pairs of legs (called “saddles”). Detroit hotels served 800 dozen a day. In 1911 the New York Times wrote an assessment of the best food found in the United States, saying: “Detroit is famous for frog legs.”
That Detroit taste was found in roadhouses — frog legs rolled in cracker crumbs or flour and sautéed in butter. A dinner of frog legs was typically 20 cents 100 years ago. Many times it was “all-you-can-eat” — served alongside chicken and duck dinners and eaten at picnic tables outdoors along the river.
But frog legs weren’t only served 100 years ago. They were on scores of menus a few decades ago, and seafood combos regularly included them among the shrimp, scallops, and perch.
John Lychuk, originally from Hamtramck, loved frog legs. “My wife, who is now deceased, many years ago decided to try frog legs. They came to the table attached. It bothered her so much she wouldn’t eat them. So I ate them.”
Nadine Gildner, a former Detroiter now in her 80s, remembers eating frog legs at the St. Clair Inn (which is now closed). “They were delicious. Very mild. They used to bread them and sauté them. That was it. Whenever I find them on a menu I always order them.”
To go a froggin’
Frogs were hunted by many, but professionally by the region’s French Canadians — usually on the hottest days of summer — poling silently on little pontoons along the banks and reeds of the enormous St. Clair Flats or on the boundless marshes of Lake Erie at Monroe. They hunted them with tiny “cat and rat” shotguns filled with mustard seed. Many “fished” for them using a piece of red flannel as a lure; apparently, “bull” frogs couldn’t resist the dangling red cloth and got hooked and reeled in. Some hunters stayed prehistoric — preferring clubs, froggin’ forks, or spears to do the trick.
A professional frogger could snag 200 frogs a day. It was said weather was a reliable predictor of where to locate them. An 1881 article in the Detroit Free Press
said before a storm, during a dry spell, cool and cloudy day, or blazing hot July afternoon, the frogs would always seek out a corresponding hiding spot. During thunderstorms frogs were “on deck” and could be easily found.
Lucy Corbett in her wonderful French Detroit cookbook French Cooking on Old Detroit Since 1701 described hunting for frogs as a kid in the 1920s:
“Armed with a tightly covered pail and a sawed in two broomstick to which was fitted a short length of old garden hose, you walked the field. The frogs jumped ahead. ... You socked — whango!”
She goes on to describe in grim detail the skinning process, which included using “stout shears” to “take the pants off them.”
Froggin’ parties used to go out into the marsh for sport and fun in the early springtime before the reeds got too high and the mosquitoes too thick. In 1887 a group wore tall boots — “mighty good things to keep the bloodsuckers off a feller’s legs” — and carried homemade spears with “three ugly looking barbed prongs large enough to have served Neptune on an alligator hunt.”
The party struggled with one man who chased a frog only to sink up to his waist in cold muck — it took the others 10 minutes to get him out. But they ended up with 100 frogs for the day.
Some entrepreneurs used nets to take them live and hold them in pens until needed. Many farms and roadhouses used old wooden doors surrounding a hole filled with water as pens for the frogs. In 1892 a frog leg lover described a roadhouse on Jefferson Avenue near the water works: “... In the yard just back of the house is a pen of boards about ten feet square and four feet high of which there are some 1,500 to 2,000 frogs, all of large size.”
Some kept frogs in the house. One guy in Detroit held 400 bullfrogs in crates in his attic. In 1905 the Detroit Free Press reported another man, Harry Chapman, “... converted two large rooms in his home into the hatchery, tearing out the floors and making a large pond of water. Mr. Chapman starts the hatchery with 600 young frogs and will add to them later in the season.”
He was probably not married.
In 1907 on a farm in Fenton, a man named Fred Butcher built a frog farm or “froggery” and raised nearly 40,000 dozen to sell across the country; on still nights the croaking could be heard for miles. He had eight to 10 men hired in the summer collecting frogs using wooden French frog rakes.
Frogs were sold in Detroit and shipped across the country. Frog farmers like Butcher spent a great deal of time at night guarding their army of frogs from raccoons, owls, snakes, cats, rats, hawks, coyotes, and poachers. (A group of frogs is called an “army;” while a group of lowly toads is referred to as a “knot” or worse, a “lump.”)
Another nuisance was that the large bullfrogs managed to escape. While they could not jump over the wooden barriers, one rancher explained: “...if by chance a broom, garden utensil, or broken branch is left leaning against the fence the frogs seem to discover it in some miraculous manner, and at once using it as a gangplank, set out to see the world.”
The biggest frog farm in the United States in 1908 was run by Katherine Walsh. It was located in California near San Francisco. According to Walsh, the most delicious frog in the world was a cross between the small native California green frog and the larger Florida frog species. She added that it was also “handsome to look at.”
Froggeries were a good business: In 1927 the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries estimated Americans consumed about 1 million pounds of frog legs.
What’s on your plate?
In southeast Michigan people caught and ate anything that leapt but commonly mentioned were bullfrogs and smaller frogs they called “russets.” Bulls were enormous — some up to 9 pounds with “legs as long as drumsticks.” When you consider the average-sized roasting chicken at the supermarket weighs about 5 pounds, these were monsters.
But a frog that size was not good eating. It was said frogs tasted best from age 2 to 5 years; after that they were tough and too fishy. How hunters determined the age of a frog is never explained.
Detroit restaurant menus offered every variation of frog legs conceivable. Examples from Michigan cook-books and menus included frog leg salad; frog ravioli; poached, pickled, fried in lard; or loaded into a frog leg pie, and always served with tartar sauce.
In 1908 during summer months of summer the Garibaldi Café on Woodward Avenue would sell up to 1,000 dozen frog legs in a week. In 1905 J.F. Kohl, who ran the Detroit Opera House, was renowned for catching and eating frog legs. After a day of froggin’ with friends in the ponds of Northville the group was reported to have caught 40 dozen and Kohl alone ate 10 dozen in one sitting.
From feast to famine
Unfortunately, the Detroit and Ontario frogs were loved to death. As early as 1902 hunters were complaining about low numbers, and by 1908, demand exceeded supply; frog legs came from elsewhere.
In 1913 state Rep. George Palmer from Detroit introduced Michigan Bill 404 which was passed into law banning the hunting, sale, storage, or serving of edible frogs at hotels, restaurants, or public eating places from November to June. (There is still a frog season.)
While the hotels and downtown restaurants obeyed, the roadhouses were too dependent on frog leg customers — so they sold them under the counter. On New Year’s 1915, Deputy Game Warden Charles Daniel placed phony orders for forbidden frog legs at roadhouses around Detroit and by the end of the day came home with about 1,000 dozen dinners.
In addition, habitat and water quality was all but ruined in the 20th century.
Today frog legs are seeing a small resurgence of sorts in Windsor, while many Michigan restaurants along the river from Port Huron to near Toledo still sell frog legs, no longer from the great marshes of Michigan but now from Vietnam, India, or Indonesia.
As simple as frog legs were, Detroit diners would wax poetic about the dish. A plate of legs from a roadhouse was described in the Detroit Free Press of 1905: “They bring in frog legs by the platter full, brown and sizzling, as white on the inside as snow on a deserted farm, sweet and tender and juicy. You eat frog legs until the other end of the table gets into ahaze...”
D-I-Y FroggIn’ In MIchIgan
Yes, there is still a frog season. They can be legally harvested from the Saturday before Memorial Day to Nov. 15. you cannot harvest endangered species such as the boreal chorus frog or Blanchard’s cricket frog.
According to the state’s Michigan Fishing Guide 2014, there are no size restrictions, and the possession limit is 10 frogs.
Oh, and to make it a “fair fight,” amphibians and reptiles may not be shot with firearms (including spring, air, or gas propelled), bow and arrow, or crossbow. Frogs may be speared but not with the aid of an artificial light. Hand, trap, nets, seines (up to 12 x 4 feet overall dimensions), and hook-and-line may be used.
A fishing license is required to take amphibians and reptiles for personal use. reptiles and amphibians may not be bought, sold, or offered for sale. — Steve Wilke
TRADITIONAL DETROIT FROG LEGS
Dip them in milk, then in flour, and sauté them slowly in butter in a frying pan over medium heat until golden brown all over — six to eight minutes. Remove to hot serving dish, salt and pepper lightly, and sprinkle with lemon juice and finely chopped parsley. Over all, pour what remains of the browned butter in the frying pan and garnish with a slice of lemon.
From French Cooking in Old Detroit Since 1701 by Lucy and Sydney Corbett —Bill Loomis
A TOAST TO FROGS
1 jigger of Hungarian apricot brandy
Juice of 1⁄2 lime
Fill glass with lump ice
Shake well and strain into a stem glass.
From The Ideal Bartender by Tom Bullock, 1917 —Bill Loomis