We arrived home late, in the dark. I parked so the headlights shone across the chicken yard, helping me avoid cacti when I shut the coop. But the lights missed the rattlesnake lying in my path.
Its buzzing tail and hissing breath combined into a sound like a helicopter taking off. I made the sound of a shrieking kid.
Shorty's voice, invisible behind the headlights, was low and calm. "Are you okay?"
The snake's head was off the ground, with mouth gaping, fangs bared and tongue flapping in the breeze of its angry hiss.
"I'm kind of okay," I said.
I know an old hippy who says it's bad karma to kill a rattlesnake. He's lived on a mountain all his life; never been bit, though he has lost dogs.
My hens were unusually silent in their coop. Usually when there's a commotion they cluck and fuss. Two of the hens, Annabelle and Black 'n' Blue, were incubating eggs, adding to the drama.
Eggs are a favorite rattlesnake food, and perhaps it was after those eggs. But what was weird about the situation was that the snake was in the same place as where I dumped the body of the first rattlesnake.
Shorty spotted the first snake in the tomato patch, where she was harvesting. It was a young snake, sleeping in the shade. Young snakes are considered more dangerous because they don't conserve venom when they bite, shooting their entire load instead.
The first snake wasn't bothering Shorty, so she continued harvesting tomatoes peacefully, albeit with frequent glances toward the slumbering serpent.
When she told me about it, my eyes rolled back a little. I grabbed my square-point shovel grimly, with zero tolerance in my heart for rattlesnakes in the garden.
A better man would have just captured the snake and moved it to safer turf. I used the shovel blade to pin the snake into the ground right behind its head, and finished with a machete.
I tossed the snake's body into the chicken yard because I hoped the girls might peck at it, as they do with meat scraps. The snake's body writhed slowly in the dirt for about 10 minutes before it finally lay still. The girls avoided the body, which sank into the dirt in front of the rock beneath which the new snake was now cursing its forked tongue at me.
The first snake, being asleep, was easy. But the new one was ready to rumble. I edged backwards toward the fence, eyes locked on my foe. I reached over the fence and grabbed my square-point shovel.
I held the shovel toward the snake, and it struck quicker than my eyes could see. I felt the hit, heard the ping of fangs on the blade, and immediately bolted to the top of the chicken coop.
I hopped off the coop, keeping my eyes on the snake as I backed toward the fence, where I picked up a grapefruit-sized rock and whipped it at the snake, nailing it. It hissed louder, uncoiled and re-coiled itself. Shorty collected more rocks and handed them to me over the fence. I threw rocks until the snake began moving more slowly and hissing more quietly. Then I moved in with the shovel for an ugly finish.
Since dumping the last snake in the chicken yard hadn't worked out so well, the next day I skinned the snake and soaked its body in salt water.
It happened to be Shorty's birthday, and we had the grill going for burgers. I put the snake on the grill, too.
We devoured our green chile burgers and picked at the snake. The taste was good, sort of like chicken. But each little mouthful was a lot of work, because the layer of flesh around the bones was so thin. Eating it this way was tasty but slightly painstaking.
I got a pot of water going, and simmered the snake in hopes of coaxing off the remaining meat. I strained the water, teased apart flesh from bones, and ended up with about half a cup of snake meat.
In the land around our house, prickly pear cactus fruit were ripe and purple. The coyotes had gobbled up all but the most inaccessible fruits, but I was able to gather a few, thinking their tart sweetness would nicely offset the snake's greasiness.
Prickly pear fruits are juicy, and covered with annoying short fuzzy spines that hook into your skin and hang on tenaciously. I scraped the fruits clean with a butter knife under the faucet while the snake scraps baked at 350 degrees in a cast-iron skillet. When the prickly pear fruits were clean I added them to the skillet. After about 25 minutes they started to collapse, and I added whole garlic cloves, stirring occasionally until the garlic softened. Then I turned off the oven and left the dish inside to keep warm.
The prickly pear fruits, sweet and perfumy, were the highlight of the dish. The garlic cloves were also spectacular, as was the rattlesnake, which still tasted like chicken. It was crispy and dry at this point, nicely balanced by the pungent garlic and the tart sweetness of cactus fruit. This was the best that snake had tasted.
I'm not sure what we're going to do with the skin yet. It's still hanging on the fence in the back yard. I hope that's not a mistake.
Ask Ari: Weathering the storm
Q: Dear Flash,
We got blindsided by a surprise frost last night that wiped out the tomatoes, peppers, basil and, I'm afraid, the winter squash. The broad and robust squash leaves have curled and turned black, although the squash itself looks fine.
Is it time to be extra blue because I lost my squash too?
—Too cold, too soon
A: The first frost, assuming it's a light one, is usually absorbed by the leaves, according to Kim Murchison of Clark Fork Organics. As long as you don't see any new discolorations on the squash's exterior, and assuming it was fully mature with a hard skin, your squash is probably fine. In fact, some growers believe a light frost will "bring on the sugars." Murchison prefers to harvest her squash when it's reached the situation you described: one light frost under its belt, the next frost yet to come.
Place the squash so they aren't touching each other in a warm dry place, about 75–85 degrees, for about a week. Some growers do it outside on a tarp, where the sun can hit the squash, as long as there isn't danger of frost. Cover the curing squash at night just in case. They can also be cured inside at room temperature.
Once it's cured, the most important factor in storing squash is to keep it cool, dry and away from damaged squash, which will spread rot to the unblemished fruits. The ones with rotten spots should be eaten right away, while the clean ones should be periodically inspected and culled.
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