The Eat Beat

'Twenty years of serving nuts'

Food Editor
DRIVING OUT TO BYRON, Ill., for the 20th Annual Turkey Testicle Festival on Saturday, Oct. 10, I amused myself by thinking up slogans that the city fathers are unlikely ever to use: "Byron: It's the Nuts!" "Byron: A City with Balls." (The actual motto on the town's welcome sign is "Gateway to the Rock River Valley.") The festival is held every year at Union Street Station, a bar in downtown Byron, which is southwest of Rockford.

"This is the 20th year," said Frank Maragi, Union Station's proprietor, when I contacted him before the event. "Twenty years of serving nuts. It started as a joke and just kept getting bigger and bigger." They don't know just how many people came this year. "We ran out of (admission) buttons at 2,500," said fest worker Susan Heller. "We stopped counting after that."

"It's a charitable thing," Maragi said, "just a party." He buys the testicles frozen from an outfit in Missouri and provides them free to the fest goers. (The admission charge goes to charity.)

My first intimation that this wasn't just a food festival was the phalanx of motorcycles lined up in the street outside a fenced-off area crowded with people, many of whom wore black leather. The crowd was mostly standing around, drinking beer and listening to the music coming from the bar. I paid my $3, which got me a festival button (depicting a cartoon turkey with his wings over his crotch) and entry to the fenced-off area. Just inside, I stepped up to buy a Turkey Testicle Festival sweat shirt for $18.

"Where are the testicles?" I asked, and was directed to a queue.

Julie Black from Roscoe, Ill., in line ahead of me, told me it would be a half-hour wait. "They serve them every hour on the hour," she said. Her husband, Tim, came up with a couple of beers and took her place in line. I noticed she handed him a couple of tickets.

"Do you need tickets for the testicles?" I asked. He told me you did, and I went back to the entrance to get one. There, Dan McCaslin informed me that Union Station's 250-pound order of turkey balls had been shorted by 75 pounds; they had apportioned them into servings and issued that many tickets on a first-come-first-serve basis, and they were all out. "But if you stand in line, and they have any left after all the people with tickets have been served, they'll probably give you some." So I went back and stood with Tim.

He and Julie had been coming to the fest for about five years, he said. "It's just a big Harley fest. The fun thing is to get a sweat shirt. People always comment on it when you wear it around." I showed him the shirt I'd bought.

By then it was about 10 minutes to the hour and the crowd was getting anxious. They began to chant: "We want nuts! We want nuts!"

I asked what turkey testicles tasted like. Julie said she'd never actually tried them. Tim said they tasted like "those parts of the turkey that come in the bag inside when you buy one."

"Do you know where the turkey testicle is located?" Tim asked. I admitted my ignorance. Turkeys don't seem to have this part when you buy them at the store. "Under the wings," he said. Later, Heller, at the serving station, affirmed: "Armpits!"

I made a mental note to check out fowl anatomy. It turns out armpit balls are a myth. According to Ron Roche at the Butterball Turkey Co., the testicles are, in fact, internal, and located in the tail end of the bird near the kidneys; they are typically removed before the poultry goes to market.

Becky Snider showed me a container of raw turkey testicles; they were smooth and egg-shaped, 2- to 3-inches long. The festival cooks cut them in half before cooking, to make them go farther. "They've gotten so expensive," Heller lamented. Maragi had told me they cost $3.25 a pound, wholesale. "They start cutting them on Wednesday," Heller said. The fest workers dole them out in little cups, a few ounces to a person.

After they got to the front of the line, the Blacks and another couple, Dick and Becky Bussan from Belvidere, shared their nuts with me. They were breaded, crisply deep-fried and the size of marbles. They tasted, as Tim had said, something like gizzards, but mostly like fried breading.

The other women refused to eat them. The men, with a kind of macho braggadocio, insisted they were delicious. I wondered if this was related to the primitive belief that the characteristics of an animal transfer to the person who eats it. You know, eat a lion's heart for bravery, eat a turkey's testicle for....

Snider gave me my own cupful. Evidently not all the ticket holders wanted them. I ate them all. I had missed lunch, and on the scale of odd food I've eaten (witchetty grubs, cured grasshoppers and ant larvae, for example), they really rank very high. I would eat turkey testicles again.

In fact, I'm already planning on next year's festival, if only because I discovered as I was leaving that someone had stolen my commemorative sweat shirt out of my bag.

For information about next year's festival, call (815) 234-9910.

ROYSTER WITH THE OYSTER at Shaw's Crab House, 21 E. Hubbard St., Chicago. The 10th annual festival takes place Monday, Oct. 19, through Friday, Oct. 23. The event features a variety of oyster specials and activities, including an oyster and Goose Island beer dinner at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22. The five-course menu is $65. Call (312) 527-2722 or see .

OLIVE LOVERS will want to head over to Papagus Greek Taverna, 620 N. State St., Chicago, for the annual Fall Festival of Ouzo and Olives, through Sunday, Oct. 25. The event offers Greek entertainment, many specials, a wide variety of olives, and more than 25 types of ouzo, the Greek national drink. Call (312) 642-8450.

CHOCOLATE SUNDAE offers tastings, samples, seminars and an auction of everybody's favorite sweet from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel, 301 E. North Water St., Chicago. Tickets are $25; the event benefits the March of Dimes. Call (312) 435-4007.

JACKIE O's cook, Marta Sgubin, will lunch with guests at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, at the Greenhouse at the Ritz-Carlton, 160 E. Pearson St., Chicago. Sgubin is author of "Cooking for Madam," a cookbook relating her experiences in the Onassis household. The $17.50 lunch includes some of the late first lady's favorite dishes. Call (312) 573-5154.

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