Welcome back to our column, hunter/gatherer, in which we showcase the resourceful—and hungry—people who gather wild food sources without the help of the grocery store. In the latest installment, two women learn the glory of hunting frogs straight from the golf course.
Earlier this summer, Keara and I contacted celebrated Chicago chef Iliana Regan with a proposal. We were curious to learn more about Regan's experiences with food foraging—our pre-agricultural ancestors' primary means of food-gathering; it's currently seeing a revival in haute cuisine in an occasionally cringe-worthy way. Even from afar, though, Iliana seemed different. There's a whimsical yet no-bullshit air to everything she does. We wanted to gain a closer vantage point and asked to accompany her on an expedition.
Regan was game and suggested we drive out to Indiana together. What we saw, felt and experienced on that golf course cannot be translated—it's not a stretch to say it completely transformed how we think about food and its origins—but we did our best.
Note: some frogs were harmed in the making of this story. When asked about the ethics of her hunting practices, Regan replied with the following:
"I think that's a good philosophical question to ask of any hunting, farming, etc. I'm sure it has [some] level of cruelty. I love to discover new flavors and foods around me that aren't easily accessible from a store. I'd prefer to eat any protein from the wild than from a farm, or factory farm. These frogs lived a pretty good frog life until the night we caught them."
Part One: To Catch a Frog First things first: Grab a few friends and head on over to Chicken River,* a smallish golf course in northwest Indiana. Go around 8 PM on a summer night; the sky will be a deep purple, the air grass-scented and stickily humid. March over the wet golf course, casting flashlights across the stubbly grass until the beams start rippling. Clustered around the pond will be an assortment of odd, slimy lumps. It's dark, but everywhere you'll hear short plinking noises, like the plucking of a rubber band on a homemade guitar. Do you hear them? Congratulations: You've hit a "honeyhole," a cornucopia of frogs.
What's a frog-hunter—a "gigger," as they're known—to do next? Pick a particularly plump, juicy-looking frog; then the 'stunner'—the person with the strongest flashlight—must shine a beam directly into its eyes. This is a well-known trick. Get the light in a frog's eyes, and it will freeze.
Then the 'gigger' must sneak up behind it… steady, now… and, in a single fluid motion, drive the pitchfork, or 'gig,' deep into the frog, and the surrounding muck, scooping upwards once they're sure they've got the animal hard and fast.
Then scoop up mud and some weeds, and the frog, which is wriggling on the end of a stick. Voila. You have yourself a raw pair of cuisses de grenouille (frog legs.) Place it in a plastic bag and move on. Try to ignore the sinking feeling that accompanies the realization: You've just stabbed through a living thing, potentially puncturing its lungs, stomach, or heart. Iliana had warned us of this hours earlier when she shared a particularly haunting memory from her last few gigging experiences. She'd set a wriggling trash bag on her kitchen countertop and pull out grenouille after grenouille, marveling at how quickly they'd already unraveled. "I'll get 'em all home," she said, "and their guts'll be hangin' out."
Part Two: Elizabeth Restaurant Iliana's kitchen may be frog purgatory, but it's also the generating force behind one of Chicago's most extraordinary dining experiences. You'd never be able to tell from the outside, though—to a casual observer, Elizabeth Restaurant is invisible, located in a dusty storefront in Lincoln Square, unmarked except for some tiny, neat lettering on the door.
Once inside, however, the restaurant unfolds into an ethereal, rustic wonderland. That's Regan's home base (though she's hoping to branch out soon, and has already laid plans for a ramen shop nearby.) A "ticket" to one of Ilana's dinners costs anywhere from $75–$160, depending on drinks.
Regan beckons us into the main dining room, where she's wrapping up a menu-planning session with her staff. She leads us into the kitchen, which smells of pickle brine, then out the backdoor and toward the garage where our frog-gigging mobile awaits.
Michelin-starred chef Iliana Regan seems like the kind of person who'd spend a Sunday evening catching up on Stranger Things, not out stabbing frogs. But she showed me how to hunt and kill some amphibians straight off of a golf course.
She's hunted since she was a child, when she and her father would try to shoot turkeys (usually unsuccessfully). She figures that if you're going to eat meat, you should be able to kill it yourself. But she's still a bit squeamish about frogs—which is why, after we catch them, she'll put them in the freezer until they're immobile, allowing her to muster up the guts to chop their heads off. "Iliana's not too good at gigging," her partner, Tonya, tells us. "So we gotta get Getty."
We get into the Toyota FJ Cruiser with Iliana and Tonya, purr to a start, and drive into the balmy Chicago summer evening. WBEZ podcasts play softly on the radio.
Part Three: The Journey Before we go a-gigging, we have to make two stops. First, to pick up William "Getty" Pikora, Iliana's childhood friend and frog hunter extraordinaire. Named for Geddy Lee, the rocker, Getty—blonde, boyish, and stocky—takes one look at our small, wooden 'gigger" and explodes with laughter. He runs back into his home, emerging seconds later with a chrome-blue pitchfork three times the length of ours. "This'll stick 'em," he assures us. He's the one who knows where the frogs are, the one who leads us to Chicken River—but only after we all stop at Dairy Queen for dipped cones and chili dogs. Provisions are necessary for any hunting expedition, but I wonder at the wisdom of my choice when, after Getty rams his gigger into the muck and hoists our first squirming and mutilated frog into the air, I can feel my cookie dough Blizzard-laden stomach start to churn.
Perhaps sensing my omnivore's discomfort, Iliana hands us a cattail, roots first, and tells us to nibble at the bottom. It tastes like a cross between a cucumber and heart of palm.
"There's a peach," says Getty, handing me the gig. "Wanna try?"
After a few seconds of deliberation, I figure Iliana's right: If I can eat animals, I should be able to stab them myself. I take the spear in my hands. Turns out, frog spearing is surprisingly easy, if you can train your light on its eyes. I drive my gig into the mud, pluck the wriggling creature off the tines, and try to toss it into the garbage bag, but it escapes.
I feel awful, but Getty assures me it will probably still survive. "They're resilient motherfuckers," he said. "Worst case, it'll become a meal for a bird."
We circle the pond twice, bagging as many as a dozen frogs before the wind begins to pick up, and rain pelts our muddy hands and legs. We only have minutes to get back to the car. Metal rods are crack for lightning bolts, and Getty's 'gig' is the only thing fitting that description for many acres.
We decide to make a run for it, but as we squelch over the wet abandoned course, Getty can't resist sneaking up on one more king-sized frog. "What are you DOING?!" I half-shriek as Getty, laughing, spears it. We make it to the car with seconds to spare; lightning splits the sky in half as I slam the side door, and we drive away with our plunder in the backseat.
On the long drive home, I wonder: Will frog giggin' change my relationship to meat? I have never hunted before, and it's definitely one thing to eat a chicken nugget and a whole other thing to stab a frog with a pitchfork and hold it, wriggling, slimy and alive, while knowing you will eat its legs in a day or two (to preserve freshness, Iliana insists on consuming the cuisses within two days). Rain hammers the hood of the car, but the din doesn't drown out the rustling in the trunk—the clump of injured frogs are attempting to escape their knotted plastic bag.
The rustling dies down, however, as we head back to Elizabeth Restaurant and into the star-drowning Chicago skyline.
*Note: name has been changed.