On the second weekend of each March, in West Texas, the good folks of Sweetwater host a rattlesnake roundup. Farmers and ranchers have to protect their livestock (i.e., their livelihood), and doing so means killing off the excessive rattlesnake population. Over the years, the event has become a county-wide carnival, with fried foods galore, including fried rattlesnake meat (alligator, too, if you prefer it…). In fact the cuisine is best described by a sign I saw on one of the food booths: “If it’s not fried, it’s not food.”
There are other rattlesnake roundups around the Southwestern United States, but the one in Sweetwater is rumored to be the biggest in the world. At least the local Jaycees think so. For years, I have wanted to see this for myself, and this year I was up early on the second Saturday of March. I drove three hours west on I-20, from Fort Worth to Sweetwater, to witness this phenomenon.
The snake handling was fascinating. Good old boys from the local Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce) did all the handling. They wore boots into the pits, and they carried long sticks with a c-shaped hook on the end for picking up snakes. As far as I know, all the rattlesnakes were Western Diamondbacks. Each snake-handling pit had a large yellow barrel containing snakes. Other snakes lay on the ground, around the perimeter of the pit. None of the snakes, not a single one, was aggressive, although most of them hissed their unhappiness when placed on the center table for display. When a handler walked around the pit, the snakes ignored him. If a snake got in his way, the handler used his boot to gently move the snake to one side, and the snake was totally compliant. It was obvious that the crowd was far more fascinated than fearful. When a handler grabbed a snake behind the head and carried the snake around for everyone to see, people were pleased to meet a snake up close. Everyone wanted to stroke the snake’s skin and rattle. The skin felt exactly like a cowboy boot, only softer. One snake curled up into a figure eight with his head tucked down inside, as a way of hiding from the crowd. The handler picked up the snake, still curled and, walking around, told the crowd that the snake thinks that we can’t see him. I am not sure how the handler knows this about the snake’s state of mind, but on the other hand, I can’t prove otherwise. The handler then laid the snake back on the table, still curled up. After a minute, the snake uncurled.
Snake teeth are delicate and break easily. Not to worry. Snakes are always growing new teeth so, no, they won’t starve if they lose a tooth. The new teeth grow back in a day or so.
Let me tell you about eating fried rattlesnake meat: don’t bother. Oh, in principle, I have no issue with eating snake. It is tasty enough. The teensy morsel of meat that I was able to gnaw off the tiny ribs, tasted just like pork. But if you are thinking (as I did) that a snake might be meaty the way a chicken mcnugget is meaty, perhaps only smaller, then you are going to be severely disappointed. Once you get past the batter, there is scarcely any meat at all. What little there is, you have to extract between the interstices of toothpick-like bones. The two pieces of snake that I got were, for the most part, covered with tough skin and gristle. Chew on your boots, if you must, for doing so would be no less rewarding than chewing on fried rattlesnake. I asked around, and others agreed that eating rattler takes a lot of work. And there were quite a few people who would not touch it at all.