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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

An Lifetime of Frogs

November 4, 2014

Sitting in a Paris bistro this summer I was taken back to my childhood.

The small café was straight out of central casting for a Parisian restaurant. It was tucked away a few blocks from the Seine on a side street and the atmosphere and menu hadn’t changed since our boys liberated that town in 1944. It’s exactly what I was looking for and I ordered all of the usual suspects: Escargot, an amazing frisee salad with bacon lardoons and a fried egg, and a chateaubriand with caramelized shallots and béarnaise. Though the most lasting memory I have of that meal is of an appetizer of frog’s legs.

I have never been a fan of frog’s legs though my grandfather loved them. He was originally from Nashville but settled in my hometown of Hattiesburg in the later years of his life. He loved catfish houses, and we went to one just outside of town when celebrating birthdays and various family milestones. My grandfather didn’t eat catfish, he always ordered frog’s legs.

In those days catfish houses the typical catfish house menu offered whole catfish, fries, hushpuppies, slaw, fried shrimp and frog’s legs. This was before anyone ever dreamed of serving a piece of chicken off of the bone. Chicken— whole pieces, by the way— was reserved for fried chicken restaurants and diners.

I wasn’t a fan of frog’s legs. The running joke was— and still is— “it tastes just like chicken.” My comeback was always, “Then I’d rather eat chicken.

The frog’s legs I ate in Paris were nothing like the frog’s legs I watched my grandfather eat when I was a child. These were small and delicate, sautéed in butter and garlic and finished with just a little parsley. They were probably marinated in milk to plump them up and finished with just a little lemon juice for added acidity. Perfect.

They were so good that I plan to incorporate them on a menu in the future. The key to these frog legs was that they were small. The ones I remember seeing from my youth were rather large and I imagine slightly tough and chewy. These were the antithesis of that. They were one of the most delicate, fall-off-of-the-bone tender proteins I have eaten. They didn’t taste like chicken at all. They were subtle and fork-tender.

I am now a fan of frog’s legs.

I have a long history with frogs. For the first four years of my working career I was a radio disc jockey. At the time there was another disc jockey at the rival station in town using the last name “St. John.” My program director told me that I would have to use a nom de plume. I was a fan of a national disc jockey at the time named Wolfman Jack and thought I would go with something similar to that. After a few hilarious idea sessions with my fellow jocks we settled on “the Frogman.” I had a pet frog named Fred when I was a boy and I used that as inspiration.

So if you would have been driving trough Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1977-1979 and tuned in to 1230 AM or 104.5 FM from 7 p.m. to midnight you would have heard the Frogman spinning wax. Eventually, the other disc jockey moved to a larger market and I began using my real name.

Years later, as a new father, I used Fred the frog as inspiration again. My wife was the one who typically put our young children to bed. She always read them a story from various books we had on the shelves. When it was my turn to put the kids to sleep, I made up stories about Fred the red frog and a boy named Bobby and all of the misadventures and trouble that they stirred up. The kids loved those stories. One day I sat down and put one of Fred’s adventures to rhyme and asked my mother, an art teacher for 50 years, to illustrate it.

The resulting book, a children’s storybook called “Fred the Red Frog,” was just released this week. My mother, at the ripe young age of 81, and I are currently on a book tour visiting schools, daycares, children’s book stores and libraries carrying the message of Fred the Red Frog. We are bringing a live version of Fred with us (all 5’ 4” of him) to many of the events and he will be passing out his favorite treat chocolate-covered flies (which amazingly enough taste just like chocolate-covered raisins).

At the initial press interviews I was asked if the book is a children’s cookbook. One interviewer even wanted to know if there were frog leg recipes in the book. Please know that no frogs were harmed in the making of “Fred the Red Frog.”

Maybe I’ll dig up some of the old air checks of the Frogman and play them on the way to and from book promotion events with my mom. One thing is for sure; I am going to lay off of the frog leg recipe development until all of the books have been sold. Fred needs to be alive and well and not in a sauté skillet with garlic, parsley and lemon juice.

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