Eating the snake of paradise

by Chef Boy Ari

Many Biblical scholars have tried to pinpoint the earthly location of the Garden of Eden. A leading candidate is the region where the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys come together, in present day Iraq.

Today this place could hardly be mistaken for an earthly paradise. During the first Gulf War, the inhabitants of this region stood up against Saddam Hussein. After the war, the so-called “Marsh Arabs” paid dearly. Their marsh was drained, and they were murdered, disappeared, displaced and otherwise tormented by Saddam.

Still, in agriculture terms it makes sense that the garden would be located at the confluence of two great rivers. Rivers provide access to water, and floodplains typically have rich soil. A confluence of rivers means lots of water, and good dirt.

Near where I live, there’s a town called Paradise. It’s located at the confluence of two big rivers, and it has the warmest climate in all of Montana. Some friends and I went to Paradise last weekend to visit a peach orchard called Forbidden Fruit.

Hmm ... a fertile spot named Paradise where two rivers come together, an orchard named Forbidden Fruit. All that’s missing is the snake.

Tom and Lynn McCamant, the owners of Forbidden Fruit, agree. One of their biggest problems is field mice, which build nests in the roots of young trees and eat their tasty bark – often killing the trees. Some mouse-eating snakes in the garden of Forbidden Fruit would be nice.

Taking our leave from the garden, we stopped at a fishing access on the outskirts of Paradise, hoping for some trout for dinner. While Pepe fished, I walked through the cottonwood groves that line the river in search of early-season morels. After traversing a section of ground littered with old socks and piles of used toilet paper, I came upon a group of people lounging in lawn chairs, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and fishing.

I had my baseball cap on backwards, and I was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt that said “Diesel.” Thus attired, I felt ready to communicate with this group of people, who, based on their appearance, some might categorize as “red necks.”

Their pit bull, which had a chain around its neck that must have weighed 20 pounds, charged me. When his gaping jaws were inches from my crotch, they called him off.

The air had the intoxicating, sweeter-than-honey smell of young cottonwood buds. I surveyed the scene, trying to act cool.

“How’s the fishing?” I asked.


Two boys walked toward the fire, carrying a long, fleshy-pink item draped over a stick.

“What’s that?” I asked.

A skinny guy by the fire showed me both of his teeth with a warm grin. “That’s a bull snake,” he said. “You’re just in time.”

The snake’s skin lay on a log, drying in the sun, while the man cut the snake into pieces, which he skewered on a willow branch and held over the fire. The kids, who had killed the snake with a BB gun, looked nervous. Like me, they’d never eaten snake. Unlike me, they had to eat some. That was the rule: you kill it, you eat it.

The snake-kebabs browned above the fire, making popping sounds and sputtering snake oil. One of the adults, who had a shaved head and lots of tattoos, caught a 20-inch pike. It flopped on the bank while the kids gathered around, jostling for position.

“I get to smash it,” said the fisherman’s son, pushing his way to the front. He grabbed the fish with his left hand and held it still. His right hand raised a rock above his head, poised to strike.

“Not unless someone’s gonna eat it,” reminded the snake chef, raising his voice, looking at the tattooed fisherman. The fisherman nodded, deliberating whether he wanted to keep his fish, which was small for a pike. Finally, he shook his head.

The boy lowered his rock, with a look on his face somewhere between disbelief and disappointment. Spared at the 11th hour, the other boys tossed the fish back into the river.

The snake chef removed the skewer from the fire and pointed it at me, grinning his gummy grin. I took a piece.

I picked small chunks of meat off the bones and chewed. The boys squinted at me in amazement.

“How’s it taste?” they asked, skeptically.

“It’s good,” I said. “Nothing weird about the taste. If I didn’t’ see where it came from, I’d think it was freshwater eel.”

Their faces contorted at the thought. They’d probably never had sushi. “It tastes like chicken,” I corrected.

“It tastes like the river,” said the snake chef.

“Gross,” said one of the boys, casting his line into the blue waters of the river. “The river tastes gross.”

“Then why are you fishing?” asked the chef. •