By Margie Wuebker
Stop by area restaurants any Friday night and see the satisfied smiles of patrons as piles of dainty bones mount on their plates.
Delicately browned and fresh from the deep fryer, the succulent meat seems to please the palate. It's enough to make diehard fans proclaim "Ribbit!"
"I like to tell folks I spend Wednesdays gigging and skinning frogs in order to have enough legs for the Friday night special," Wendelin Tavern co-owner Rob Uhlenhake says with a mischievous grin.
The business, located in the heart of downtown Wendelin, goes through about 30 to 40 pounds of frog legs on all-you-can-eat night at the rate of $11.95 per meal.
"We had a group from St. Marys come in one night and attempt to set a record for the biggest pile of cleaned bones this side of Mercer County," Uhlenhake says. "A lot of frogs gave up their legs for that crew." The St. Henry Nite Club, located several miles to the north, also offers all-you-can-eat fish or frog leg meals.
"It tastes a lot like chicken," waitress Elizabeth Bunnell says. "I never met anyone who didn't like frog legs after the first bite."
Al Moore, a Greene County resident who accompanied a group of Darke County buddies to the St. Henry establishment, smiles broadly when asked about his first mess of legs.
"I nearly croaked when these guys suggested going out for frog legs," he says, chewing on a toothpick. "All I could think about was Kermit singing his little heart out on national television. The heck with big-eyed amphibian crooners. I'm hooked."
Customers come as far as Lima, New Carlisle, Tipp City and Fort Wayne, Ind., for the local treat, the tavern owners say.
Behind-the-scenes action at both restaurants resembles a finely orchestrated production. The legs, actually two rear specimens joined by a meaty strip or saddle, get a quick roll in seasoned breading before a five minute dip in hot cooking oil. They emerge delicately browned.
Uhlenhake, stationed at a bank of stainless steel fryers, stops periodically to sample the fare in a process he calls "quality control." He and Patty Rosenbeck, former tavern owner and now self-proclaimed chief cook and bottle washer, have little time to escape the hot kitchen until the rush subsides on Friday nights.
Rockford-area resident Dan Roebuck remembers bygone days when warm June nights and croaking bullfrogs heralded frog gigging season, not to mention the prospect of mighty good eating in the days ahead.
The Dublin Township trustee and his brother, Gary, grabbed pronged sticks and flashlights bound for leisurely rowboat trips up and down the St. Marys River. They seldom came back without their limit of 10 frogs each.
"We directed our flashlight beams along the shore looking for telltale reflections," he says. "You could estimate the size of the frog by the distance between his eyes; the farther apart, the bigger the frog. You never wanted to break the beam or the frogs took off."
The barbs on the seven-foot gigging poles generally hit paydirt with all prey deposited in burlap bags to keep the injured critters from abandoning ship and missing the opportunity of becoming the piece de resistance at Sunday dinner.
The brothers removed the back legs and then pulled the slimy skin off with a needle nose pliers. No vestige of webbed feet remained by the time they were done. Remaining body parts wound up as fertilizer for the nearby garden or field.
"Some people used to eat the backs as well as the legs," Roebuck says. "We ate the back legs because it wasn't worth gnawing on the front ones. They contain more muscle than meat, kind of like a drumstick compared to a wing."
Frog gigging has become a lost art over the years due to a decrease in frogs from the use of pesticides, flooding and cutting away brush. Great Blue Heron and other birds also have developed a taste for the once sought-after delicacy. Today commercial frog farms and suppliers meet the needs of the local restaurants.
And the only gigging involves spearing golden brown legs with a dinner fork.