"In 1910 Detroit produced, shipped, and consumed 12 tons of frog legs, 6 million pairs of legs (called 'saddles')," writes Bill Loomis in the article "When Frogs Were King" for Hour Detroit. "Detroit hotels served 800 dozen a day."
In Detroit and nationally, people were crazy for frog legs, which appeared in salads, ravioli and pie; President Grover Cleveland even considered them his favorite meal. A carryover from Detroit's French days, frog legs were popular until they were over-loved; "they just ate them until they were gone," Loomis says. He is the author of Detroit Food and Detroit’s Delectable Past.
Frederick Douglass Opie: What role did frog legs play in turn-of-the-century Detroit?
Bill Loomis: They were a really important source of money and food in Detroit. Detroit was known across the country as the place to get frog legs. Detroit-style frog legs were highly prized.
FDO: If you think about Detroit frog legs and where they came from, would you say it's a case of working-class culture making its influence on white-tablecloth restaurants or vice versa? Bottom up or top down?
BL: It was bottom up, but it was a carryover from the French days of Detroit; it was the last vestige of French cuisine. Most of the fishing was done professionally by French Canadians. It constituted a portion of the diet that included other wild game like muskrat and freshwater fish like perch. But that's where it really came from.
There weren't French chefs. In fact, if you look at the display ads in the Detroit papers from the turn of the century, they'll say in the hotels "our frog legs taste just like roadhouse frog legs." The roadhouses were where it was a fairly rough and rugged type of food, very casual, and not at all formal -- not your white-tablecloth stuff.
FDO: It was interesting when I looked at a longer piece that you did on the same topic; you said that Detroit had this reputation of shipping something like 12 tons of frog legs. That was hard for me to wrap my mind around. Is it a mom-and-pop industry, or did it become an industrial food factory?
BL: It started out strictly as a wild game, mom-and-pop thing where French Canadian men would go out, families would go out, and hunt frog legs and bring them into the restaurants and the roadhouses. But after a while, if you look at the old Wall Street Journals, they talk about the industry. It was a national industry, but they were done on frog farms.
The number, I thought it was eye-popping myself. If you look at interviews of restaurants in Detroit -- they did a lot of press coverage on frog legs, people were always curious about it -- they would do 1,000 dozen a week during the season, which ran from April all the way through October, depending on how warm it was. They were doing, I estimated, roughly 200,000-400,000 frog legs per restaurant. There were hundreds of these places -- roadhouses, hotels, restaurants -- that were selling frog legs. They also were shipping them to Chicago and to the East Coast, so they weren't just consuming all those frog legs.
FDO: Was there something distinctive about how you would prepare frog legs in Detroit versus places where they were shipping to (say a place like New York)?
BL: There was. Detroit-style frog legs were nationally famous. In fact, Grover Cleveland's favorite dish was Detroit-style frog legs.
They were basically very simple. They would roll them in egg wash and then roll them in cracker crumbs and fry them in butter; those were called roadhouse style. Other styles were cooked in butter and fried, but they might add tomatoes, mushrooms or something like that. But generally, it was very simple.
FDO: Frog legs were the in thing at the turn of the century. What happened?
BL: That's what's so amazing about this. They just over-loved them like a lot of other wild animals, turtles and things like that; they just ate them until they were gone.
They moved from Detroit, the source of them, to Wisconsin, and then they overfished that. But also the water quality went way down with the industrialization of Detroit. Suddenly the river was changing, and that killed it as well.
But what's interesting is if you talk to people who are over 40 or 50, many of them have memories of eating frog legs at a lot of restaurants in these places along the Detroit River. If you talk to younger people, they've never had them. Not only that, they're repulsed at the whole idea of eating them. So you have this huge gap that happened over just a few decades.
FDO: There are a lot of things that have become resurgent on the table. I hear great things about new chefs coming into Detroit, particularly because it's a lot less expensive. Are you seeing them back on the menu?
BL: I do see them. I don't know if it's a resurgence like it is at the same level as we're seeing all the restaurants opening in Detroit, but definitely there are places in Detroit that are selling them. The resurgence oddly enough started out of Windsor, Ontario, across the river, and they're seeing a lot of popularity in frog legs. We're hoping it will spill over to Detroit.