A ghost sign for Neunfeldt’s Frog Legs, formerly located on Fort St. near downtown Detroit

I recently noticed a ghost sign for Neunfeldt Frog Legs in Detroit for the first time. Knowing that frog legs were once a big part of Detroit’s food culture and economy, I decided to do a bit of research.

According to an article in the Indianapolis News, Emil Neunfeldt was known as “the J.P. Morgan of the frog industry”. He raised and shipped frogs from his farms in the midwest all over the country. Originally from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Neuenfeldt began selling frogs for bait while working as a newsagent for the Wisconsin Central Railroad. By 1903, he was expanding his business to supply restaurants and had purchased 5 ponds in Indiana:

“The ponds, which were formerly the finest trout ponds in the state, will be cleaned out and devoted to the raising of frogs of all kinds and descriptions, from the small variety used to entice the gamey bass to the larger species whose hind legs are used by thousands in the spring and summer months in all the large hotels In the West, and by people who recognize frogs’ legs as a choice table delicacy” (Indianapolis News).

He had strong opinions about the proper preparation of frog legs, citing freshness as a key concern:

“Frogs’ legs are a dainty food for anybody and they are especially beneficial to the sick and the invalid. They are not enjoyed as they should be because they are not properly handled. Frogs’ legs at their best should be on the table twelve hours after they are dressed. Now the catcher kills them and drags them along for a day, prepares them for the market the next day or the day after, and are then placed on the market for sale or put in cold storage for future use, and by the time they reach the table they have lost their nourishment and richness of flavor. The proper way is to obtain them alive, solicit your order and dress them accordingly. If they are on the bill for dinner in Milwaukee, they are dressed at 6 am in Oshkosh and properly prepared for the table. This plan obtained favor with my patrons from the start” (Indianapolis News).

In that same article, Neuenfeldt discusses his plans to raise and sell horned toads and a variety of other wildlife, both for human consumption and for sale to schools:

“Among the side issues that I propose to establish with my frog farm is a distribution agency for horned toads. This species of reptile live mostly in the deserts of this country, and their great value is in destroying bugs such as infest and ruin fine flower beds. I will also raise all kinds of turtles, crawfish, mussels, edible snails, insects and worms, to be kept to supply the growing demand for educational institutions throughout the country. This will be a valuable feature of the industry, as there is nowhere any one conducting a business to cater especially to this trade.”

By 1923, Neuenfeldt was farming and shipping out over 2 million frog legs a year from his farm in Wisconsin alone. An article from that year in the periodical The Soda Fountain describes the concrete trenches that the frogs were kept in, where cold water was piped in to keep the frogs in hibernation and thus keep them from chorusing. When an order was placed, the required amount of frogs was scooped from the trenches and placed into a tank that was charged with electricity, killing them instantly and straightening their legs, making it easier to separate them.

A 1973 ad for Neuenfeldt’s Frog Market in the Detroit Free Press

Emil sold the business to his son Richard in 1935 (Boyles 1943) and it was active until at least 1973, when it appears in an advertisement in the Detroit Free Press that promotes the idea of frog dinners and mentions that Neuenfeldt also supplied biology classes with dissection specimens from their farms in Wisconsin (it is in this ad that Neunfeld’s is referred to as a “non-plush Frog Emporium”). A 1969 article in the Free Press discusses dwindling frog populations in the US due to overfishing, pollution, and the destruction of their habitat for highways and other developments. The article also mentions a growing preference for imported frogs (also mentioned in the ad from 1973) because they didn’t taste as “swampy” as those farmed or caught in the US.

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A 1969 article in the Detroit Free Press discussing a decline in frog populations in the US

Frog Legs in Detroit

Frog legs were a vestige of Detroit’s history as a French settlement and part of a diet that included other game like freshwater fish, turtles, pigeon, and muskrat. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, frog legs were caught locally by French Canadian fishermen and their families and sold to roadhouses and restaurants. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Detroiters hunted for frogs themselves to eat and sell, with some developing small frog farms, hatching and keeping frogs in dug-out pens and trenches outside (and even inside) their houses.

Detroit was nationally famous for frog legs during this time period. They were served and eaten widely and across cultural and class lines, from roadhouses to upscale restaurants and hotels. Detroit-style frog legs were typically dipped in a milk or egg wash, rolled in bread crumbs or flour, and then pan-fried in butter. This is how they were most commonly prepared, but Michigan cookbooks and menus from this time period included dishes such as frog leg pie, frog leg salad, frog ravioli, and frogs that were poached, pickled, or fried in lard (Loomis 2014). Detroit-style frog legs were reportedly President Grover Cleveland’s favorite dish and their virtues were extolled by food critics in national publications.

There were signs of overfishing by the early 20th century, and in 1913, Michigan Bill 404 was passed into law and banned the hunting, sale, storage, or serving of edible frogs at hotels, restaurants, or public eating places from November to June (there is still a frog season, however, from May to November). While restaurants complied, manay roadhouses continued to illegally harvest and sell frog legs under the table until at least the 1920s. Emil Neuenfeldt was continuing to build his frog farm empire during this time, and I wonder if overfishing was the main or only driver of this legislation and whether large-scale frog farmers played a big role in getting it passed.

Frog legs seemed to have fallen out of favor in Detroit sometime around the late 1960s and 1970s, likely due to a combination of factors like lack of access (with most frog legs being imported by this time) and a shift in cultural preferences. Detroit food historian Bill Loomis notes that Detroiters in their 40s and 50s might remember eating frog legs, but younger Detroiters haven’t tried them and are usually repulsed by the idea of eating them. However, frog legs are enjoying a resurgence across the river in Windsor, and are still on the menu at a few places in Detroit (I tried them at the Polish Yacht Club). Muskrat is also still served during Lent in Downriver communities in Metro Detroit.

Interestingly, another former French settlement, New Orleans, also had/has a longstanding tradition of eating all kinds of local fauna, including frogs. And as happened in Detroit, they were overfished and are now legally protected, so most of those species (alligators, catfish, and turtles, for example) are now farmed.

A flier for a home-run seafood and wildlife shop I got on a recent trip to New Orleans

‘Slumming’ and Food Tourism in Detroit

The fact that frog legs were not considered haute cuisine and were associated with a rougher, working-class culture (with restaurants claiming in their advertisements that their frog legs tasted “just like roadhouse frog legs”) was a big part of their appeal (Opie 2014). “Slumming tours” for upper-class and middle-class white Americans were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and often included visits to cafes and restaurants so that tourists could sample a variety of cuisines. Perhaps the increase in the popularity of frog legs at around the same time could be a part of that desire among these groups to ‘discover’ different cuisines in settings that were more perceived to be more casual and informal than what they were used to in their own neighborhoods. Nostalgia and a desire to time-travel also played a part in slumming, with younger generations of immigrant families that had since moved elsewhere returning to the ‘old neighborhood’ to eat familiar dishes and experience the ambiance and culture (Whitaker 2018). More recently-arrived immigrant communities and their foodways were thus perceived by tourists to represent a simpler, easier time that one could travel back to or as exotic foreign locales one could visit without ever having to leave the city.

Similarly,  a desire to reconnect with Detroit’s history as a French settlement and return to an imagined version of ‘old Detroit’ likely contributed to the boom in popularity of frog legs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dawdy (2016) discusses the commodification and mobilization of ‘Frenchness’ in New Orleans over time and shows how residents’ nostalgia/preference for ‘French’ things has ebbed and flowed in connection with periods of political and cultural change or upheaval. As the city’s Francophone population declined, for example, and New Orleans’ population grew and it was transferred to Spanish and then U.S. governance, French wine and wine bottles became a form of cultural currency that people used to identify and/or establish themselves as locals in contrast to more recent arrivals.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the increase in popularity of Detroit-style frog legs in the early 20th century coincided with a period of mass migration and change in Detroit as the city became the center of the automotive industry. The popularity of “Detroit-style” frog legs seem to have been a way for residents to reference and experience the region’s past and ‘frontier’/working-class cultures through food, as well as to develop a unique consumer product that promoted the city on a national scale. This dynamic continues today–I’ve written about how new residents and businesses in contemporary Detroit will often draw on Detroit’s French heritage as a way to establish/promote themselves as ‘local’ and connect themselves and their products to the city’s founding (Herstad 2020).

Culinary tourism is still popular in Detroit today, with buses of tourists, mostly from the suburbs and visitors to the region paying guides to take them to and from the city’s well-known coney islands, slider joints, and historical dive bars. Some older Detroiters remember visiting these establishments with their parents, perhaps on the way home from a game at the now-demolished Tiger Stadium, and younger Detroiters may have only heard about these places and are visiting them for the first time. Bygone local dishes and restaurants are also a frequent topic of discussion in Detroit-focused social media groups. For example, in a Facebook group named “Return to Old Delray” (Delray was previously home to large Hungarian and Romanian communities), members often reminisce about long-gone neighborhood restaurants and bakeries and the food they used to get there. Sometimes they post pictures of dishes like chicken paprikash or spaetzle that they’ve made using their parents’ or grandparents’ recipes. A Hungarian dinner served at a bar in Delray has drawn huge crowds, with demand exceeding supply, for the last two years I’ve attended.

Food holds a special place in cultural memory, especially in places like Detroit that have experienced drastic, traumatic change. Remembering, making, and eating food is one way to honor and experience long-gone neighborhoods and ways of life, as well as a way to cope with loss. I don’t see frog legs making a big comeback in Detroit, mostly because of the cultural preference/supply issues discussed above; but I do think people will continue to be fascinated by this time period in the city’s history when (as the title of an Hour Detroit article puts it) frogs were king.

References

  1. Boyles, C.J. 1943. ACCIDENT INDEMNITY CO. v. WELKE. Supreme Court of Michigan.
  2. Herstad, Kaeleigh. 2020. “Reclaiming Detroit: Urban Blight and Contested Heritage on the Postindustrial Frontier.”
  3. Householder, Mike. 2019. “Metro Detroit-Area Catholics Can Eat Muskrat during Lent.” Detroit Free Press. April 16, 2019. https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2019/04/16/catholics-permitted-eat-muskrat-during-lent/3485498002/.
  4. Indianapolis News. 1903. “Will Raise Frogs By Millions for Frog Market,” March 10, 1903. https://newspapers.library.in.gov/?a=d&d=INN19030310-01.1.3&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-.
  5. Loomis, Bill. 2014. “When Frogs Were King.” Hour Detroit, April 25, 2014. https://www.hourdetroit.com/restaurants-food/when-frogs-were-king/.
  6. Opie, Frederick Douglass. 2014. “In Turn-of-the-Century Detroit, Frog Legs Were Eaten by the Ton | The Splendid Table.” The Splendid Table, August 22, 2014. https://www.splendidtable.org/story/in-turn-of-the-century-detroit-frog-legs-were-eaten-by-the-ton.
  7. The Soda Fountain. 1923. “Frog Farming,” July 1923.
  8. Whitaker, Jan. 2018. “Slumming.” Restaurant-Ing Through History (blog). September 30, 2018. https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2018/09/30/slumming/.