Skinned, squishy, and raw, sloshing around in a metal pan. Bull testicles are ugly. Buttery, brain-looking slime balls the size of papayas.
I find myself questioning my resolve, but they're the reason I'm here in Lipovica, a farming village in eastern Serbia — I'm at the 13th Annual World Testicle Cooking Championship, commonly known as the Mudijada.
Serbs have many options from which they could construct their national myth and global brand identity: international sporting success; rich and spicy home-distilled brandy usually made from plums, called rakija; tall, high-cheekboned women with severe and husky voices. So why testicles?
"It's easy for people to relate to balls," says Zoran Jevtic, the volunteer marketing manager. "It's easy to make jokes about balls. But it's also a very serious meat. They have a lot of testosterone, minerals, and cholesterol. Even if you eat a small amount of balls, you don't have to eat much for the rest of the day."
Jevtic says that the Mudijada has featured dishes based on the testicles of 18 different animals: goat, rooster, pig, bull, sheep, rabbit, horse, donkey, ostrich, shark, kangaroo, swan, deer, reindeer, bear, boar, badger, and wild ram.
Mudijada founder Ljubomir Erovic says he was repairing medical equipment in his town, Gornji Milanovac, when he became concerned about three deepening global crises: "healthy food, clean drinking water, and erections." Around that time some friends served him goulash made with balls without telling him. "I think it was rabbit," he says. "I felt a boost of energy and had a wild night. Then the next day they told me I had eaten testicles. I thought it would be a good way to boost the libido of others as well, through healthy food and without drugs."
As the teams prepare their dishes, I wander around the shady camping area and sample my first dish: a chunk of bull testicle cooked in goulash over a wood fire. I am bewildered by the lack of taste. The flavor is not very strong or even distinctive, and the texture is tender, much closer to a nice steak than organ tissue. You'd mistake it for beef if no one told you otherwise.
"The balls, lymph nodes, and pancreas are the healthiest and highest quality meat," says Zdravko Djuric, a colorful Mudijada regular. "They call it the Emperor's meat. When [the Serbian] King Milos sold pigs to the Hungarians, he always kept the balls for himself."
Djuric is sitting in a camping chair with his mini-pinscher Kiki in his lap. He is 54, a friendly guy with a large, round belly, a pointy gray soul patch, and an obscene smile. His T-shirt says "Greek Party" and has six panels of ancient-style figures engaged in various sex acts.
"A few years ago, I cooked 130 pounds of balls with my wife," he says. His local veterinary clinic, legally obligated to keep the testicles of animals they castrate for four months, had hoped to auction them off. "But I got them for free without paying anything. I was the only one interested."
"They say balls are an aphrodisiac," says Djuric. "But my wife says no, they aren't."
I walk around the camp chatting with the teams and sampling their delicacies, while politely turning down glasses of thick golden rakija — at least until the evening since I have reporting to do. I'm approached by Relja Davidovic, a rotund man who looks a bit like Droopy, the sad cartoon dog. It's early afternoon and he is visibly drunk and grinning lecherously.
He shows me a potato shaped like a heart. Turning it so that the two breast-like nodes of the potato face upward, he says "young." He pauses to make sure I'm following. Then he turns the potato over so the nodes point downward, as if sagging. "Old" he says, before smiling and stumbling away.
I meet the team from Smederevska Palanka and naturally gravitate toward hanging out at their campsite. They are a friendly and spirited bunch: a half-dozen men and their wives, all wearing matching new white T-shirts with the Chicago Bulls logo and their team name: Palanka Balls. The men wear traditional Serbian hats called sajkaca. And they brought ample supplies of rakija, a roasting pig and a spit, and a large plastic barrel with an estimated 600 testicles.
Vojislav Jakovljevic is one of the team's senior members, a 75-year-old retired veterinarian who started eating testicles long before the Mudijada. "Whenever I castrated a pig, I would take the testicles home for lunch," he says.
"A lot of people think the meat is not fit for human consumption, but once they try it they never go back."