Consider the Testicle

A journey into rural Ohio for the annual Tiro Testicle Festival and a sense of who we are

click to enlarge Consider the Testicle
Design by Steve Miluck

The small, pungent and minimally advertised Tiro Testicle Festival is held in late spring each year in the part of Ohio where the Lake Erie Basin gives way to monocrop agriculture, meaning somewhere vaguely west of I-71 in what geologists refer to as the glacial till plains. The loamy interior of the state is threaded nimbly by Route 61, which wends south from Ruggles Beach to Shelby. Based solely on a cursory afternoon drive, the region's tentpole communities are church-going and motorcycle-riding. On Route 61 alone, you'll find an alpaca ranch, a surfeit of Methodist ministries and a neat billboard trumpeting the sale of "Christmas trees" in early May.

This part of Ohio is governed by almanacs, by seasonal shifts in climate and social occasion. Like the warm rite of planting rhubarb crowns in spring, it is known that the brickwork Tiro Tavern, at 102 Main St., will host its testicle festival every year, synced neatly with the sudden stirrings of buds on great oak trees. We're compelled to visit, if only for the mindless sense of adventure.

We're compelled, you see, in a professional sense, to immerse ourselves in regional tourist staples and gastronomic curiosities. Ohio gives us this gift. There's a strange kind of education to be found in things like the Duck Creek Log Jam in Logan or the Shiloh Ox Roast down on Delaware Street in Shiloh, Ohio. The Tiro Testicle Festival. Hit the road; find the story. Pure Neil Zurcher.

We arrive in Tiro on Saturday afternoon, and the crowd is only beginning to build. "Tuesday's Gone" plays loudly in the background of the scene. We mingle, we mill about. When my travel companion and I sidle up to the Budweiser truck out back and order our second round of 12-oz. Yuengling and Pabst Blue Ribbon, respectively, the man behind the tabletop bar tells us that he grew up in Tiro and, listen, the crowd sort of comes and goes. He recalls one night when about 600 bikes were lined up at trim 45-degree angles outside the bar. Other years? Well, like the farmsteads ringing rural Tiro, there's a boom and bust cycle at play.

A possible explanation for that uncertain attendance is that you won't find much information about the TTF online. Kristian Campana, the writer behind, seems to be the only real arbiter of info on the testicle festival, at least outwardly. His website charts all the quirky cultural touchstones of Ohio from January through December each year — everything from the Newark Strawberry Festival (May 31 to June 2) and the Nelsonville Music Festival (June 6 to 9) to more esoteric events like the Banana Split Festival in Wilmington (June 7 and 8) and the Pork Rind Festival in Harrod (also June 7 and 8, so choose wisely).

"I feel that festivals are open doors, allowing people to come in and share a celebration of a community, a lifestyle or subculture of people," he tells Scene.

But beyond his work, you won't find any material substance to guide you from a place like Cleveland to a place like Tiro (population: 266). In fact, it's Campana himself who's apparently setting up the actual Tiro Testicle Festival Facebook event page each year. "There is no official Facebook page or website, so I've gathered some info in case you want to go this year. This info is basically repeated from last year," he wrote in the 2019 installment. For the second day of the festival, May 12, we're assured that the fun "starts at 1 p.m. and 'nuts' start at 4 p.m. Ends around 11:30-ish." Campana reviewed the festival in 2013 and 2017, sharing choice words and photos from the event on his website. It seems too good to pass up.

Once you start looking into the matter, you stumble upon enclaves devoted to annual testicle-eating rituals. Languages consisting solely of gonad vernacular. You learn quickly of an almost religious iconography out there. Testicle festivals are held and celebrated in Byron, Ill.; Huntley, Ill.; Deerfield, Mich.; Olean, Mo.; Oakdale, Calif.; Ashland, Neb.; Stillwater, Okla.; Salmon, Id.; Clinton, Mont.; and Dundas, Wash., all of which are small towns, like Tiro, easily reachable by winding asphalt and a timber-rattling Harley-Davidson Low Rider.

At the 2010 World Testicle Cooking Championship in Gornji Milanovac, a remote mountain village in Serbia, chefs from around the globe worked a spectrum of testicles — bull, boar, camel, kangaroo — into spritely summer dishes. That year, the festival bestowed upon then-U.S. President Barack Obama an award for his truly ballsy performance and take-charge attitude. "Obama took over the world at the most difficult economic and political times," organizer and Serbian chief Ljubomir Erovic told The Telegraph. "He showed he has balls." American pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger also won the prize.

* * *

For practical purposes, everyone knows what a testicle is. As usual, though, there's much more to know than most of us care about — it's all a matter of what your interests are.

Physiologically speaking, the testicle is the male reproductive gland, the homologue to the female ovary. It's best known for producing sperm and testosterone, which is to say it produces a hell of a lot of problems for our civilization. There are usually two attached to whatever lunkhead of the species you're picturing in your head right now, and nothing but visceral, lighting-sharp pain comes from forceful contact with one or both. More thoughtful forms of contact, on the other hand ...

Inside, you've got your standard seminiferous tubules and efferent ducts. Churning factories of nucleic acids and protein complexes. The whole system is an entwined series of interlocking assembly lines, three shifts 'round the clock. The testicle operates instinctively, manufacturing spermatogenetic possibilities out of stray glints shipped down from the iris.

But that's just the pure biology of the thing. There's an important maxim to remember: If it's part of an animal, it's been eaten by humans.

Ancient Greek athletes ate raw testicles, of course. Martin Polley, an Olympic historian at Southampton University in England, reports that the men (yes, duh, enterprising men) treated the testicles as a drug, a forerunner to modern steroids meant to confer godlike power: speed, strength, the whole bit.

The history spreads out from there, through Europe and Asia and Africa.

Here, they're most commonly known as Rocky Mountain oysters. They're more of a novelty item than a performance-enhancing device, at this point, but as America grew into itself they landed on the plate out of necessity. This is Western cowboy heritage we're talking about here; no one was leaving meat on the bone when scarcity and hunger ruled the day. Now, we eat 'em for kicks.

In this form, they've spawned any number of roadside marketing schemes, tongue-in-cheek alt-weekly features and sun-stunned foodie festivals across the globe. One broad reason for this, aside from the grim meat-eating reverie at play, is that castration is a big part of turning the cattle of the American pasture into the hamburger you had for lunch today. It's a primeval violence — the removal of the testicles, the removal of a certain life force — and it's standard operating procedure before that cow becomes cling-wrapped patties you can buy at the supermarket down the street. This happens when the cows are young, mind you, and all the more starry-eyed about this life they've suddenly fallen into. There's a certain mindset, then, that seeps into that violence and demands the meat-eater use it all. A retroactive raison d'être: If you're going to take it, you take the whole.

Now, if you're catching a baseball game at Coors Field in Denver, you can help yourself to a Rocky Mountain Po'boy ("topped with garlic slaw, guacamole, green chili ranch, pico de gallo and cotija cheese," according to the Coloradoan).

Bull testicles get the headlines — for sheer girth, maybe — but there are, of course, different balls to try on your ball-eating adventure. Serious Eats offers an expert breakdown: "Duck testicles, which take the size and general shape of kumquats, are more tender and delicately flavored than those of lamb, which are more like small avocados. While duck testicles do not taste particularly ducky, lamb testicles are unmistakably lamby with a pungent, grassy smell and a offal-intensive taste that's akin to stomach. Their texture is almost identical to that of a succulent scallop."

Mmm, mmm, mmm. Serious Eats recommends grilling them to complement the "gamey undertone" of most testes.

Both in the earnest head-to-tail, whole-animal ethos and in its gimmicky cousin, the ball is very much in the public court when it comes to food culture these days. Andrew Zimmern, for example, has built a foundation of his rollicking entertainment career nearly entirely on eating the balls of strange animals, turtles and camels included. Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern has been running for an astounding 23 seasons.

At one point, as the show was really taking off around 2010, Zimmern appeared on Watch What Happens Live and described the flavors of different animals' testicles as their likenesses appeared on a screen. "Little gamey, little raunchy, little too barn-yardy when old," he said of bull testicles, apparently fully aware of the farce going on and just hamming it up a bit for the audience. Barn-yardy? The great lengths to which we'll travel for outlandish carnivore primping — now, that is an American story.

The same forces are at play in Tiro, where the primary objective of the TTF is to marry the self-conscious comedy of the thing — eating balls, endlessly referencing balls — with a sort of summertime rib fest atmosphere. You'd be wrong if you didn't think Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing almost non-stop from the PA speakers out back of the bar.

* * *

Tiro is small enough that the village could be measured in square feet. If you're not coming down Route 61 on a motorcycle, though, you're going to have to park your car on one of the few streets jutting off the main intersection. And the main intersection, naturally, is where you'll find the unassuming Tiro Tavern. Walking up to the place is a little like stumbling through a vague dream, the mysterious enticements of Campana's blog reviews suddenly concretizing before you.

On the approach, the aroma is inescapable. They're cooking up something good around the brickwork building, and it's reasonable to suppose that maybe the line cooks are slinging cheeseburgers and kebobs. And that's partly true; the good men and women of the Tiro-Auburn Volunteer Fire Department, longtime neighbors of the Tavern, do serve an alternative menu each year: pulled pork sandwiches and plump wieners, naturally, in warm buns. You can stop by and catch up on local goings-on, eat some more familiar foodstuffs and get a base going in your stomach before the afternoon takes its inevitable turn at the main event across the street.

It's hard to avoid the simple puns at a thing like the TTF. The way our society is constructed, you can't get into this topic without also dovetailing into a bit of slapdash man-child toilet humor. There wouldn't be a testicle festival, after all, if there wasn't something to point and laugh at — some dactylic court jester whose real purpose is to provide empty laughter.

Indeed. You can leap over the angular consonance of "testicles" and get into all sorts of goofy-ass monikers. Ever since man first developed an approximation of language and starting scribbling, he's done just that on CBGB men's room stalls or papyrus scrolls or whatever surface might be within reach.

click to enlarge Consider the Testicle
All festival photos by Eric Sandy

As Andrea Gramm notes in Sexual Allusions in the Works of William Shakespeare, this sort of ball devotion carried on for centuries, this fascination. The good bard himself deployed and relished a variety of references to the very thing we'd be chowing down on at the TTF. 

"Punning on both its shape and its function, the scrotum is referred to as a bag or a purse, for example in The Winter's Tale: ''twas nothing to geld a codpiece of a purse,' where codpiece as the part of clothes that covers the genitals seems to be an equivalent to penis," Gramm writes. "Another pun on ball can be found with bowl. Since bowling is played with balls, to bowl seems to be to play with balls; hence, in a transferred sense, to caress the scrotum. We find this in Love's Labour's Lost: 'She's too hard for you at pricks, sir: challenge her to bowl.'" This is classic stuff, really.

And young men through the generations between have taken up the banner, having spent hours of their lives coming up with fanciful terms for the twin figs they're taught to honor and obey in our helter-skelter society.

Your balls, to be clear. You've got your grapes, junk, gear, stones, brass clankers, family jewels. And surely we'd be remiss without mentioning your beans, boys, marbles, jibbly bibblies, dangly bits, clockweights, huevos and mangerines.

It's just too easy to crack an obvious joke but, rest assured, the results are plentiful on the Tiro Tavern's official branded merchandise. Right away, we amble over to the souvenir table to review the offerings. That seems to be at least half the point, anyway.

The two most popular T-shirts include variants on a refrain: "BOFA Deez Nuts" and "TRUMP These Nuts." The event staff clearly saved the best for themselves, however; their tie-dyed shirts feature the sort of thing that's meant to get paying customers in the spirit: "It ain't a party till my NUTS come out."

Another saying, which you'll find on T-shirts and koozies, is sort of the official slogan: TIRO TAVERN'S TESTICLE FESTIVAL. YOU'LL HAVE A BALL!

We purchase a fine hat and a bandana, though it's not immediately clear why. Before anything else happens, we learn that we'll have to head inside and fetch wristbands for our drinks. The bar is quiet and typical of many small-town dives. It's pleasantly without airs. We flash our IDs at a small table in the front window, pick up our paper wristbands and tickets at $3 per drink, and we grab our first two beers for the day. Cold cans are pulled from 12-pack boxes sitting upright in the cooler behind the bar.

"The testicles are free," we're told, which is kind of surprising. Armed with knowledge and appropriate headwear, we return to the sunlight, the music, the festival.

The casual observer quickly realizes that a lot of the TTF is essentially the vibe of a county fair condensed into maybe 900 square feet of plastic picnic tables, caution-taped entrances and exits monitored by local police officers, and plenty of Lynyrd Skynyrd on the PA (did we mention that?). One grievance we note right off the bat is that the tables are all taken. We've arrived too late, clearly, and we're not exactly blending in with the terrific display of leather and cheeky slogans. One woman wears a T-shirt that reads, "A hard man is good to find." We tighten our festival merch atop our heads and slip into the crowd. The bandana, we suddenly notice, has spelled out our fate: Tiro Testical (sic) Festival.

At one point, around 4 p.m., an older man comes into the yard behind the Tavern with a big sign, which he ties ceremoniously to a wooden stake. Written haphazardly in thin marker: "NUTS. Enter Here."

At this, we leap — and we're not alone. The line builds quickly and wraps endlessly beneath a white tarpaulin, and even more yellow caution tape guides hungry travelers west, east and west again before jutting eastward one more time, toward the balls themselves. "Just like Cedar Point, honey," one woman tells her partner, as they saunter slowly toward the ritual.

But it does feel anticlimactic, and this needs to be mentioned. This is the main event, after all, and it's treated as a sideshow, as something that's happening separate from the Skynrd now pumping berserkly through the speakers, separate from the volunteer firefighters serving pulled pork sammies over at the station, separate from the very bar itself, which remains open throughout the festival and continues to serve the same cans of beer to the same leather-clad customers inside. There's a cycle occurring here, and the balls exist entirely outside of it.

And yet.

We can see that an assortment of sauces from E.D.S. Bourbon Sauce in nearby Galion, Ohio, is made available, and we start plotting out what we'll pair with our delicacies once we get to the front of the line. There's blackberry bourbon sauce, mango habanero, sweet mustard wet rub and sweet-n-smoky, along with Tiro resident David Jacobs' Shakey Jake's hot sauce and, if needed, twin shakers of S&P — and this is somehow very important, the sauces.

* * *

It's not what we'd expected — at all. The pageantry we'd built up in the car ride down to Tiro collapses suddenly as we approach. An older man is stationed at a trio of small Presto ProFry digital deep fryers. The table is jacketed in grease-splotched cardboard, coarse slabs duct-taped to the table. He's dropping three baskets at a time and making small talk between servings. But it's the testicles themselves that we can't stop looking at. The nads.

We're not sure what we'd imagined; maybe some sort of jar, with testicles free-floating in a protoplasmic solution? Or balls laid out like jumbo white eggs in Styrofoam cartons? These things didn't resemble anything like that. Nothing like what we pictured Ancient Greeks gobbling in the shade of an olive tree. Nor do they appear to be the familiar nuts of innocent, indulgent wisecracks. The veal testicles are all bunched up and packed in like molding clay into a large plastic container, a thick case of Tupperware that you might give an adult child for the leftover casserole from Sunday dinner. You can't look at it without feeling a dull pain in your mid-region, stringy testicle-clumps being drawn from the recesses. Cash tips are collected in an old Folgers Custom Roast canister nearby.

Testicles in hand, as one does, we wander back into the central picnic table area to take stock of what, precisely, the hell we're dealing with here.

In the little storage containers, the balls looked gnarled. Once battered and fried, they look even less like what one might think of as "balls," in either the biological or geometric sense. The testicles coil around one another, forming shapes less globular than clustered — like cashew treats or a neighborhood of galaxies.

The texture is similar to your standard chicken nugget, or maybe flash-fried calamari. Slightly chewy, of course, and generally plain. The dish is missing the richness of poultry, the succulent nature of crispy-on-the-outside chicken tenders. This is where the sauces come in. For journalistic purposes, we'd selected an ample squirt of mango habanero, which provides the sort of clarifying zing that veal testicles apparently require.

It's almost impossible to get this education anywhere else but at the good old Tiro Testicle Festival.

The event raises its fair share of ontological questions, you can be sure, and it's easy to kid. We're a part of history's great underpinning: joking about balls and, inevitably, eating them. But summertime has touched down in Ohio, and you've got about three ways to measure its sweet, sweet arrival: baseball, cold IPAs on the patio out back and the floating scent of cooked meat along the sweeping plains and backyard neighborhoods of our great state.

The other way of looking at it is this: You can stay home or you can go anywhere in the world to get your kicks. Warm weather and nicely paved roadways make short work of an afternoon getaway, a breezy trip to some place you've never been and may never visit again. If it's Tiro this time, perhaps it's Yellow Springs on your new motorcycle next week. Evansville, Memphis, Shreveport. You wake up in Havana, eating cocina criolla. Head south. Anticuchos in some warmly lit alley in La Paz. You shoot a silent film on the Falklands. Whole years have passed by. Languages learned, forgotten. The road home grown long and strange. These opportunities branch outward forever, until they're gone.

When it's time to leave the TTF, until next spring, a simple sign offers more poetic parting words than ours for the boozy, adventurous and satisfied among us: "THANKS FOR TASTING MY NUTS."

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.