In the latest SI 60 Q&A, SI.com associate editor Ted Keith talks with Jeff MacGregor about his 1998 story from the Rattlesnake Derby, "Snakes Alive!" one of the funniest pieces in the magazine's history.
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories in the magazine's history. Today's selection was "Snakes Alive!" which ran in the July 27, 1998 issue. It was the first SI piece by Jeff MacGregor, who answered questions from SI.com associate editor Ted Keith via email about the story.
SI: The story opens with the words "You can taste the mean," and then a quick description of what rattlesnakes taste like. It includes one of my favorite SI passages: "Everybody tells you it tastes just like chicken. Maybe, but only if the chicken in question had a neck tattoo, took hostages and died in a police shootout." Have you ever eaten snake again since then and if so, did it still taste the way you described it?
MACGREGOR: Based entirely on my own description of it, I have never eaten it again. Nor, even in a setting where a mouthful of snake meat is the only thing standing between me and death, or at least between me and the Survivor finale, would I ever do so again.
SI: I understand this was your first story for SI. How did you get the assignment? Did you pitch it yourself?
MACGREGOR: I did not. It was pitched to me by Bob Roe, who became my editor at SI. We had worked together before at another magazine, and he thought the snakes and I might make a match. It was a very simple idea. I’m not sure that we talked about for even 30 seconds before I booked a flight to Oklahoma.
SI: How did SI find out about this event?
MACGREGOR: Bob had somehow stumbled across it in the course of sifting through some local Oklahoma events calendars. Which is how magazine editors in New York City spend their time when not cooking their expense reports.
SI: I'm assuming there weren't a lot of other national media members there. Were people there surprised to see you?
MACGREGOR: Not really. After all, I’m just another person with a notebook, like the fella from the local paper, asking a few questions. TV equipment always attracts a crowd -- and changes the way people behave -- but a pencil and paper isn’t much of an attention-getter. I just recede into the background and watch what happens.
SI: You seem to have gone in not at all sure what to expect. Was that the case?
MACGREGOR: I had no idea what to expect. Which, as a matter of craft, is exactly what I want. A kind of working ignorance is important if you want to encounter a thing without prejudice or preconception. I don’t want my expectations getting in the way of my reporting.
SI: Are you afraid of snakes? Had you ever been around them before?
MACGREGOR: Afraid of snakes? Me? Yes. Very. And with the exception of a handful of meetings at the William Morris Agency, I hadn’t spent much time around them.
SI: What was the single strangest thing you remember about the experience?
MACGREGOR: Let’s see . . . men standing knee deep in a pit of live rattlesnakes? The arena seating for the rattlesnake butcher show? The snakebit kid in the hospital bed with a blood blister on his shin the size of an AAU regulation softball? Bouncing down a rutted ranch track in an old pickup truck with the governor’s wife ricocheting around the cab? Whole sounds pretty strange.
SI: Have you been back since or kept up with any of the people involved?
MACGREGOR: Sadly, I have not.
SI: What was the reaction to the story at the time and do you still get asked about it much today (other than by me)?
MACGREGOR: The story seemed to be well received and generated some level of reader interest – by which I mean actual mail, which trickled in for months. A few emails, as well. It's much easier today to track things like that on social media -- but the moment in which a story comes and goes is now very, very short. A single day of the Twitter cycle. Happily, I’m still asked about the story pretty frequently.
I was also lucky enough on that story to become very good friends with the photographer. His name is Joel Sartore and over the years he’s done most of his work for National Geographic. He’s one of the best wildlife photographers in the world. The pictures from that story are fantastic. [EDITOR's NOTE: SI does not have the rights to republish those photos.]