Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Strange Fruit

"Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine." -- James Joyce, Ulysses

As someone who has rarely left food on my plate over an entire lifetime, I was not one to flinch at supper, no matter the shape, color, or texture of food if someone else was eating it. I was a premature birth, housed in one of those little plastic boxes for a while in the nursery, then held in the palm of the delivery nurse, who told my mother I'd always be scrawny. Once I topped 265 pounds.

Consequently, I've eaten most of the odds and ends of living beasts and plants, including blowfish along the Japan Sea, salted herring with onions on stiff bread from a Dutch breakfast cart, blood pudding, kidney pie, and haggis (oatmeal-stuffed sheep stomach) in Scotland, kishke (vegetable-stuffed chicken skin), whale-meat hotdogs in Tokyo (please forgive me), gooey sealfat and nori appetizers (in the Yukon), steamed chicken feet (and other mystery dim-sum), roasted iguana (in the Yucatan), frogs, snails, and an assortment of plants and roots that most people would rather use for compost than shove into their mouth.

Maki-san once fed me kagami mochi, a sticky double-cake of rice that the Japanese eat just after New Year to break open a new experience. My new experience was that the mochi tasted like eating your pillow and chasing it with white paste.

Once, when I was in Athens, I stayed in the Plaka, the oldest section of the city nested in the shadow of the Acropolis. The narrow streets threaded among cozy cafes, jewelry shops, tavernas, and souvlaki joints. Feril cats scampered about or sat begging under the cafe tables. Cats were everywhere. They sat on the steps of the Acropolis, curled for naps in flowerbeds, darted across the tiled walks just ahead of noisy motorscooters. You couldn't take a snapshot that didn't have a cat in it.

Souvlaki is Greek fast food. They serve pork (or lamb) on a skewer or in a pita with vegetables and piquant sauces. I prided myself in finding the cheapest place in the Plaka. Calling it rustic would be a complement. But the souvlaki was most excellent and at nearly half the price in drachmas.

I ate two or three of them at a clip. And continued the practice for several days until a Greek passerby stopped to whisper in my ear that this particular cafe served cat, thereby maintaining its remarkably low price. He said I could wait and see that the meat was delivered fully cooked in a pan to the rear of the joint every hour or so--rather than cooked on the premises. Further, he said, I would never catch an Athenian ordering from their window. After he left I looked to my plate where a scrap of meat lay untouched in the creamy sauce. I didn't wait to see whether the cat was delivered to the rear door. I took the messenger at his word. Yet the souvlaki had been quite tasty.

On a trip to Italy in the late 1980s to attend an international Hemingway conference, I feasted among other academics from around the world at a banquet hosted by the communist government of the town of Lignano Sabbiadoro. We had spent the day touring the Udine reqion, saw the marker on the riverbank where Hemingway had become the first American wounded in World War I, and ended up at long tables set among tubs of iced shrimp, carved melon, and a dazzling spread of cheese and cold cuts. I particularly loved the bright red, thinly sliced beef that had a sweet aftertaste, and went back for more. I asked the server for the Italian name of this savory meat, and she said, "cavallo". Even with my poor Spanish I knew what I was eating. It's tough to say, but dogs have it awfully good.

It's only fitting here to celebrate the rich, Eastern European palate that my mother introduced to our home. Our entrees were so strange, I feared bringing classmates home for supper. We naturally ate organ meats or vegetable soups normally eschewed by my friends. Liver, tongue, borscht, shav (cold spinach soup), matzo-meal pancakes. Mom had a hand-cranked meat grinder into which she fed boiled livers, eggs, chicken fat and onions. Out came a heavenly paste with the faint suggestion of organic chemistry.

Once she put a ground concoction in front of me that vaguely resembled pale, runny chopped liver. It had an unfamiliar smell.

"Spread it on some matzo," she said.

It did not taste good to me. It was something I could not eat.

"Brains," she said.

It might have been the only part of a cow on which I had never dined. Brains.


Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

A friend once gave us a can of pork brains in gravy, which we proudly placed on the dashboard of our car for people to appreciate. The main thing I remember about that can was the label ... apparently, if you ate a can of pork brains in gravy, the amount of cholesterol you consumed would fill your daily requirements for about a week and a half. The can was small, too.

Gabby said...

Probably the gravy. Some days it feels like my brains are in gravy, too.

You never opened the can, right????

tangobaby said...

I'm starting to think you are writing all of these posts for my own private enjoyment. Up until this minute, I was planning to see what kind of dipping sauce I could concoct with a jar of Baconnaise, suitable for dipping a Funyun in.

But now you have me wondering what sealfat wrapped in nori tastes like. And I would have tried the whale hot dog, too. Like they say, when in Rome (or Japan).

I don't think I would have been able to eat the brains either. Still cannot fathom escargot because I've spent too many years in the garden. There are some things we just can't move past in our imaginations, I guess.

ps. favorite odd food that I would love to eat in an instant: Grilled pigs feet with bearnaise sauce at Au Pied du Cochon, Paris. The looks on the faces of the other diners when I ordered it was almost as delicious as the dish itself.

pss. I love kishke. But you knew that already. Did your mom use Nyafat (that goop in the jar)?

Gabby said...

I once had someone ask if I wanted a foot in my menudo. I sure thought I knew what "pie" meant, so why was I shocked when an entire pigs foot turned up in the soup?

Moose in pesto on spaghetti was a treat in Alaska, too. I must tell you: I once baked a sheet of cornbread into which I pushed inverted corndogs and decorated it all with cheeze whiz. Yum!

bb mcclain said...

I've heard there are places in rural Kentucky which serve either pig or cow brains.