As Hunter S. Thompson taught us, weirdness is relative. One of his great slogans —which I have etched into the back of my iPod—is “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” However, what is weird to me might be completely normal to you, and vice versa. That’s true of many things, including food. With Halloween looming darkly around the corner, my culinary compass is tilted toward frightening foods and creepy cuisine. What foods scare the bejesus out of you?
When you get right down to it, notions about what’s scary on any particular plate are largely cultural and/or religious ones. One person’s escargot is another’s slug. The idea of chomping into a rare-cooked slab of beefsteak would be scary, appalling, and probably disgusting to a Hindu. By the same token, most Americans don’t snack on grasshoppers. But some Mexicans do. And that’s a food I had to overcome my fear of when I spent a blistering summer in Oaxaca, Mexico. Vendors stroll around the zocalo in the city of Oaxaca selling fried grasshoppers from large woven baskets. Thankfully, Oaxacan grasshoppers are on the small side. And when sautéed in hot oil, sprinkled with chile powder, and spritzed with fresh lime juice, they have a slightly smoky, nutty taste. Betcha can’t eat just one! My first grasshopper was scary, but not as scary as my first caterpillar. My memories of dining on crunchy caterpillars (gusanitos de maguey) in Mexico are hazy, but the toasted little butterfly larvae that I munched on at a mescal distillery outside of Puebla really weren’t too bad after a couple glasses of mescal and freshly-brewed pulque. Here in the U.S., I’d probably suggest a crisp Sauvignon Blanc with your caterpillar.
Now, if you find eating grasshoppers and caterpillars disgusting, consider how normal, even elegant, we treat the eating of snails in high-end restaurants. Of course, we don’t call them snails, but escargot. Is eating escargot in a fancy French restaurant really any more civilized than a fistful of caterpillars? Well, if you, like me, don’t find snails scary, you can find them in escargot form at a few restaurants I know of: Jean Louis in Park City and La Caille in Sandy serve them broiled with classic herb butter; The Paris Bistro bathes the gastropods in Cognac, tarragon and garlic-butter sauce. If you do consider slithery snails to be too creepy to eat, try out the shiitake “escargot” served on toasted baguette slices with carrot butter at Sage’s Café.
I’ve had rats run across my foot in a New York City Indian restaurant and have been driven out of a Belgian bistro by bats. But I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as scared in a restaurant as the time that Takashi Gibo, who was then a sushi chef at Shogun—prior to opening his Takashi restaurant—shoved a helping of live baby crabs in front of me. Sitting at the Shogun sushi bar, I had asked him to rustle up something exotic for my friend and me. Minutes later Takashi appeared with a terrine full of small, live, very vigorous crabs – about the size of ping-pong balls. ‘This,’ I thought, ‘is where I draw the line. I will not eat a live crab, no matter how tiny it is.’ Thankfully, there is a happy ending to this story. It turns out that Takashi’s impish crabs were lightly dusted with flour and deep-fried before consumption, which made a big difference to me, my buddy and probably also to the crabs. In fact, Takashi has scored twice on my scare-o-meter insofar as he also once made me eat monkfish liver (ankimo), the idea of which made me queasy. Now, I’m proud to say, I’m a monkfish liver lover.
The first time I ordered sweetbreads in a restaurant with my wife, she thought we were getting … you know …. sweet bread—bread pudding, perhaps. Well, not so much. Sweetbreads creep many people out. Sweetbread is the culinary name for the thymus and pancreas glands of calves, lamb and, less often, beef and pork. Like my wife, my own first encounter with sweetbreads was accidental, as well. I was in a very ritzy Parisian restaurant and thought I was ordering a rice dish (riz is French for “rice”) when I ordered ris de veau (veal sweetbreads), thereby learning the important difference in France between ris and riz. It was a lucky mistake, actually; I might have never discovered the wonders of sweetbreads, otherwise. If you’d like to try them, I highly recommend chef Eric May’s lamb sweetbreads with caper, sage and brown-butter sauce at the Blue Boar Inn. And, the Copper Onion’s chef Ryan Lowder also offers sweetbreads on his menu from time to time.
Menudo—a classic Mexican soup made from beef intestine (tripe)—might freak some people out, although maybe not as much as Oaxacan grasshoppers. If not, I recommend trying the menudo at Julia’s in Rose Park, Park City’s El Chubasco, or at the various Utah locations of La Puente. And, of course, authentic Chinese restaurants are a gold mine for delicious dishes that have a tendency to scare some. The gelatinous chicken feet with black bean sauce at Red Maple Chinese Cuisine comes to mind. The Xo frog legs at Little World are another devilish delight, as are the jelly fish with roasted chili vinaigrette and the “hot and spicy intestines” at Sandy’s Szechuan Garden.
However, if you’re looking for really creepy cuisine like codfish sperm, dried lizards, duck fetus egg or monkey brains, you’re going to have to travel. On the other hand, the most frightening foods I can imagine—Twinkies and Ho Hos—are readily available at your local grocer. Go figure. Happy Halloween.
(photo by Meutia Chaerani / Indradi Soemardjan http://www.indrani.net)