There is probably nothing more defining of a culture than its food.
I’ve always thought of myself as an adventurous eater, but some recent conversations have centered around foods that I wouldn’t even want to be in the same room as, let alone find on my plate.
There are a lot of foods that sound disgusting, but are actually quite tasty—like Rocky Mountain oysters, lamb’s tongue, and tripe. My grandmother used to make a delicious soup using the shredded lung of a cow.
I’ve eaten any number of livers, prepared in numerous ways, and broiled kidneys. In Milan, Italy, I had osso buco made from a horse’s shank. In Iceland, I was goaded into eating fish eyes (the trick is to not bite down; just swallow). At a friend’s house in Los Angeles, I was served “century” quail eggs (once you get past the odor of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, they’re not bad at all). They look odd, however, with the yolk a dark green and the white a dark brown, translucent jelly.
The most popular cuisine in America is Italian, most of which is southern with its deep tradition of garlic, oregano, and tomatoes. In Sardinia, known as the island of 100-year-old men (blame the wine), there are two kinds of cheese made that are the stuff of nightmares: Casu marzu and Su Callu Sardu. Translated as “rotten cheese,” Casu marzu is a sheep’s milk cheese that contains live maggots that promote an advanced level of fermentation to break down the fats. When the cheese reaches a point of decomposition, it’s ready to eat.
Su Callu Sardu, is made by taking the stomach of a baby goat, which is then tied at one end with a rope and left to mature with all its contents of mother’s milk. The cheese is then aged for at least two to four months and is served—along with its casing—on bread.
A popular street food in Sicily is pani ca ‘meusa, which is a soft bread roll filled with chopped spleen and lung that is then fried in lard.
And to think that in only the most touristy of places in Italy, will you see pineapple and Canadian bacon on a pizza.
In many places around the world, penis is featured on menus. Many cultures believe that by eating penis, of any kind, it imbues the diner with virility, health, and power, as well as a source of lean protein. Bull, ox, yak, and buffalo are among the most common to be eaten, particularly in eastern cultures. Oddly enough, the dik-dik is not on the list, although snake penises are. Who, but herpetologists, even knew snakes had penises?
According to those who would know about such things, penis tends to taste tough and sinewy, and benefits from being braised or slow cooked before being used as a prop in an elaborate practical joke.
Throughout the Pacific Rim and Asia, including Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, fried fruit bats are a common food source, due to their low fat and high protein content. They are prepared in a number of ways, cooked with green chiles, or deep fried whole. In Guam, Mariana fruit bats are considered a delicacy, while the flying fox bat species was listed as endangered due to being hunted there.
It’s been noted that they taste like chicken, but smell like urine. And how does one hunt bats?
Reptiles taste a lot like chicken as well.
In much of the southern United States, alligators go on and off the protected list based solely on the number of children, pets, or golfers they’ve consumed in recent months. One year at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, they were off the list and being served in a spicy tomato sauce from a food stand in the infield of a racetrack—one of the sites of the festival. I stood in line for what seemed to be an eternity. Forty-five minutes after my first serving of gator, I had my second.
It tasted like chicken that had been brined in an algae-rich swamp. Turtle tastes nothing like chicken, but is delicious in the Bookbinder’s soup that was once served at Chicago’s Cape Cod Room.
Rattlesnake, which I’ve only had as the main component of chili, tastes like chili.
All sorts of creatures have become part of our diets, from Surströmming (fermented herring from Sweden), Cuy (roasted guinea pigs from Peru), and Hákarl (aged Icelandic shark).
Durian is the infamously stinky fruit from Thailand, described as being similar to rotten onions, turpentine, and raw sewage. Due to its persistent odor, the fruit has been banned from many hotels throughout Asia.
And how could we omit Kopi luwak, or civet coffee, from the list? Made from partly digested coffee beans eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. Fermentation occurs as the berries pass through a civet’s intestines, and after being defecated with other fecal matter, they are collected and brewed into one of the world’s most expensive coffees.
There are lines drawn in the sand for most of us when it comes to experiencing culinary traditions from around the world. I could no more eat a dog than fly. But I also recognize that dog has been a common animal protein for ages and ages. At least once each week, I am solicited to sign a petition to end the consumption of what we think are pets and they think of as food.
I wonder if the people of India circulate petitions for Americans to quit butchering cattle.
For being part of the Western world and probably the most respected of cuisines, the French came up with a dish so horrifying that when eating it, the diner covers one’s head with a towel or napkin so that God won’t have to witness this afront to one of His creatures.
The food is a delicacy known as ortolan bunting, a tiny songbird that is netted as it attempts to migrate south for the winter. It is then kept in darkened crates and force fed to increase its bulk. Finally, the bird is drowned it in a vat of Armagnac brandy.
Once the ortolan is dead and marinated, it is grilled, plucked and served. It is eaten in a single bite. The practice was ended in 1999.
Our food traditions are vast and varied, our tastes as well. Personally, my lines in the sand end at broccoli and peanut butter. Yuck.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
1 pkg. gelatin in 1/4 cup cold water
3 oz. dark chocolate
1 cup whole milk
½ cup powdered sugar
Pinch of salt
1 Tbs. triple sec
2 cups heavy cream
Melt chocolate in a double boiler and add milk, beating until smooth. Remove from heat, add gelatin. Add sugar & salt, stir until blended. Cool slightly and add triple sec. Cool until beginning to set. Whip the cream until fairly stiff. Blend with chocolate mix. Pour into ramekins and chill.