Food appreciation is in the eye or palate of the beholder.
Turn back, ye faint of heart — unless you’re not averse to eating heart, that is.
Blood sausage and brains, oxtail and offal. Although cherished by some ethnic groups and adventurous eaters, the idea of these dishes gives many Americans the creeps.
So if you’re looking for a dish that will send tingles up your guests’ spines at Halloween, why not try something guaranteed to get a “Whoa!” They just might love it.
After all, the lesser cuts of meat are becoming increasingly prevalent at restaurants and in homes around the nation, a movement rooted in history that experts say could help the sustainability of the nation’s food supply and its health.
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Take sweetbreads, for instance. They are neither sweet nor bread. The dish features the thymus and pancreas of animals, and is on some fine dining and bistro menus.
“We sell a lot of heart too,” said Danny Johnson, the expert butcher who owns Taylor’s Market in Sacramento and its adjacent restaurant. “You just open it up, take the veins out, slice it and saute it.”
John Gurnee, executive chef at Kupros Bistro in midtown, likes to include unusual fare on his menu. The restaurant now features potted rabbit and poutine made with oxtail gravy one of the more popular dishes among its small plate offerings.
One of the oddest items he’s done at the bistro was a $20 trio of charcuterie that included a pig’s head terrine. It was a harder sell, he admitted.
“I think it’s a texture that, with ears and tongue, it weirds people out,” Gurnee said.
So-called creepy food varies from culture to culture and is influenced by religion, customs, availability and other cultural differences, said Alan Rocke, a science historian at Case Western Reserve University whose teaching interests include food and its history.
Horse meat, for example, is eaten in many parts of the world, including France and Italy. Americans’ aversion to eating horse meat is influenced by our estimation of the animal, Rocke said.
“Why we don’t eat horse meat, or at least very little, is probably because we view the horse as a noble animal and the cowboy’s best friend,” he said.
Americans are also averse to eating bugs, but it’s not just because it grosses us out. Anthropologists suggest that we shun eating insects because they’re small and hard to catch. That’s not the case in some other countries.
Huge spiders and giant water bugs are regarded as delicacies in Southeast Asia. Availability, in turn, influences prevalence on plates and acceptability within society.
“We have lobsters on our coasts, and we love eating lobsters. It’s a great delicacy, but a lobster is nothing more than an overgrown insect,” Rocke said, adding that shrimp and crawfish fall into the same category. “The reason why I think we’ve developed a taste for shrimp and crawfish and lobsters is the very fact that they’re available to us.”
So, what if giant tarantulas were as plentiful here as they are in Cambodia?
Chef-turned-TV personality Andrew Zimmern (www.andrewzimmern.com) would urge you to bring on the arachnids. Zimmern consumes the ghastly and grim on his Travel Channel show, “Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern” and lists giant tarantula among the most surprisingly delicious dishes he’s ever eaten.
“It tastes like crab,” he said during a phone interview while driving down the Sonoma coast last week. “You break off the legs and can pull out white meat just like you would a crab or lobster.”
Southeast Asia is ground zero for adventurous dining, Zimmern said.
“They famously eat everything that crawls or swims or wiggles, and they do it phenomenally,” Zimmern said.
Rocke expects that the ranks of people dining on creepy crawlies will increase with the new emphasis on environmentally conscious eating.
“Insect culture makes a great deal of sense from a sustainability standpoint or in terms of environmental stewardship, because they can be grown efficiently, cheaply and sustainably,” he said. “And the food source, objectively considered, is a very high nutritive quality.”
Zimmern is committed to changing people’s attitudes about creepy food, especially those “addicted to center-of-the-cut pieces of the animal.”
“If we want to decrease our dependency on commodity factory farms and pursue nutritive foods, then we need to eat nose to tail and eat all the animals and plants and fish all around us,” Zimmern said.
Rattlesnake and grasshopper need not be substituted for a good prime rib at Sunday dinner, but serving goat would be a start.
“If we just ate the small fish with the heads on the way the rest of the world does, we’d be so much better off,” he said.
It also honors the animal to use all of its parts, said Kaayla Daniel, a clinical nutritionist and board member of the Weston A. Price Foundation and Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund.
“Our grandparents didn’t buy chicken parts, they’d buy the chicken,” she said during a phone interview from her Albuquerque office. “Then there were all these other parts. They’d take the carcass and make a wonderful soup, take the liver and make pbte. And certainly no one was averse to the drumstick.”
Modern Americans could learn a thing or two from their ancestors, whom Daniel has termed “frugavores.”
“When we were eating plenty of the good fats as opposed to the partially hydrogenated margarines and shortenings and these newfangled fats, we weren’t craving the things that would make us turn to the bad things,” she said. “You weren’t needing to graze all afternoon and evening. You didn’t have the morbid obesity that we’re seeing more and more of.”
But for chef Quentin Bennett, or “Chef Q for Hire” as he’s more commonly known in Sacramento, there’s some food he’s just not willing to eat again.
Bennett grew up in the South eating dishes like pickled pig’s feet, hog head cheese (a kind of meat jelly made with, yes, a hog’s head) and chitterlings or chitlins (hog intestines).
“I don’t think my mom and my relatives wanted to throw away any part of the pig,” he said. “We ate everything.”
Sweetbreads, on the other hand, are one of Bennett’s favorite dishes, both to eat and prepare for clients.
“It’s just about educating one’s palate, that’s the thing,” he said.
As Zimmern noted, appreciation is in the eye or palate of the beholder.
The Minnesota resident and James Beard award-winning food expert was living with a tribe in Uganda and having a snack of cheddar cheese on Triscuits when one of the local guides approached and asked what he was eating. Zimmern offered the guide a cracker and cheese, which was adamantly refused.
“He said ‘What is it with you Americans? You take perfectly good milk, let it spoil and rot and dry it into little squares?’ ” Zimmern said. “What is very normal in one part of the world is very abnormal in another.
“If you think about hot dogs, or what cheese is, maybe you’ll be a little more open-minded about grilled ox heart.”