Blog of an aspiring foodie

If you're hungry, you tend to eat things

Posted by beer_chris on 18-November-2006

From The New York Times

Close Your Eyes. Hold Your Nose. It's Dinner Time.

Published: September 14, 1997

Got a hankering for some calf testicles?

Wait, don't gag just yet. In the Rocky Mountain states, calf testicles — sliced, lightly battered and fried — are considered a delicacy by people who themselves might turn vivid shades of green at the thought of devouring a clam. And if neither calf testicles nor clams repulse you, something in humanity's vast pantry will surely turn your stomach.

Humans eat just about anything that can be speared, hooked, shot or reared, from rooster coxcombs (the red things on their heads) to ox tails to grasshoppers to, yes, puppies and kittens. The species' wide-ranging tastes, which so easily arouse disgust among those who do not partake, are reflected in recent reports about two prized regional delicacies: squirrel brains, considered a treat in rural western Kentucky, and geoducks, freakishly large clams that thrive in the saltwater tidelands of the Pacific Northwest.

It seems that consuming squirrel brains can transmit to humans a fatal variant of mad cow disease, which essentially shreds human brain tissue. Scientists last month warned devotees to lay off the gray matter of the gray rodents, though those outside the Squirrel Brain Belt might argue that consuming the delicacy in the first place suggests that the damage has already been done.

And then there is the geoduck (oddly enough, pronounced GOO-ee-duck), a clam that can weigh as much as 16 pounds, with a neck like a flexible fire hydrant. Why a geoduck? Organized crime has apparently gotten into the business, smuggling this especially homely bivalve to Asia, where a single clam can sell for $50.

The mind may say ''Yuck'' to such formidable meals, but somewhere, sometime, a mouth first watered at the prospect. Who, after all, would have thought to eat an animal as hideous as a lobster?

''What's a lobster other than an insect, but slightly larger?'' asked Andrew F. Smith, author of ''The Tomato in America'' (North Carolina University Press, 1994). Mr. Smith, who teaches culinary history at the New School for Social Research in New York, noted that crickets and grasshoppers were commonly eaten in the United States through the 19th century. ''If you're hungry, you tend to eat things,'' he said, simply enough.

That logic might explain the cannibalistic Donner Party, settlers trapped in the Sierra Nevada a century and a half ago — but squirrel brains? ''I'm sure that people who lived on the frontier, if they shot a squirrel — what's wrong with eating the brains?'' Mr. Smith asked. ''What's wrong with eating eyeballs? In Asian societies, eyeballs are considered common foods. If I were hungry, would I eat eyeballs? You bet I would!''

You may as well ask who was brave enough to taste a tomato. Mr. Smith said northern Europeans considered tomatoes too revolting to eat when Spanish conquistadors first brought them back from the New World. ''Squeamishness depends on cultural background,'' he said, noting that slime from the surfaces of rivers and lakes was a prized food of the Aztecs.

While Mr. Smith's personal diet has occasionally included calf testicles, he does draw the line at the durian, a spiked, football-shaped fruit popular in Southeast Asia that is so famously stinky that Singapore, for one, prohibits slicing them open in public places.

It's a shame people can't do a better job of adapting to foods they consider gross, argued Calvin W. Schwabe in his 1979 book ''Unmentionable Cuisine'' (University Press of Virginia); he asserted that the world, and Americans in particular, may face dire long-term consequences by irrationally rejecting such foods, which can help sustain the food supply and are often cheap, nutritious and tasty. He has collected recipes for foods that are actually eaten, somewhere in the world, including Samoan baked bat, Turkish lamb tongues and Hawaiian broiled puppy.

''How strange that we think it natural to eat some arthropods — even crabs, which are notorious scavengers of the deep, but just the idea of eating any of our really beautiful bugs and caterpillars, which feed on clean vegetation, makes us shudder,'' he lamented.

Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies human choices, says foods that disgust are almost all animal products. Asking why humans find a few scattered animal foods disgusting is the wrong question, he said. ''We eat so few animal products that the real question is, why aren't all animal products revolting?'' he said.

In the United States, which he termed ''basically a muscle-eating country,'' viscosity — that state between solid and liquid that characterizes, say, squirrel brains — generally repulses, as does the odor of decay. But he pointed out that every culture has its exceptions.

''We prize cheese, which is rotted milk and smells that way,'' he said. ''Fish sauce, which is rotted fish, is prized in Southeast Asia.''

Clearly, people's tastes in food depend on what they grew up eating. Those who vow that rodent entrails will never pass between their lips think nothing of eating strips of pig flesh. But maybe if people were more familiar with the smells, squeals and butchery required to turn the pig into bacon, they would be less likely to shrink back from the innards and oddities of other cultures. Or maybe they would give up bacon.

Perhaps examining the food on the plate too closely is something we should all avoid. Have you ever looked closely at a Cheez Doodle? Now you can gag.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: