Offbeat Food : Adventures In An Omnivorous World

Offbeat Food : Adventures In An Omnivorous World
Alan Ridenour
March 2000
Hundreds of Photos and Illustrations
Pop Culture
7 X 9 1/4

Fourth in our internationally acclaimed Offbeat series, Offbeat Food: Adventures in an Omnivorous World explores the unusual, unexpected, and extraordinary aspects of food and food culture. This unique book will provide hours of robust entertainment for even the finickiest gourmet. Everything from food Americana-style to the mysterious durian fruit to the appearance of food in the arts and popular culture to the oddities and delights of the international palette is covered in this "foodie" smorgasbord. Alan Ridenour's postmodern foodlore primer is guaranteed to start-and end-countless dinner table conversations and arguments.

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Table of Contents
Chapter One-Divine Eats
Fruits & Vegetables
Grain & Bread
Holiday Eatz
The Religious Side of Cannibalism

Chapter Two-Omnivorous Adventures
Meal on a Leash
“Tastes Like Chicken”
Epicurean Zoo
Crawly Things
Tasty Rodents
Snacks on Six Legs
Right Animal, Wrong Part

Chapter Three-Americana
Dogs ‘N Burgers
Flakes for Science
Military Industrial Gourmet
Fluff & Wobble
Snackin’ USA
Rot Your Teeth
Ice Cream Shop

Chapter Four-Too Good To Eat
Entertaining with Taste
Candy Culture
Garden Trimmings
Just Don’t Bite It
Bigger Than Groceries

Chapter Five-Chewing on Metaphors
Yummy Celluloid
Comforts of the Table
Throwing Pies
Adults Play with Food Too
The Still Life Syndrome
The Bad Manners of the Avant-Garde
Pop Goes the Still Life
Your Imaginary Friends
Breeding Betty Crockers

Chapter Six-Food, Sex, Death . . . and Then?
Food as Fetish
And Then?

Chapter Two:
Omnivorous Adventures

For some, eating is an adventure. For others, it’s an errand. Some go to great pains to acquire interesting food of high quality. They love to eat food, cook food, shop for food, discuss food, and even read entire books about food. Others just eat so they will have eaten. How does this difference arise?
Children are born into a world that is entirely edible. All they know of it comes through the mouth. Even before the newborn learns to direct its gaze, it has begun collecting first impressions with its mouth. And once it masters the use of fingers, these are used to seize informative bits of the environment and pass them on to the mouth for further analysis. But at some point, we start thinking inside our craniums and not our mouths. We no longer need to explore the world by tasting it. We don’t need to put foreign objects in our mouths to understand them. In fact, we’ve got it all pretty well figured out. After all, we’re two years old.
So why do some kids keep putting strange things in their mouths even after they’ve grown up?
Swiss neuropsychologists may have stumbled upon one part of the puzzle. In May of 1997, the professional journal Neurology published a report on the “Gourmand Syndrome,” which author Theodor Landis, a neurologist at the University of Geneva, describes as a “rare benign eating disorder strongly linked to damage of the right hemisphere of the brain.”
This is not to be confused with bulimia. “Sufferers” of Gourmand Syndrome don’t spend their time secretly jamming cheap candy down their gullets or hanging over toilet bowls. Instead, their cerebral trauma results in zero tolerance for mundane fare and an irresistible compulsion to seek out fine foods, exotic tastes, and novel culinary combinations.
Landis’ conclusions were drawn after more than 12 years of research conducted with Zurich neuropsychologist Marianne Regard in which they studied 723 brain lesion patients. A significant 36 of the 723 were found to exhibit these traits. Colleagues relate these findings to a general tendency among these patients to express newfound sensual and intuitive tendencies formerly suppressed by the traumatized region of the brain.
But you don’t need a hole in your head to become an epicure. For many it’s just a continuation of the newborn’s ravenous appetite for experience. It’s not about filling the gut, but filling the senses. A way to explore the world by tasting it. And wherever curiosity is key to desire, prohibitions only make desire stronger. Those foods our culture locks away under taboos hold a particularly perverse fascination for gourmands driven to leave no food unsampled. This chapter then is a sort of peepshow through the keyhole of that locked pantry door. A chamber of horrors for those who’ve shaken their oral fixation. An expansive thrill for those stubborn souls who continue to explore.

Meal on a Leash
Puppies and Protein
In many countries, dogs are allowed on the dining table. These dogs are not spoiled, as Westerners might suspect. They are fresh and nutritious.
In the West, the dog is a sacred cow. In fact, eating dog is practically cannibalistic. Trapping and devouring a stray mutt (much less the family pooch) would be a fairly good way to convert your neighbors into a lynch mob.
We just don’t eat dogs. But we kill plenty of them. Thirteen million annually. And that’s about 120 million pounds of protein rich meat that elsewhere in the world might not go to waste.
It wasn’t always like this. Even in the West, ancient canines didn’t always lead the dog’s life they do today. Hippocrates, Greek role model to your family doctor, believed that dog was quite good for you, and prescribed the meat in cases of waning vitality. Wealthy Romans impressed their guests by serving suckling puppy. The Phoenicians too were said to be fond of puppies, particularly roasted ones. (Of course, they also sacrificed human infants to their gods.)
The Chinese also preferred puppies to adults, and bred smaller table-sized dogs. This was the chow (in more ways than one). The Black Tongue Chow was bred specifically for table use. The Chihuahua had a similar culinary heritage. According to early Spanish explorers, roughly 400 or so of these conveniently “hairless” dogs were sold as meat in Aztec markets every week. Dog is eaten or has been eaten throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, in Korea, and in parts of Africa.
Vietnamese chefs are known for dog chops simmered in white wine, as well as a spicy canine-filled sausage. In Hong Kong, the sale and consumption of dog meat has been officially outlawed but by no means eradicated. Western tourists should be advised that it still shows up frequently on menus. Just ask about the item listed as “fragrant meat.”
While Northern Europeans generally do not grow hungry at the sight of a well-muscled dog, it would be wrong to assume that the practice has never existed in these regions. Not only was the canine fox regarded as a delicacy in Russia, but the inhabitants of various Alpine regions at one time would dry and smoke dog meat (Hundeschinken) like bacon.
And yes, even residents of one of our fifty states enjoyed the taste of man’s best friend at one time (in the years before statehood). In the days before colonial rule, natives of Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, and Fiji would regularly roast whole dogs luau-style. Despite their intolerance, Captain Cook’s crew did manage to sample the meat before banning it, and the Captain himself recorded a surprisingly favorable response to roast leg of dog, allowing that the meat had a rather tasty resemblance to mutton.
The Cat in the Bag
No matter how persuasive the purr, cats have not always managed to escape the stew pot. In Spain and elsewhere in Europe, overabundance of strays has frequently resulted in their being employed as a cheap substitute for more upmarket meats. This rural practice of stewing up unwanted felines, however, has more often been regarded as a crime against the taste buds than a crime against God.
The fact that both cats and rabbits are kept as pets, and are said to have a comparable taste, has led to feline being swapped for hare in kitchens where economy is a priority. One result of this is the tradition, still practiced in Old World restaurants, of adorning rabbit dishes with the animal’s ears, both as decoration and testimony to the meat’s authenticity. The substitution of cat for suckling pig was a scam widespread enough in 17th-century England to have given rise to some common turns of speech. In this case, the ruse involved selling the live animal in a bag (or old English “poke”) to an unsuspecting rube. Supposing that he’d purchased an expensive piglet or “pig in a poke,” the ruse would succeed as long as no one “let the cat out of the bag.”
In China, they pull the old cat switcheroo in lun fung foo or “Dragon Phoenix Tiger Soup.” While many Chinese will certainly eat tiger if they can get it, this “tiger” is a soup of metaphors, with domestic feline standing in for tiger, chicken for phoenix, and snake for dragon. Cat’s eyes sold in Cantonese food markets, however, are the real thing.

Guinea Pigs and Garlic
Who says you can’t get pork from a Guinea pig? Contributing at least half the protein of the Peruvian diet, they are kept like rabbits in outdoor pens or even in the kitchen where they dispose of food scraps until becoming food themselves. Even in this country, roasted guinea pig with garlic and cumin can be found on the menu in certain restaurants catering to a South American clientele in Queens. The Arawak Indians encountered by Columbus in the Caribbean also dined on the guinea pig, while North American Indians on the continent hunted its cousins-the groundhog, woodchuck, and prairie dog.

Steak with a Saddle
If American laws were made by sentiment alone, eating dog or cat would get you damned to the very heart of hell, while eating horse would get you a place in hell’s suburbs.
Evidence of this passionately protective attitude toward horses can be found in the tone of debate over California’s 1998 voters’ initiative banning the sale of horsemeat in the state. More so in the success with which this measure was passed. Maybe this is part of our country’s cowboy legacy, a sense of debt to the animal for making possible our westward expansion, but it should be noted that other cultures, equally dependent on the horse, have displayed no such squeamishness about making culinary use of animal once it lost its giddyap and go.
Slightly leaner, tougher, and sweeter than beef, horse meat was a staple of the South American Gaucho, who happily stewed or made jerky of animals not wearing saddles. A nomadic culture even more reliant upon the horse, the ancient Mongols were not only the first to raise and race horses, but also the first to eat them. Horse was their meat of choice, and in Central Asia today it is still valued as a special treat. The modern Yakut in Siberia would not consider celebrating a wedding without slaughtering a horse for the marriage feast, employing a boiled head as a centerpiece for the festive spread. Further East, horse was only added to the menu centuries later, but is now popular in China and Japan, where it is often prepared as Sukiyaki.
The equestrian Germanic tribes of Northern Europe were a bit more ambivalent about the matter, regarding the horse as a tribal totem and consuming its flesh only within the context of ritual feasts. Thanks to these pagan rites, eating horse became the kind of thing that’d put you on a Bishop’s blacklist. The Church-enforced taboo became so strong that residents of medieval towns under siege are reported to have devoured rats and the leather of their garments before making a meal of their horses.
Even as settlers were transporting this idea to the New World, Europeans began reconsidering it. First in France, and then elsewhere, governments began encouraging the consumption of horse meat as pragmatic, and chefs made it more fashionable. At this time, horse is sold in butcher shops in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Italy, and Sweden, where equestrian meat is particularly popular, exceeding the sales of mutton and lamb combined.

“Tastes Like Chicken”
Today, all the cannibals have retired. Once common in the Congo basin, and other parts of Central Africa; in parts of Sumatra, New Guinea; the Solomon Island, Java; and among the Maori, Fiji islanders; tribal cannibalism has been wiped out. The last human morsels we know of were downed around 1950 in the South Pacific, and today it is with a certain wistfulness that ex-cannibals recall their favorite recipes: “beat to death, beat more to tenderize, baste generously with mashed yams, cook on a spit until done” (from an interview conducted by author Michael Krieger). Internal organs and head were discarded. Female breasts and the buttocks (of either gender) were regarded as the most succulent delicacies. And, no, it didn’t taste like chicken. They say it was much better.

Necessary Evil
Never in fashion but also never quite out of the question is the consumption of human flesh in times of extreme need. Accepted as an ugly reality by even the most cautious or politically sensitive anthropologist, “survival cannibalism” may be best known to Americans by the example of those famously famished pioneers in the Donner party, stranded one very scary Halloween in 1846 while attempting to cross California’s Sierra Nevada mountains during a snowstorm.
Unable to move throughout the ensuing winter, their ranks were depleted by starvation. They took to chewing oxhides, dying, and sizing up the protein potential of the frozen bodies piling up in the snow outside. Forty seven out of eighty nine survived the winter, sustaining themselves on the frozen remains of their fellow travelers.
Similarly stranded amongst snow-covered mountains, the cannibalistic survival technique of a crash-landed Uruguayan soccer team is also familiar to many Americans thanks to the book Alive, a best-selling account of this 1972 misfortune in the Andes.
Another widely read book, the Holy Bible, features some fascinating incidents of cannibalism in time of deprivation. Describing the desperation among the Samarians during a siege, the Old Testament reports on one solution: “So we boiled my son, and did eat him: and I said unto her on the next day, Give thy son, that we may eat him; and she hath hid her son” (2 Kings 6:29). Similarly, the Hebrews were cursed with a rather desperate state of affairs caused by a siege in Deuteronomy 28:53: “And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters, whom Jehovah thy God hath given thee, in the siege and in the distress wherewith thine enemies shall distress thee.”
Such hunger of Biblical proportions frequently is the result of wartime shortages. This was the case in Leningrad during World War II, as well as during the final days of the ancient Easter Islanders, where cannibalism was so endemic that the most common taunt reportedly was “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.” War, famine, and ideological extremism combined in China in the 1950s and 1960s to disastrous ends during the Maoist revolution. In some instances, execution was only the beginning for certain “counter-revolutionaries,” whose corpses were said to have been butchered for meat. Less than a century earlier, widespread cannibalism had also been reported in China as the result of a drought-induced famine lasting from 1876 through 1879.

Black Market Fetus
More recent accounts of cannibalism in China come from journalists writing for Hong Kong’s The Eastern Express. In 1995, the newspaper raised a few eyebrows with reports of a black market for aborted fetuses sold as a dietary supplement at a state-run hospital across the border in Shenzhen.
Preferring the delicate meat prepared in a soup flavored with pork and ginger, the doctor responsible for selling the fetuses was said to have admitted to consuming roughly 100 fetuses himself.
With over 7,000 terminations performed in the hospital annually, the going rate for those not cremated in hospital ovens or devoured by hospital personnel was roughly $1.25 each. The addition of fetus to the diet is believed by some to impart smooth skin, improve immunity, and fight asthma and/or anemia.
International critics outraged by the story were by no means mollified by comparisons to the use of products derived from embryonic tissue in Western pharmaceuticals, nor by the fact that traditional Chinese medicine encourages mothers who have just given birth to improve the quality of her milk by consuming a soup made with the discarded placenta.
Human flesh is also the key ingredient in an even more archaic Chinese tradition dating from 1100 or 1200 C.E. The self-sacrificial practice of ko ku (or gegu) involves carving out a chunk of one’s own body (thigh, buttocks, or even liver) for use in a restorative soup. This soup was then offered to a dying parent by the carver/carvee, who in this case would be a particularly devoted daughter, daughter-in-law, or possibly son.
The practice was widespread enough that the governments of the Yuan and Ming dynasties issued prohibitions against it. In mytholgoy, Ko ku is still associated with the Buddhist goddess of compassion, who appears in earthly form as Princess Miao Shan to offer her eyes and hands as ingredients for such a soup.

The Colorado Cannibal
Sometimes, cannibalism is big business. At least it is in the town of Lake City, Colorado, the approximate location where Alferd Packer murdered five of his companions for food while stranded in a Rocky Mountain snowstorm in 1874. After being convicted in court for his unsavory deeds, Packer served a brief portion of his term in a territorial prison but was released because of a legal blunder during his trial. The judge, more interested in advancing his political career than the technicalities of the case, is supposed to have sentenced Packer with these legendary words: “There was seven democrats in Hinsdale County, and you’ve ate five of them, God damn you!”
After his release, Packer found that his appetite for meat had decreased. He became a vegetarian and pulled a meager income hawking autographed photos of himself, the now-famous “Colorado Cannibal.”
Civic boosters picked up on Packer’s self-promotion and went to town. They slapped up a plaque at the site of the massacre and rustled up some souvenirs for the Hinsdale County Museum, including shackles from Packer’s prison stint, as well as a few buttons and skull fragments from the human leftovers.
But it’s local folklore and black humor that really keeps the incident alive. Nearby Boulder University, for instance, boasts an “Alferd Packer Memorial Grill” in the basement of its Memorial Center (complete with marble bust of Packer, unveiled by Colorado Governor Romer). Packer’s deed is also commemorated in Boulder’s largest burrito, “El Cannibal,” in the “Alferd Packer Trail,” and “The Alferd Packer Trail Marathon,” which attracts dozens of competitors from several states every spring. Most evocative of all is probably the “Alferd Packer Barbecue Cook-off” hosted by the Lake City Chamber of Commerce.
“Alferd,” by the way, both is and is not a misspelling. While serving in the military, Packer had his name tattooed on his arm-or at least a version of it. Amused upon seeing the artist’s misspelling of “Alfred,” the good-natured cannibal eventually adopted it as his moniker.

Celebrity Cannibals
In contemporary Western culture, cannibalism and altruism are infrequently associated.
This is not to say, however, that certain cannibals are without higher motives. Albert Fish, the notorious New York cannibal, might not be known today if it weren’t for his charitable intentions.
Fish was convicted of killing and eating 15 children, and it was a letter he sent to the mother of his last meal that resulted in his arrest. In the note, he informed the parent what a delicious repast her child had provided and attempted to comfort the woman by reassuring her that her daughter had died a virgin. Fish’s charitable attempts at consolation may have stemmed from the fact that he believed he was Jesus Christ.
Like the first century Messiah, Fish’s efforts were rewarded with execution by the state in 1936. After Fish’s death, detectives found in the cannibal’s apartment a collection of clippings from the 1924 trial of Fritz Haarman, the “Hannover Vampire,” who not only drank the blood of the 24 boys he abducted but-like a real life Sweeney Todd-would use their bodies to stock the sausage counter at his Hannover deli.
While Todd, the mythic British bogeyman from the Victorian pennydreadful, The Sring of Pearls, provided inspiration for Christopher Bond’s play and Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), real life Wisconsin necrophile and cannibal Ed Gein proved to be a meatier subject, inspiring no less than seven motion pictures. Psycho (both the Alfred Hitchock and Gus Van Sant versions), Texas Chainsaw Massacre I, II and III, Deranged, and Three on a Meat Hook are among the films loosely based on the life of this rural eccentric.
Also hailing from the Cheese State is Wisconsin native son Jeffrey Dahmer, found guilty of 17 murders in 1992. His confession to cannibalism came after police uncovered a severed head tucked away in his refrigerator, three more stashed in a freezer, a few hands floating in cooking pots, and some skulls hidden in a filing cabinet. Before Dahmer was killed by a fellow inmate in 1994, he experienced a religious conversion, began a Bible correspondence course, and was eventually baptized by a local minister in a portable baptistery. Before he received final sentencing, Jeffrey offered these remarks on religion: “In closing, I just want to say that I hope God has forgiven me . . . Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason, I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King, Immortal, Invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.'”

Epicurean Zoo
Beefalo & the Steak from an Egg
Health-conscious Californians are among those at the forefront of a trendy new hunger for exotic game and nontraditional meats. Hunted to near extinction by settlers in the 1800s, buffalo is back on the Western frontier, no longer grilled over a campfire, but braised in cabernet and served alongside other dishes typical of Californian cuisine. With 40 percent less fat than chicken, the meat is increasingly popular with health conscious consumers and venture capitalists like Ted Turner, who is said to own the world’s largest herd of 150,000. Sometimes dubbed “beefalo,” as a nod to the “cowists,” buffalo is still a novelty in many regions.
Ostrich, on the other hand, is today marketed more for its health value than for any exotic appeal it may have possessed a decade ago. Often called the “steak from an egg,” ostrich is a red meat, not poultry, yet only has half the fat of beef. Kangaroo has them both beat. Regarded by the American Heart Association as the red meat with lowest fat per serving, kangaroo is promoted particularly in Australia, where it’s consumed now as a matter of national pride. The marsupial has also hopped onto menus in Europe and the United States, where epicures and dieters are beginning to discover its charm.

Perhaps the Serengeti Sampler?
While these meats appeal to health-consciousness diners with earth-friendly agendas, they are also being gobbled up by a curiously different crowd. Tired of decades of carping about calories and guilt trips from Greenpeace, this new generation is rekindling an appreciation for the old: cigars, cocktails, red meat, and wild game. Despite the fact that the ostrich might come from Texas, or the kangaroo grew up on a ranch alongside cattle, the symbolic appeal of these animals as something bagged on the untamed veldt fires an age-old desire for exotic plunder from foreign lands.
Long before the days of white man’s safaris into Africa, the upperclass in ancient Rome partied competitively, scoring big points for meats that came from far away. The better households served antelope, camel, gazelle, parrots, flamingo, peacock, and other expensive imports. Historically the torchbearers of this Epicurean tradition, the French, in classic volumes on cookery like the Larousse Gastronomique, dutifully include recipes for items such as camel’s feet and camel’s hump. Today, American restaurants like Panache in Killington, Vermont attract urban gastronomes from New York and Boston with edible menageries like the “Serengeti sampler,” while more adventuresome gourmands indulge themselves at the source with pre-planned safari vacations in East Africa.
There, in the dining rooms of urban tourist hotels, at oppulent hunting lodges, and wherever bush camps may be struck, chefs stand ready with supplies of frozen warthog, springbok, impala, zebra, elephant, and lion. Despite the fact that there’s not much “African” about these dishes since totemic animal worship (mutopo) forbids most locals from touching any of these meats, and despite the fact that this game is not bagged during hair-raising hunts, but is instead weaned and slaughtered on farms, these “safari menus” are big business in the African tourist industry.
Particularly popular are the relatively inexpensive hippo burgers or zebra steak, but few tourists on these package outings return home without sampling some more elaborate fare such as roast warthog with mint sauce, marinated antelope braised in marsala, or grilled crocodile steaks with cornmeal fritters. Boiled elephant trunk, however, is off the menu. Though you can’t beat it for the novelty, this cut of pachyderm was a total washout when some hotels added it to their safari menus in the mid-’90s. One deterrent was the six-hour boiling time required to suitably soften this the less-than-tasty morsel, while the other was the difficulty most diners felt in carving away at the trunk while peering up Dumbo’s nostrils.

The Pit of Vegan Hell and the Peak of High Adventure

Notorious even among restaurants specializing in such things is Carnivore, a themed “dining experience” originating in Nairobi, Kenya, and now boasting franchises in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Frankfurt, Germany. In what appears to have been conceived expressly as a vegetarian’s vision of hell, tourists at this airport-adjacent eatery are seated outside around a flaming barbecue pit and offered an all-you-can-eat succession of meats from “from antelope to zebra.” Retrieving skewers from the flames, waiters circulate about, prying huge chunks of flesh off these swords and onto guests’ iron plates where they are torn to bite-sized chunks and consumed without benefit of silverware. Starting off with less exotic fare like goat, patrons build to a carnivorous frenzy, consuming rarer and rarer species like lion, cheetah, and giraffe as they go. All of this may be good fun for the meat-eater on vacation, but would be unlikely to impress members of the Explorers Club, a legendary society of elite adventurers whose members have walked the surface of the moon (Buzz Aldrin, Jr) and plumbed the depths of the sea (Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic).
The menu of their annual banquet, traditionally held at the Waldorf Astoria, is as daring as members’ exploits. Planning begins as much as six months in advance with a letter written to wildlife services of dozens of countries, inquiring not only about export and conservation law, but also as to availability of species in question, since many cannot be hunted, but can only be ordered from zoos where they may be stashed in freezers after expiring naturally. Recent dinners have included ostrich egg canapés, candied boar skin, paillard of penguin, and curried Tibetan ram.

© 2000 by Santa Monica Press LLC