“So you want to try the grasshoppers, yes?” Josefina Santacruz says eagerly.
“No, no,” I say. “I am here about the corn smut.”
It is not often in life that one gets to say these words. “Corn smut” is the American term for cuitlacoche, a purplish fungus that grows on corn and is a funky staple on the menu at Pampano, the sleek midtown Mexican seafood restaurant where Santacruz is the executive chef.
But she is aware of my mission: to seek out the strangest things I can find and eat them. And now she is very pleased, for she has just received a shipment of grasshoppers from her mother in Mexico, and while grasshoppers aren’t especially strange, at least not in Oaxaca, they aren’t exactly a staple at Chili’s either. They are generally parboiled first, Santacruz explains, then sautéed, and like various bugs and larvae, they were a protein-packed staple of the indigenous Mexican diet before the Spanish came with swords and pigs. And while I am reassured by the fact that the insects in question are not eaten alive, like the beetles called jumiles (commonly served with guacamole, largely because it slows them down), I have seen some pretty meaty grasshoppers, some with drumsticks for legs, and suddenly my resolve and my stomach are shaken.
As you may know, it is boom time for offal and other odd foods in the city. Few were shocked last fall when cockscombs appeared at chef Andy Nusser’s stylish new Gramercy Park eatery, Casa Mono (along with a kind of duck-egg-and-tuna-loin hash and a springy lamb’s-tongue salad). Nusser’s partner is Mario Batali, who for the past several years has used his renown to undertake what can only be termed a full-scale headcheese-rehabilitation project. In addition to its warm testa, Batali’s Babbo became legendary for its calf’s-brain francobolli and beef-cheek ravioli, and in his own admirable way, the beclogged one has surely fed more tripe to tourists than any C-list producer on Broadway.
Chefs including Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, Patti Jackson of Le Madri, and Mark Ladner of Lupa, meanwhile, flocked to a private dinner this spring at Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles to celebrate Fergus Henderson. Henderson is the chef at St. John in London, and author of The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, which has just been published in the U.S. For years, out-of-print English editions have been hoarded by American chefs, who venerate the book (and its author) for its civilized, understated celebration of the odd parts of the animal, from pigs’ ears to ducks’ necks to lambs’ brains to the traditional hog-face-and-tongue loaf known as Bath chaps. And in the past few months, he has been feted like a hero all over town, to his obvious abashment. Wry and gentle, he is a sort of anti–Joe Rogan, his philosophy less a matter of Fear Factor shock than of simple etiquette: “It seems discourteous to the animal not to munch it all up, to just pick and choose among its parts,” he says. Evidence of Henderson’s influence can be found all over the city, but nowhere more so than at Prune, where Hamilton offers her own homage to St. John’s signature dish: roasted veal marrow bones and parsley salad. Though “we would not use the term homage,” Hamilton corrects, “so much as ‘ripped off.’ ”
And with 60-plus nationalities plying their trade in more than 23,000 restaurants in the five boroughs, it is hard to imagine flora or fauna that do not appear on a menu somewhere in the metropolitan area: from goat’s head to chicken feet, from bush snails to corn smut, which of course is what brings me to Pampano. But I had not expected to find a chefs’ underground of grasshopper fiends.
As soon as Santacruz received her ’hoppers, she says, she called her friend Raymond Mohan, the Guyana-born chef at Plantain, who had once whimsically put one on a tasting menu. “ ‘I have grasshoppers!’ I told him. He came over, and I made him some amazing grasshopper tacos.”
Now the cuitlacoche I ordered has arrived—blended into a dark vinaigrette to top an exquisitely seared little tile of swordfish, and puréed as a traditional soup, dotted with chile oil. And here is a clear example of what’s wrong with people: This does not deserve the name smut. Yes, the fungus is commonly considered a blight in the U.S. corn belt, perhaps because of our traditional aversion to food that resembles a tumor. Like an alien consciousness, it invades ordinary corn kernels, transforming them into swollen, black-purple mockeries of themselves, covered with a fine silvery fuzz. But in the soup, its flavor is astonishing, with a velvety body and a profound musky funk that quietly mothers you against the heat of the chiles.
Still, as the saying goes, this is no grasshopper taco. Unfortunately, just as I’ve steeled my stomach, I learn that tonight is not my lucky night for bugs. “They are at home,” Santacruz says with apologetic dismay. She writes down her number. “If you call me tomorrow, I will bring them in for you.”
It is the middle of the afternoon at the Super Taste House on Division Street. Anthony Bourdain and I are seated at an alarmingly large banquet table with a moss-green tablecloth, the only English speakers in the early lunch crowd, confronting a plate of cold white chicken feet. We both feel a little bit of shame. “I’ve actually never tried this before,” he says, and neither have I. This from a man who proudly puts pigs’ feet on his menu, a man who has made a good living out of international dietary daredevilry and live-cobra-heart-eating for his book and Food Network show A Cook’s Tour. And I mean, come on. Chicken feet! The most normal thing in the world, so beloved by billions of Asians that they consume hundreds of thousands of tons of them annually, much of it shipped from the U.S. Tons of chicken feet! From right in our own backyard. And yet we cast them away. . . .