“If you look at turn-of-the-century menus in the U.S., every meal started with terrapin. It had tripes on it and kidneys,” says Bourdain. “Grilled ox heart was a very popular item.”
It is astonishing how quickly and thoroughly we have purged our tables of, say, owls (which, as Mary Land instructs in her 1954 tome Louisiana Cookery, are to be fricasséed). And so much else. Any food that is spongy. Any food that is gelatinous. We rarely eat skin, are deeply ambivalent about fat, and almost never eat blood. We largely do not eat creepy-crawlies of any kind, be they insect or reptile. We do not like filter organs or intestines or asses. And perhaps because we fear scrutiny by the animal we are consuming, we shy away from ears, snouts, and eyes.
Food taboos, writes Felipe Fernández-Armesto in his cultural history of food, Near a Thousand Tables, “are totemic: they bind those who respect them and brand those who do not. Permitted foods feed identity, excluded foods help to define it.” It is true that throughout history, humans have been calling food gross, and yet what the Jews or Hindus, for example, have gained in social cohesion they may well have lost in the enjoyment of hamburgers and shrimp salad. Flush with new prosperity after World War II, eager to brush the farm dirt off its shoes and embrace the jet age, much of America stripped its diet of the guts of the Old World and banned almost everything but chicken breast, filet mignon, and salmon steaks. And so we became a new tribe, a tribe of extremely fussy eaters.
This did not occur, however, in our immigrant communities. For the quick double-decker-bus tour of animal parts, go to Chinatown. Here is a world that does not require Henderson’s tutelage in whole-beast eating.
Of all the cooking cultures, says Bourdain, “I think the Chinese have been the most relentless. It’s not enough that this part is good. Let’s find out what else is good. And if it’s not good, let’s find a way to make it good.”
That's when the duck tongues arrive. They are surprising in three ways. First, they are as large as your thumb. What ducks are these coming from? Second, for all their luxuriously dense meat, you have to work your teeth around a large central spike of cartilage. And third, I could eat them all day.
When the duck tongues arrive, they are as large as your thumb. What ducks are these coming from?
The Super Taste House has certainly found a way to make pork stomach in soy sauce taste good. Cut into delicate, tender chunks, it is outdone only by the crispy pork intestines at Nyonya, which is actually a Malaysian restaurant on Chinatown’s northern edge. Sliced on the bias, with a little scallion inside to demurely hide the intestiney folds, they are exceedingly tender and porky, with a crispy exterior that makes you imagine a benign god who one day made calamari out of pigs. And may I also recommend the salt-and-pepper frogs at Grand Sichuan International—little palm-size Kermits, cut up and deep-fried into what has to be the gateway drug of all odd food. They have a light, yielding, catfishlike flesh, if catfish had long muscular legs.
And now we are noshing on the chicken feet, the way fourth-graders mainline fruit roll-ups. They are a little gummy and require perhaps more gnawing than fruit-roll-up eaters are used to, but they stimulate and condense every memory I have of good chicken soup. “These are snackalicious!” Bourdain announces, and I have to agree.
“There is nothing strange or new about this,” he says. “We’re the ones who are strange and new.”
I call Josefina Santacruz and learn that the grasshoppers have, well, turned. You know I am not one to eat anything but the freshest grasshopper, so I ask if she can get more. She says she will do what she can to have some FedExed to her, and, meanwhile, I set out for the boroughs.
To eat the full range of odd food in the city requires travel, not just between neighborhoods and languages and unseen social strata but between what sometimes feel like alternate realities, dimensions where butcher-shop windows blithely announce WE HAVE BURNT GOAT HEAD (a West Indian specialty) and I find myself as tempted as I would be if the sign said ICE COLD BEER.
On one Saturday morning, I make a stop at the Union Square Greenmarket before heading to Queens. At 11 a.m., I am dodging children and sous-chefs and rescued greyhounds and chatting with Steffen Schneider of Hawthorne Valley Farm, who will sell you beef hearts from biodynamically raised cows with names like Hyacinth and Lupin. Less than an hour later, I am across the East River in Ozone Park, at RD’s Live Poultry Market, standing in a shadowy room full of goats and sheep, any one of which I can have slaughtered and butchered to my specifications (though I cannot have the head burnt; the smell is apparently more than the staff can take). This is a long way from the Greenmarket’s hygienic little coolers of vacuum-packed lamb sausage. If that is the filet mignon of markets, this is the stomach lining of carnivorism.
RD’s sells fresh-killed chickens to the impeccably tidy and welcoming Golden Apple a few blocks down on 105th Street, and if you are in the neighborhood, please stop by for their souse. I am, I confess, not a sucker for the actual hunks of cow’s foot in the soup, which have the strange, gooey, fatty tackiness of pigs’ feet, except cow-size, which is not as tantalizing as it sounds. But the soup itself, a pale broth delicately laced with cow fat and spiked lightly with chiles, is a powerful tonic that will restore every nerve in your body and make you feel hungry again even after visiting a slaughterhouse.