Extreme Eating

The guinea-pig-like delicacy, cuy.Photo: James Wojcik

“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… .

Burnt goat head, a West Indian delight.Photo: James Wojcik

“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.

Cock's combs, "a gelatinous sponge of meat."Photo: James Wojcik

In Carroll Gardens, there is an Italian lunch counter called Ferdinando’s that has been quietly fueling the neighborhoods with calf’s-spleen sandwiches (called vastedde) for a century. Served on a simple seeded bun, it’s a murky, organy counterpart to the mound of fluffy white ricotta that tops it. Eating it on a Friday afternoon, you are reminded that there are a hundred cities in our city, all hiding in plain sight from one another.

There are also snails: great big black snails, stewed in a spicy, oily tomato-and-onion sauce, at New Combination, a Nigerian restaurant that seems to have been dropped from space onto a dead stretch of fast-food restaurants on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. The snail, some four inches of meaty mollusk, is leathery and unctuous at the same time, tasting sour and strong. I am clearly being monitored in a friendly way by the waiter, and I suspect they are taking it easy on me. “I didn’t see the size of the snail you got,” says the chef, Mercy Akode. “Usually, they are like this,” she says, holding up a clenched fist, and I feel that strange mixture of failure and relief when one is patronized to, when one doesn’t get the fist-size snail.

And forget about cuy. Cuy, as you certainly know, is the guinea-pig-like creature that is beloved at the Ecuadoran table and spit-roasted in great number on summer weekends in Flushing Meadows. It is legendary on the Internet, supposedly quasi-legal and difficult to find. Yet not 100 feet from the Jackson Heights stop on the 7 train, I turn in to a friendly little market called Así Es Mi Tierra, and a teenager opens up a freezer full of the little buggers, individually wrapped. It is a strange world in which you can put your head into a freezer of whole frozen rodents the size of small cats— some that look cuddly and asleep, others apparently frozen in the midst of an attempt to angrily eat someone’s face off—and realize that this is all so 1999. It comes to the point where you pass by a restaurant with a sign in the door that says SHEEP BLACK PUDDING AVAILABLE and sigh. Another blood sausage?

The chefs who are writing weird food onto fine-dining menus, though, are chasing more than just thrills.

Andy Nusser, of Casa Mono, first spotted cockscombs in Barcelona and knew he had to serve them. It’s tempting to suspect that they are there for the sake of pure novelty, to lure the army of restless New Yorkers who crave the exotic if only to consume it and transform it into the banal as quickly as possible. But for chefs, says Nusser, it is the buzz of a new ingredient, the same jonesing for new sensation that hooked them on the business in the first place. A cockscomb is, Nusser says, “a gelatinous sponge of meat that will take on any flavor you will add to it, and that’s exciting.” Like many chefs, he faces the challenge of making new foods and flavors accessible without obscuring the ingredient itself. In this case, that means taking advantage of the braised combs’ flavor-sponginess to infuse them with comforting hints of hearty pot roast and a plummy, hoisin sweetness. But the combs still violate a cardinal rule of mainstream American cuisine: that a food not resemble the animal it came from. And there is no mistaking when the dish arrives that you are eating a plate full of rooster-head tops.

Chef Zak Pelaccio of the just-opened 5 Ninth and his pastry chef, Nick Morgenstern, for their part, have been working night and day to create a functioning dessert out of durian, the football-size Asian “king of fruits” that tastes every bit as good as it smells bad (it’s been banned in some Singapore hotels for its room-clearing odor). For Pelaccio, though, the fruit recalls the happy months he cooked in Malaysia, the only white man in the kitchen, gradually coming to love the durian’s superripe floral flavor in spite of its near-rancid funk. Pelaccio and Morgenstern initially tried transforming durian flesh into a sorbet, but are now working on a sort of durian cream pie, the fruit steamed and sugared into a luxurious custard. On first bite, it is a lovely, full-bodied pudding with hints of tropical fruit and then a subtle back beat of lush pungency. The smell is extremely subtle, yes, but it still received a few pinched noses at the private tasting dinner where the treat was auditioned last week.

At Prune, meanwhile, the Fergus Henderson homage/ripoff is humble, Flintstonian even, in its straightforwardness. Calf’s bones are cut and roasted into hot little cups filled with marrow—soft, rich, and packed with reassuring meatiness, each bite a little condensed steak (served in a handy bone bowl). You scoop it out, spread it on toast, top it with roughly cut, lightly dressed leaves of parsley and coarse salt, and consume greedily. Scraping this hidden nourishment from the depths of the beast vanquishes strong vestigial hungers, and feels uncannily familiar the very first time you eat it. Hamilton’s menu, with its decadent monkfish livers, perfect sweetbreads, and other stimulating oddities, is part playful provocation (note the recent Valentine’s Day special of braised veal tongue and octopus, known in the kitchen as “tongue and pussy”) and part fair warning. “If you read the menu, you know what you’re in for,” says Hamilton. “It’s a way of cultivating a clientele that loves you, and you love them because we’re of the same eating mind.” It is an invitation: to cast off taboos and join the cult of the marrow eaters.

As much as i want to sign up, there is one forbidden food that I cannot eat. Where religious taboos have been largely forsaken in most American kitchens, they have been replaced by health taboos—the perception, for example, that organ meats are high in cholesterol, that liver is full of toxins. There is some truth here, but in neither case is moderate consumption perilous, and indeed the sense of danger, however slight, may add to the naughty appeal of these foods. But then there is the fear of the mad cow.

Now, I know that bovine spongiform encephalopathy is a disease that is primarily carried in the bovine nervous system; and I have been told it is impossible to contract BSE from eating muscle even from an afflicted animal; and yes, the statistical likelihood of even finding an affected animal approaches zero; and yes, I’ve already eaten the equally risky marrow; and plus we’re all going to die anyway, so why not eat whatever? But as comforting as all this knowledge is, it is different when you enter a dim, narrow, classical French restaurant at five o’clock on a weekday afternoon by yourself, confronted by a lone waitress who seems somehow to know you were coming. Of course they serve calf’s brains, the waitress says quietly. Come. Come eat them.

No. I could not. It was too creepy, too reminiscent of Sbirro’s, the fabled restaurant from that seminal gastronomic horror story “The Specialty of the House,” by Stanley Ellin (and for that reason, I will not name the establishment, as I do not wish to demonize it for those with less active imaginations). In the story, Sbirro’s is a gastronaut’s paradise known only to the cognoscenti, exceedingly plain in its decoration, serving but one single meal a night, not even providing salt and pepper lest it interfere with the chef’s vision.

But then there is the special, “lamb Amirstan,” which, suspiciously, only appears on the menu whenever one of the regulars disappears. And at this moment, as I consider eating brains, I cannot help but think of the final scene in the book, as the owner invites his guest–secret ingredient into the kitchen, his arm around “his meaty shoulders.” Which calls to mind another taboo—the one against cannibalism (which I trust you share with me). And that, in turn, makes me think this: Rational or no, there is just something too powerful and vengefully poetic about brains that eat your brains: a food that, as you consume it, consumes you.

And so I am here to tell you that I ran. Even though I ran to a goat’s-blood taco in the back of a Mexican deli on Tenth Avenue (yes: another blood sausage), and even though it was delicious and fragrant with cilantro, at the end of the day it only tasted like cowardice. And cowardice, of course, tastes like chicken.

Sadly, Santacruz’s grasshopper connection never came through, but the odd food trail offers strange twists of fate, and just when I was about to give up, I was tipped to a bug-bake at the Museum of Natural History.

On a bright morning, in support of its Imax film Bugs!, the museum has invited journalists to watch children eat insects (which is the sort of thing you imagine only happening in secret clubs in pre-Castro Cuba). Apart from cricket pizza and mealworm tamales, Bill Yosses, the pastry chef at Citarella, who gamely agreed to concoct the meal, is offering a simple “trail mix” of bloated wax worms—fat and sweet from the beehives where they live and feed—and crickets.

A great group “eeeeewwWWWWW!” echoes against the high vaulted ceiling as the first child downs his cricket pizza. Klieg lights come to life, and journalists jockey for position. The children attempt to deal with what is happening the only way they know how: suspicion of conspiracy. “I don’t think it’s a real worm,” one young boy says soberly to a camera.

After some pacing and hemming and hawing, I put a cricket in my mouth, and it tastes just like a roasted pumpkin seed. The wax worms have a little more meat on their bones (or rather, within their boneless carapaces), with strong notes of sweet biscuit. There is really nothing to them, but then, far more than after anything I’ve eaten so far, I feel changed, and relaxed. I didn’t realize how long I had been waiting to eat a bug on purpose, and I can almost feel the continental shift in my head. I suddenly have more in common with more people than ever before.

As I am munching, I am approached by a man wearing a pith helmet. Somehow, this seemed inevitable. He is “Wildman” Steve Brill, who runs foraging tours through Central Park, where he collects wild blackberries and wine-cap mushrooms, burdock root from Japan, Mexican epazote, and caffeine-free coffee beans from Kentucky coffee trees. The diversity of forage in New York’s parks is unrivaled, he tells me, a result of natural dispersal of seeds and shoots carried from all over the world—a side effect of the city itself. He is a vegan, however, and thus not a bug eater, and so it is unclear exactly what he is doing here. Perhaps he was drawn by a forager’s intuition for kindred spirits—to a rare place in the world where strangeness takes root and blossoms into the ordinary, a place where pith helmets are acceptable, in a city where, resist though they may, we are teaching our children to eat bugs.

More News of the Weird
Our critics’ adventures in odd eating. Squid intestines, anyone?

Eel Liver, Masa
I never dreamed that eels had livers. Then my first taste at the first omakase choreographed by Masa Takayama was odd, decidedly livery, but I couldn’t guess whose … “Eel liver,” Takayama said. As livers go, it’s no foie gras, but the sheer impudence of it made an impressive opening bid. —Gael Greene
10 Columbus Circle

Ducks’ Tongues, Sumile
Chef Josh DeChellis favors his ducks’ tongues confit’d in duck fat and crisped in a salad of mizuna and pickled shallots with a blood-orange vinaigrette. It gives a clever textural contrapunto to the gelatinous bounce of his terrine of veal-head whatnots in jelly. —G.G.
154 West 13th Street

Rooster Balls, Daniel
Lurking in the mix of crayfish and chicken parts in Daniel Boulud’s casserole de volaille royale (served now and then as a special) are what Daniel might call amourettes in the dining room. In the kitchen, they’re rooster balls—soft and sensuous. If you don’t know, you won’t mind. —G.G.
60 East 65th Street

Squid Intestines, Kuruma Zushi
As a professional mouth, I take pride in being game. Michel Guérard’s pigeon brain did not knock me off stride. I survived the rotting woodcock my host called “properly hung.” But I’d like to forget I ever tasted shiokara, fermented squid intestines. Stink and rot on two chopsticks. —G.G.
Kuruma Zushi
7 East 47th Street

Grilled Chicken Hearts, Churrascaria Plataforma
The Brazilian beef house serves them in bulk, like jelly beans, off a long spit. They have a condensed, bouncy consistency, and taste like fried liver pellets. —Adam Platt
Churrascaria Plataforma
221 West Broadway

Kangaroo, Public
In case you were wondering, marsupial is a lean, tasty meat. The accomplished chef Brad Farmerie cuts his kangaroo in very fine slices, and piles them, with tahini sauce, on a crispy falafel cake. — A.P.
210 Elizabeth Street

Testa, Babbo
The dish’s name sounds like it was stolen from a stock opera character. Sliced thin on a plate, it appears like tuna tartare but tastes more vibrant and velvety. —Hal Rubenstein
110 Waverly Place

Fried Smelts, Megu
The little fishies arrive not just whole and gloriously golden but speared on sticks, as if they were just harpooned. One of my guests let out a little gasp, but they’re nicely crispy and pleasantly doughy inside, like chickpea fritters. —H.R.
62 Thomas Street

Durian Ice Cream, Spice Market
The refreshing frozen dessert derived from the spiky Asian fruit tastes somewhere between almond and coconut ice cream. But to get to the taste, you must get past the smell, a heady aroma reminiscent of vanilla, kerosene, and baby spit-up. —H.R.
Spice Market
403 West 13th Street

Tongue, Babbo
One night at Babbo, there was so much tongue on the menu, I devised my own tasting menu. The main course: Calf’s tongue with peperonata in aceto Manodori. Four tongues the size of pocket combs, deeply browned to a slight crisp on the outside, with a mealy, almost fried- polenta-like texture inside, and a mellow, beefy flavor, cut by balsamic-marinated peppers and onions. Easily the best tongue I’ve ever had. —Rob Patronite
110 Waverly Place

Pig Snout, La Taza de Oro
Not so much a menu item as a bonus surprise occasionally turning up in a heaping plate of lechón (roast pork), like the lucky bean baked into a Frenchman’s galette des rois. The problem with the pig snout is that more than any other cooked pig part, perhaps, it looks like what it is. Aside from that, and a slight whiskeriness, it’s tender, succulent, and full of pork flavor. —R.P.
La Taza de Oro
96 Eighth Avenue

Lamb’s Tongue, Almond Butter, and Red-Currant Jelly Sandwich, aKa Cafe
Try slipping one of these into Junior’s lunch box. He’ll love it. The thinly sliced tongue is a good velvety match for the smooth, rich almond butter; the jelly a sweet counterpoint; served on soft Pullman bread. —R.P.
aKa Cafe
49 Clinton Street

Extreme Eating