Some time ago, a friend of mine chewed my ear off about an "Australian delicacy" introduced to her by an Oz-born colleague. (The friend in question lives in Brooklyn and, like many Brooklyners, seeks out culinary oddities with the fervor once reserved for philately or numismatics.) You prepare potatoes, carrots, and cabbage, she said, and then let them sit out overnight--breathing, as it were. Then you fashion them into a sort of crepe, and--wait, I said, is this Bubble and Squeak? The British Empire's traditional alternative to a compost heap?
An aspiring food pedant myself, this encounter gave me pause. Is there nothing, I wondered, so nauseating--or, as in this case, merely unfamiliar--that those of us raised on tuna noodle casserole and its dim-witted twin, creamed tuna on toast, won't shell out for the privilege of choking it down?
In the few years since I began to consider food a hobby, I've gorged on bull testicles (less prairie oyster than prairie calamari, and not especially noteworthy); kokoretsi (Greek for "intestines wrapped in innards"); beef tacos lengua (tongue) and cabeza (cheeks, lips); beef tripe; calf liver in abundance; lamb kidneys; pig ears and tails; roasted beef marrow bones; chicken gizzards; alligator; minnows; &c. &c.
That isn't a boast. You couldn't throw a bicycle lock in Bushwick without killing someone who'd sampled all that plus live octopus, hákarl (putrefied Greenlandic shark), and, I don't know, elk eyelids cured in antifreeze. Why, then, when everyone and his bro are connoisseurs of offal, sommeliers of the animal kingdom's vital juices, has Esquire published yet another piece on the pleasures of "EATING HEARTS. AND BRAINS. AND MAYBE BALLS"?
Tom Junod's essay, "Those Parts," in the April Esquire is, by and large, delightful. It includes a terrific (-sounding--I haven't tried it yet) recipe for kidneys. It describes "[t]he promotion of offal" as "the kind of 'trend' that is either celebrated or lamented among people who cogitate excessively over what the body instinctively knows--i.e., 'foodies.'"
There isn't a foodie alive who wouldn't raise a glass of snake wine or boutique white dog to that territorial sentiment, having convinced himself long ago that he alone among eaters of that kidney is not a foodie but a Natural Man. (Junod puts one foot very wrong, when he says that offal is "no longer poor people's food; it is, for one thing, expensive." Tell that to the Shop-Rite in my town, which offers more varieties of cheap offal--including head-scratchers like chicken feet and hogmaws--than the pricier Stop and Shop across the street offers cuts of meat, period.)
I think "those parts" have had enough time in the limelight.
Recently I drove to Delaware to try a particular item, mostly for the bragging rights. I've never considered the First State a hotbed of culinary adventurism, but another food-obsessed friend supplied the tip. By the end of the weekend I was sure that this item, alone among God's creatures, could check the reflexive Bourdainism that keeps many fledgling explorers, myself included, from trying that truly outré category, "expensive dishes prepared with high-quality ingredients."
"What makes the muskrat guard his musk?" asked Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, back in 1939.
Who knows? It's not like anybody covets it--nor do many desire its flesh, which is without question the most offensive thing I've ever tried to digest. My associate and I sidled into a booth at the Wagon Wheel Family Restaurant in Smyrna, Delaware (110 South Dupont Blvd; 302-653-1457) hoping for a photo op and quick bite of a whole roasted "marsh rabbit." What we got were two heaping bowls of slow-cooked "pulled" muskrat, the meat soaking in three inches of rich, dark, salty, oleaginous broth.
"It must," I thought, "be that famous musk."
Before bringing out this prize, our waitress asked us if we'd ever tried it, and assured us we were in for a treat. Mostly the meat was like the shreds of pulled pork you leave in the crock pot, except gamier, darker, stringier. It had more bones in it than the Sedlec Ossuary, ranging in size from "recognizably mammalian" to "sardine spine" to "oyster grit." Several employees emerged to watch our faces. I recalled a passage from Kingsley Amis's Take a Girl Like You:
Mrs Thompson put a plate of fish and potatoes in front of Jenny. The fish was probably haddock, with a horny, pimply skin. There were a lot of potatoes, with some unexpected colours to be seen among them here and there. . . . All Jenny had been able to manage . . . was sucking at a few mouthfuls of fish as if they were toffees, until they were small enough to swallow. She looked down at her plate. On it was a lot of fish, haddock actually, almost as much as had been there when she began. In fact--although this could not be right--there seemed to be slightly more.
We requested Styrofoam boxes to take the rest home in. My friend told the waitress that it was nothing to do with the 'rat; he doubted that he could have finished so generous a portion of anything. She studied him with a combination of disgust and skepticism, like he'd just confessed a fondness for Gerber's stewed apples or crustless Wonder bread, and clucked, "Really?"
The next day, at Cool Springs Fish Bar & Restaurant in Dover (2463 S State St; 302-698-1955), we ate two broiled sacs of shad roe, each about the size of a piece of calves' liver. Like most offal, this sounds weirder than it is; each sac contains thousands of tiny eggs, but mostly it just tastes like fish. Driving home in darkness through the marshes, we nearly hit several muskrats errant. They didn't look like much, but we knew now what evil lurks in their tiny hearts and glands--and we knew down in our soon-to-be-detonating guts that it was time for some much better raw materials.