This is an older piece, from the Food & Trembling book, that did not originally appear on the blog. It is excerpted here because it is precisely this thread the last post talked about picking up. It represents my thinking at the time, and I believe does a decent job articulating both the messiness and the richness of the topic, in spite of the fact that reading one’s old writing is almost as excruciatingly uncomfortable-making as hearing one’s own voice recorded, saying excruciatingly embarrassing things. Forgive any inconsistencies of formatting. Also it is hella long.
My dear mother once called me out for beginning to manifest the “silly, stupid (masculine) bravado of engaging in who can eat the weirdest thing.” To be fair to her, and to myself, it was just shy of a calling-out; more a note of caution lest I slip into a tired and trite relationship with the bounty of the earth’s board. I, unsurprisingly, am inclined to give myself more credit than she, although I am not insensitive to the risks. It is not that I have “nothing to prove” — we all have something to prove — but toughness and traditional masculinity, after a lifetime of being realistically beyond my (weak, effete) grasp, are not high on the list. Nor do I see myself as one who seeks the thrills of danger – I am a rather fearful type: of heights, teenagers, the Amazon – or even one who particularly likes a challenge.²
But amidst such protestations I cannot deny that I historically have had some inclinations toward extremism. I was in the flush of youth both sXe and vegan, and post breaking edge and breaking veg I have run the gamut from common lush to budding oenophile and scotch aficionado, and become quite an avid and energetic omnivore. And it is in fact in what I believe to be the honest and best spirit of omnivory that I pursue what sometimes amounts to gastronomic excess. Just as my time as a spice-lover was motivated by a sincere love for the taste and tastes of spice (after a body-terrifying experience with a level-five Vietnamese chicken curry soup and a bottle of cheap Gewürztraminer, I have downgraded myself to a modest “spice-friend”), so too have my forays into organ meats and other odds and ends been inspired foremost by a love for and curiosity about flavour. How am I to know what a goose foot tastes like until I have tried it? Perhaps I’ll love it! (It turns out I do not.) But beyond mere pleasure-seeking, I am motivated as well by what I suppose is pride. This is where one must distinguish toughness or something like bravery from other kinds of pride. For where the sketchier bits of animals are concerned, I cannot but feel that it is intellectual dishonesty to turn up one’s nose so readily.
Perhaps that is unfair – I do not mean to begrudge anyone their squeamishness. I mean to say that such dietary prescriptions that allow us to categorize offal as revolting and unfit for consumption are by and large culture-and class-bound, and while I am not so naïve as to believe that we can with one fell swoop dash such subject positioning to bits, I personally feel behoved to try. Particularly when the results may be delicious.
Do not mistake me for one who claims a snobbish victory over those poor hegemonic diners who quail at exotic fare only to revel in my own self-satisfied and abominable fetishism, though, please. As far as the cultivation of the self goes, I am merely interested in tasting what lies beyond the curtain of my own commonplace; I do not judge others for their tastes so long as they do not pretend to speak to and through some moral dinnerary absolute. A rather considerate friend of mine makes a point of not referring to foods as “gross,” instead specifying that she does not like them as a matter of preference rather than ontology. She does this out of a concern for the intimacy and importance of food, and the profound judgement implied by disgust— profound because it is precisely an evaluation that sets itself up as pre-political but is more often than not quite the contrary. Indeed, disgust may be the most insidiously hegemonic of performances. By which I do not mean that it is put-on or insincere, but that by smuggling them in through the very gut that we are supposed to trust, disgust can safeguard certain prejudices from critical examination. Taste may be intensely personal, but that does not preserve it from being ideological. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, after all.
But how does it actually work, disgust? I am not satisfied with the explanation that it is simply a technology of ethnocentrism, classism, or racism, for those are but attributions, not explanations, and are frankly less interesting than exploring what else goes on behind the crinkled nose, what other discourses are enrolled in its justification. I once at a Russian restaurant ate a halved hard-boiled egg, topped with fish roe. In a later discussion a friend found the very idea of the thing disgusting, and said that the first association that came to mind was that it seemed somehow cannibalistic. On the surface this is absurd, or at least inaccurate. It is no more or less cannibalistic than eating either a hard boiled egg or roe on their own, and neither should logically be any more disgusting than the other, being exactly the same thing, just of different animals. Indeed, it “should” be no different from any other meat and meat combination (the club sandwich, bacon cheeseburger, hot dogs period, etc.), for it is merely a different stage in the life cycle. Chicken and fish, but unfinished. Just the raw material, as it were. She countered that it so happened that she was not a big fan of meat on meat in the first place, and the conversation drifted elsewhere, fairly enough.
But to attempt to follow this line of reasoning for a moment, I can see how on another level this does make an associative sense. The egg ‘n’ roe discomfort seems to derive from a sense of dangerous and unsettling proximity, a combination that is somehow “too close for comfort.” Which is arguably part of the disturbing frisson of cannibalism. Of course cannibalism, as with all taboos that rely upon insider-outsider distinction, depends on boundaries that are protean, contingent, and historically and culturally variable. As with incest, the other famous “universal” taboo, anthropologists have long identified that while the prohibition is ubiquitous, species-membership and kinship are variously determined, such that who counts as human and therefore inedible, or family and therefore unfuckable, is by no means self-evident according to our parameters. Nonetheless, in a sense, the logic proceeds along the lines of: cannibalism = you should not eat someone/something that is so close to you that it is almost you; incest = you should not couple with someone that is so close to you that they are almost you. Thus there is something in the proximity (both physical and typical) of the roe ‘n’ egg that in its discomfort echoes this; it cannot be mapped on precisely, but the traces are legible, if distorted (by what? A sense of the vulnerability of the egg? The unforeseeable dangers of meddling with the not-yet-fully-formed, as with genetic engineering and child sexuality?). Perhaps it is precisely the inconsistency that cannot be explained, but associative links are not in themselves worthless for their categorical ambiguity.
The spectre of cannibalism was invoked again over a lunch I passed not long after with a colleague, in this case regarding a plate of calf brains sautéed in brown butter with capers and sage.³ Curious to try the dish, and in fact utterly enchanted by the flavour, my companion’s response was, nonetheless, “I feel totally cannibalistic eating this.” But why! Zombies? Is it because of zombies? Because that is a train of associations I suppose I can follow. Zombies are certainly the most visible residents of the public imagination to regularly feast on brains, 4 and to the extent that we do not deny the living dead their human status, they consequently qualify as cannibals. And of course, prior to the modern concept of the zombie, zombies were strongly associated with voodoo, which, emanating from the ineffable Blackness of European Colonial fantasy, has the cannibalistic savage waiting slavering in the wings, if not already present. So, fallacy or no, it could go something like this: Zombies eat brains. Zombies are cannibals. Ergo, eating brains is cannibalistic. As skeptical as I am of this link, I will admit that even I sometimes confusedly think of movies like Cannibal Ferox as zombie films, if only for the company they keep.
As an interesting twist upon the cultural specificity of cannibalism(s), it has been argued that zombies cannot rightly be considered cannibals, because something in the process of becoming the undead severs of the bonds of species. Zombification then amounts to itself a sort of speciation, a redrawing of the lines of self and other and a rearticulation of the terms of recognition that accounts for zombies not simply devouring one another. The living dead are thus no longer in continuity with the living (we are familiar with these ideas in the case of vampires), but in competition, with unique physiology, dietary needs, and reproductive incompatibility to seal the deal.
It is perhaps testament to the disruptive power of cerebrophagy (not a real word) that the zombie-as-brain-eater has so firmly taken root in popular culture, given that this permutation of the zombie is of so particular and recent pedigree. Whereas we can place the birth of the “modern” zombie as inarticulate, shambling corpse that feeds on the flesh of the living with George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, it is not until Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 Return of the Living Dead that the idea of the zombie hungry specifically for brains is introduced. As much as I resent Return for planting the seeds of the “fast zombie” that has grown to be so obnoxiously ubiquitous with films like 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s shitty Dawn of the Dead remake, O’Bannon manages to bring a genuine pathos to the zombie in a scene where the beleaguered humans are able to interrogate one they have captured and immobilized (and chopped in half, if memory serves). For all that Return plays zombies for laughs (tag line, “They’re back from the grave and ready to party!”), it is quite chilling when the zombie haltingly explains that it eats brains – “Not people, brains” – in order to relieve “the pain of being dead.” Suddenly we see zombies not as mere monsters, but again as human beings, feeling human beings who are trapped in dead, decaying bodies, feeling the blood pool in their extremities, the worms that chew their flesh, and are driven mad by the agony. Through which the one thought that resounds, loud and clear, is brains. Brains will ease the pain.
It can’t be all zombies, this brain-eating qualmishness; but where else to look for insight? In the brain itself ? Is there something in (or rather, of ) the brain, as an emblem of our differentiation from the “lower” animals (more so, arguably, than our dextrous hands) that strikes one as too close to home? Is the brain the face that, being our own, is the hardest to face? Or is it just that in our techno-secular metaphysical hand-wringing, the brain is the likeliest candidate for a seat of the soul, and thus such similarity suggests just a little more commonality with the lower orders than we are comfortable with?
In the midst of all of this it occurs to me that there has been a fundamental shift in my relationship to food over the past few years. Namely that disgust now plays a profoundly diminished role in determining what I eat. Rather, I no longer make a place for disgust in my thinking about food, and when and where it attempts to assert itself, I subject it to a sound rationalist beating about the face and neck before I will submit to its influence. As potentially unhealthy as it may sound, I suppose I am proud that I think twice before I trust my own disgust.4
But thinking twice only gets one so far. For in my organ-eating adventures I have come up against a phenomenon both formidable and puzzling — pure post facto (or perhaps per facto, “during the fact”) physical disgust. Which is to say that I am gradually coming to be of the opinion that I “have a hard time with organ meats.” This despite my willingness at the level of principle (the principles of equality—no part of an animal shall be judged as less worthy of consumption than another by any standard than that of taste) to embrace them.
Having a fairly staid meat-eating existence prior to becoming vegetarian, I entered the fray with quite an admirable potential for new experiences. My experience with organ meats or other kinds of offal was restricted to the haziest of recollections of not being super keen on liver, but that was about it. Not long ago I was at a restaurant well-renowned for its in-house, nose-to-tail butchery, and I ordered the devilled kidneys on toast. “Do you like kidneys?” my lunch date inquired, and to my reply that I didn’t know, for I wasn’t sure I’d ever tasted them, responded, “Well, be careful—they’re good, but intense. A friend of mine had them here and it fairly blew out his palate for the rest of the day.”
This, coupled with my faintly shimmering hangover, should have given me pause. Rather, the pause that this gave me should have translated into an order of something a little more mild-mannered, but no, I went ahead and ordered the kidneys, and no sooner than the first bite was ninety-five percent convinced that I would be unable to take another, let alone finish the dish. Luckily, she being of sterner stuff than myself, my friend obligingly traded her own breakfast – bacon, eggs, fèves au lard, and boudins both blanc and noir, that happily I was able to dispatch with aplomb.
Two things were striking about this experience. The first was that despite my professed skepticism about taste and total recall, with that first bite came a flash of recognition that immediately transported me back several years and across an appreciable expanse of ocean. I was with a friend in Palermo, and we had found our way to what was reputedly one of the oldest focaccerias in Italy. I don’t recall most of our meal, but we were fixated by the spectacle of a man in the centre of the vaulted stone dining room working over an immense steaming pot of . . . something? He was armed with a large utensil that apparently sported just enough of an edge that he could alternate slicing chunks of what appeared to be lard from the gigantic block thereof on his left, and some mysterious mass of pressed-together meat on his right,5 which he would toss into the pot. Meat. Lard. Stir. Repeat. His other duty was to provide sandwiches that consisted of a roll torn open and spread with more lard, a helping of meat, and a fistful of some coarsely-grated pecorino.
I was not a committed meat eater at the time, but nor was I any longer a committed vegetarian, and so I could not resist the beauty and simplicity of such a sandwich as this. I purchased one, went in for a taste (I waited until we were outside, thankfully), and before my teeth even had a chance to meet and complete the bite, spat it out into the street. “It’s not bad . . . I just can’t eat it,” I explained, explaining nothing. Luckily, this time also I was accompanied by a friend who, were I so shameable, would have put me to shame by her ability to enjoy such fare. “This,” she said, through gravy-stained lips, “is possibly the most delicious thing I have ever eaten.”
Which brings us back to the second thing that was strange about the devilled kidneys on toast, that I was not able to fully articulate at the time. I remember saying, while passing the dish of kidneys across the table, that I could fully understand why this food was good and how people found it delicious, but I was nevertheless unable to eat it. It was not until many months later, when at the very same restaurant (lessons learned? Fie!) I ordered the calf brains that I fully realized that there was something to the taste of much organ meat that I really couldn’t handle, even if I otherwise found the food quite pleasing. For here again I was only able to have a couple of bites in total, and again was saved by my companion who in spite of her own psychological difficulties with the idea of eating brains (“It feels cannibalistic”), found the taste itself irresistible.
Whereas I, who had no conceptual difficulties, and in fact believed strongly in the idea of eating offal, found the brains delicious, but inedible. This has been a bit of a hard thing for me to get my head around, but it seems to best express the situation. Most acutely in the case of the brains, I found the taste overall to be quite pleasing, but there was something, some strange quality of richness,6 that I have difficulty even identifying in accordance with my existing lexicon of tastes, and which my body seems to reject wholly of its own accord. I have chosen to accept this paradox because it opens up an interesting space where desire, pleasure, taste, and appreciation no longer rest in as easy and predictable relationship to each other as was previously assumed.
Am I “turned off” of organ meats, however? Can the answer be both yes and no? I will not likely order brains again anytime soon, but that is by no means certain. Even at the time, I had my own suspicions that perhaps had I not been remotely hung over, or had I been already steeped in some luxurious sensuality, I would have been more ready to appreciate the strange richness. Perhaps if I ate them at night? Or you know, drunk? Still, I cling doggedly to the idea that this is not so much a matter of trying to prove something as it is a curiosity about the particularities and the contingencies of one’s own limits, and around these limits, the potentialities for gustatory enjoyment. Just as I stated before that I like to think twice before I trust my intellectual disgust, I am not in any final way convinced by my own physical disgust.
It is, I hope, not in the spirit of unflappable masculine fortitude, then, that I will continue eating somewhat off the beaten path, but out of a willingness to believe that there is a sort of truth in the tastes of others, and that in being able to share that taste (here I mean both taste as the preference of the person, and taste as a quality of the food), some small achievement can be made in the way of the chasm of irreducible difference that separates all people from one another becoming somewhat less yawning. So that when we greet each other across the abyss, you may not recognize my face, but the voice at least will be familiar.
¹ A confession: nearish to press time and still lacking a title for this piece, I turned to MFK Fisher’s “The Trouble With Tripe,” from With Bold Knife and Fork (1968), in hopes of finding some inspiration. Therein I came across a number of terms for offal with which I was not previously acquainted. Most notably “lights,” as what I suppose is a euphemism for lungs, and “pluck,” referring according to the OED to “The heart, liver, and lungs (sometimes with other viscera) of a beast, as used for food.” It is upon the leeway of “sometimes with other viscera” that I stake the legitimacy of my employing it here, although I am happy to have my etymological suspicions confirmed by the following reference, from the Edinburgh Evenings News of the 28th of June, 1904: “The Sheriff inquired the meaning of the word ‘pluck’. The prosecutor explained that it referred to the internal organs which could be removed at one pull or pluck, the liver, lungs and heart.” Whether or not this explanation is apocryphal, it is therefore no great mystery that “plucky” has come to mean much the same thing as “gutsy,” even if the roots of the expression have grown shrouded to all but the butcher set. A close runner-up for the title was “Something Offal,” which I thank the gods that I did not use, because I have little stomach for puns.
² I recently realized that I do not like to be challenged. I prefer to take something manageable and quite within my capacities, and needlessly make it more difficult for myself. It is much more satisfying to move a mountain than a molehill, and no less so when one the mountain is of one’s own making.
³ So delicate a name as cervelles (the diminutive of the French word for brains) is a prime example of the old wisdom that if you give it a pretty French name, suckers will eat anything.
4 This has not always been the case. Although even when I was vegan I was of the cloth that “eating animals does not strike me as wrong as such—it is the cruelty and injustice fostered in the process that I resist,” I was still quick to declaim in rather moralizing terms foods that I thought were downright disgusting (Clamato juice and sour cream were two favourite targets), for at heart I am something of a judgemental fucker (I prefer to see it as a “principled criticism”) and even then showed a similar flare for oratorical hyperbole. But what relationship does this bear to my late carnivory? Is it an inevitable consequence of the type of slackening opprobrium necessary to make the shift from vegan to omnivore? Or was it part of some broader change in orientation that allowed this transition in the first place? In order to return to meat-eating at all a new personal threshold of revulsion was necessary (or causal), and it could be that disgust fell to the wayside before the success of a program the rigour of which demanded that if I was going to eat animals, it would not do to be finicky and particular about, as it were, “the nasty bits.” Certainly my own turn toward the aestheticization of excess in my early twenties (roughly simultaneous with my starting to drink) played a facilitating role, although it’s hard to say whether that was an influence or a outcome of my quite predictable trajectory from extreme asceticism to extreme indulgence. I suppose I blame Jean Genet.
5 For years I assumed it was some kind of liver, because it seemed at the time to ring some rusty bell in the far off reaches of my brain that associated that taste with what I remembered of liver. One day while reading a magazine article on Sicilian cuisine, I came across a passing reference to what sounded like the focacceria we had been to, so renowned for its sandwiches. It took some investigative work of which I am moderately proud, including a lot of puzzling over translations of Italian words for animal parts, but I eventually solved the mystery of said sandwich. Lard, lung and spleen of veal.
6 There is also, more in the case of the kidneys, the lung and spleen, and some blood sausage, than with the brains, a sort of “tastes like dust” association that I have. I know that dust and richness are not usually considered kith, let alone kin, but I can’t seem to shake it.