Dr. Geek: Are You Foodie Enough?

Good food is all around us.  Here in America, we may not realize that, as we are often ridiculed, deservedly, for having a very narrow idea of what is food and a palette more tuned for deep frying anything and everything.  There is processed food everywhere, and kids are more common to request Chef Boyardee than fresh pasta with sodium-free tomato sauce.  Portion, platter and soda size have exploded, and many people in middle America think a good night out involves Applebees, Olive Garden, or Red Robin.  Cheese in a can, meat in a tin, chicken nuggets made from, well, some part of a chicken.  We should be ridiculed for accepting cuisine that is more mad scientist than chef creation.

Luckily for us — and hopefully in time to save a vast majority of our children from being as obese as their parents — our notion of food is changing.  Organic is rising.  Localism is rising.  Fresh is rising.  And experimentalism and exploration in cuisine are rising.

One force to thank for these changes is the foodie culture.  And, I know, you may hear the term foodie, or food geek, and treat it with the same level of disdain — or respect — as hipsters or hippies.  As with any other subculture, a few bad eggs can spoil the omelette.  Foodies who brag, who treat with disdain those who aren’t as adventurous or organic or localvore as they, are the type of cultural snobs that can make outsiders turn away in disgust.  They are the Trekkies who know every detail of ST: TNG season 1, and laugh at those who don’t know the name of the planet on which Tasha Yar was originally killed.  They are the football fans who have every stat for every player of the last 10 seasons memorized, and won’t talk to you if you misplace the decimal point.  A snob is a snob is a snob, no matter what he or she is a fan of.

But foodies as fans of food that is organic, local, fresh, adventurous — those who travel untrod paths and bring back to us the benefit of their explorations — are the types of experimenters that we need to push our boundaries, to help us be more comfortable with the unknown, and to broaden our knowledge of food and our palette for the unfamiliar.

And we’ve been having a lot of foodies doing just that this past decade.  Two big names really stick out for having television shows that showcase the food of cultures from around the world — including those in the backyard of our 50 states.  Anthony Bourdain (fellow brony) and Andrew Zimmern have had popular series that, while taking different approaches, both followed the foodie mentality and morality of being open to learning about other cultures by sampling their cuisine — even if it is not something you have ever seen and have that kneejerk, gut reaction to not put anywhere near your mouth.

I have learned a lot about world cuisine from these series.  It was Zimmern’s stop in Singapore that led me to know that we had to go to a hawker stall when there.  Bourdain’s show has helped me to understand the necessity of being open to people to find those out of way places.  But most importantly of all, they have taught me what I will absolutely never ever be able to put anywhere near my mouth.  And I want to share my top five of those dishes with you here to educate you about them.

Balut from the Philippines, aka boiled unborn ducks still in the egg:

This delicacy was one of the first things I ever saw on Bizarre Foods, so it deserves to be listed as number one.  Now, I love eggs.  And I love the animals that come out of them, both because they create more eggs and their meat is very tasty and versatile.  But there is something very off-putting to see the meat in egg form: in my experience, these two things do not go together.  In my undergrad cinema class on horror, we were taught that a lot of what scares us does so because it is one entity that straddles the line between two opposing entities.  Zombies: they are dead but animated.  Blood: it is supposed to be in us, not gushing from us.  Killer children: they are supposed to be innocent and weak, not knife wielding maniacs.  So muscle in egg induces a gag reflex — and reminds me of the facehuggers from Alien.

Live octopus from Korea — although you only have to go so far as NYC to have the tentacles wiggling in your mouth:

It is not just in Korean cuisine that you will find still live octopus or squid.  Whether it is the trickery of “dancing squid sushi” from Japan, or the Korean san nak ji being eaten by Bourdain in the above clip, there is either the appearance or sensation of eating something so freshly killed its declaring that it’s not dead yet.  And while eating such a dish can have some intensely unfortunate and unforeseen consequences, just the sensation of a tentacle trying to free itself from your mouth while you chew on it is enough to turn me away from the dish.  I love sushi, and I would be willing to try really well prepared tartare, by the time meat is placed in front of me, the animal should be dead.  I’m not squeamish with the idea of where the meat came from, but it again crosses the line of being two opposing things simultaneously.  And I don’t like the idea of eating zombies.

Live grubs or worms from, well, anywhere — but this cheese takes the cake (skip to 7:00 to see what I mean):

Chontales cheese is a specialty in that area of Nicaragua.  But it is not the only place in the world to think that cheese is good, but cheese with maggots is better.  Casu marzu  comes from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.  Both cheeses utilization the larvae, or maggots, of certain flies to digest the cheese further than the bacteria we are most comfortable eating our cheese before us (i.e. to produce bleu cheese, gorgonzola, and others).  Personally, nothing scares me more on this planet than worms or worm-like creatures being inside me; so the idea of intentionally infesting the gloriousness that is cheese with them, and then eating them while they still squirm is more than I can bear.

Eyeballs — any eyeballs — I don’t care if they are fun fluid filled sacks:

I can eat, or am at least willing to try to eat, any part of the animal — except this one.  And I’ve heard that it can be like chomping into really big caviar.  And I like fish eggs, especially in my sushi.  As long as they are unfertilized, of course, keeping in mind the above about the balut.  Salmon fish eggs are fun because they pop in your mouth and they splash out a nice fishy, salty broth.  But eyes look back at you when you eat them.  I’ve had a hard enough time eating fish in Spain and shrimp in Denmark that still had their heads attached, with those dead eyes staring at me.  So to actually focus in on an eyeball as the thing to go into my mouth…no, can’t do it.  Again, it’s not that I feel sorry about eating the animal; rather, I have a feeling the gelatinous aspect of it would cause me to gag.  I’m better with meat when it doesn’t feel like rubber in my mouth.

I love drunken food, those morsels that taste best when you are inebriated  – but not this:

What crazy Swede thought that was a good idea?  The Swedish Chef?  Tunnbrödsrulle is a hot dog that’s just gone wrong.  Now, flat bread with a hot dog is kinda cool — like a hot dog wrapped in a tortilla, which I could see any drunk college kid making out of stuff just lying around.  Add in the mash potato, and I’m still basically okay with it: you’re just mashing together two dishes that wind up in the same place anyway.  But shrimp salad?  Now, I had Danish shrimp salad, and I can imagine the Swedish isn’t too far off.  Imagine the most bland frozen shrimp ever, slathered in a bland mayo sauce, and that’s basically it.  It’s like biting into a white bread mayo sandwich, which I unfortunately recall from my childhood — and which also seems like something a drunk college kid would throw together with stuff just lying around.  The Swedish street food is just layers of processed food, with some lettuce, you know, to make it healthy.  I would have to be really drunk to think even the sight of that dog would be appetizing — and I haven’t been that drunk in a long, long time.

One of the reasons you watch shows like these is to learn about the food cultures of places around the world that you yourself may never be able to visit.  In this sense, the shows can provide something of an educational purpose, introducing its land-locked audience to sights, sounds, and tastes so completely different from their own, hopefully expanding their ideas about what is acceptable to eat.  As we face the challenges posed by urbanization, over population, and climate change, we may have to learn from these other cultures about other acceptable forms of food, especially protein.  The rise in interest of consuming insects is evidence that what was once a school yard taunt is being taken more seriously.

However, there is no denying that another reason you watch shows like these is for that gross-out factor: that rush from the sensationalism of watching a person similar to yourself eat cuts of the animal that have almost become taboo in our culture.    There are few Americans nowadays who were raised in a snout-to-tail household; unless you are on a farm, are an avid game hunter, or are newly immigrated, there is a good chance you have never even handled non-processed meat.  The number of butcher shops across the country has fallen, having been integrated into supermarkets or replaced by the factorization of the food industry that deems “pink slime” an allowable food additive.

Thus, for the majority of us (I’ve handled dead animals in the lab, not yet in the kitchen), seeing an animal butchered, eaten raw, or offal cooked and eaten is strange to us.  The show has that same appeal as reality competition shows that require people to step outside of their comfort zone to compete, a la Fear Factor.  Our pop culture has helped to make the insides and the non-normal protein be disgusting.  Who can forget “snake surprise” and “chilled monkey brains” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?

We are meant to fear the food being given to Indy and his comrades. The people providing the food are evil, or under the control of someone evil enough to rip your heart out of your chest while you’re still alive. The culture is portrayed as Other, as not like our own “safe” European culture, where we don’t eat live snakes, or cooked beetles, or monkey brains. We eat the normal parts of the animal: the muscle, essentially. Such has American culture become after the rise of the supermarket, where you are hard pressed to find something more exotic than chicken livers (used for gravy) and headcheese (hint, not a cheese). But this view on other cultures warps our perspective, not only on them, but on what is edible.

If cooked properly, there is barely a part of an animal that is not edible — and there are cooks from cultures across the planet who have a long tradition of knowing just how to cook those parts. And lucky for us, there are food geeks going out to learn from them and to experiment with the pieces of the animal we throw away or grind up into pet food. Shows like Bizarre Foods and No Reservation are ways to bring these geeks’ knowledge and passion into the homes of everyone else, to titillate, of course, but to also educate. Because if we want to improve our food production system, to make it more sustainable and environmentally friendly, then we will have to be educated about what is possible.

So I’ve said there are those five things I just cannot eat. But there are hundreds more things that I will eat. And I’ve started to experiment on my own: making chicken gravy from giblets and making chicken or pork stock from the bones. Before these shows, I would’ve thrown those pieces away — in fact, I did do that. But now I am more conscious about the parts of the animal I use, and how I use them. I welcome the change to try more offal, as I love braunschweiger and haggis. I’ll try frog legs or chicken feet or headcheese. As long as they are organic and made with attention to detail, then I am sure they are more healthy for me than any standard hot dog or Big Mac.

The Big Mac: Fiction vs. Reality. No self-respecting foodie would eat this. Would you?

And after all, that’s the most important thing. It’s not just as Zimmern says: If it looks good, eat it. You can say that about a Twinkie. What’s more important is if it is healthy, for you, for the community, and for the planet. Being a food geek, and learning from other foodies, has helped me and countless others learn this important lesson.

So the question is: what are you willing to eat?

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About CarrieLynn Reinhard

I've been a scifi fan all my life, so I figured I should actually make money being so. And since I've always wanted to be a scientist -- at one point I was convinced I knew how to clone dinosaurs from their hollow bones -- the career path of being a scientist who studies fans and their media obsessions made the most sense for a woman obviously way too influenced by Jurassic Park. I've been all around the world studying fans, superheroes, virtual worlds, digital games, the media industry, and various media technologies. Now I'm an assistant professor in new media studies and audience reception studies at Dominican University just outside of Chicago, and discuss my research and other issues in the world of geekdom at my blog, www.playingwithresearch.com.