I am not Tony Bourdain. There is no camera crew following me around the world filming my lunch special. I don’t have to suck it up for the viewing audience and eat raw baby seal. It’s a good thing, as Martha would say. It’s a really good thing.
Even so, I’ve managed to be adventurous enough in palate to consume an odd item or two along the way. I've shared pounded kava root with the chief of a Fijian village. Had sushi right off the boat, parasites and all. Tried everything from mountain oysters and sea urchin gonads to quite possibly road kill. I didn’t ask, the cook didn’t tell. Some of it was even tasty. Some.
An occasional culinary mishap is the price of admission for those willing to bite deeply into the Sandwich of Life. The trick is to know when to eat. And when to run. It’s good to be a fast learner.
I grew up in a rural area, as my spouse puts it, “So, this is where the UFOs land!” Folks out there are not opposed to doing a bit of hunting and gathering. Well, a lot, actually. Kids brought guns to my high school all of the time. They were in racks in the pickup windows. We had a whole taxidermy room in the biology class. I kept my lunch in the fridge with the "projects." Nothing says "Lunch!" quite like having to reach in past Sparky the Wonder Squirrel forever frozen in mid-flight over your PB&J.
No big surprise that the annual fundraiser for the Future Farmers of America Club was an event called the “Wildlife Supper.” The wildlife supper was cooked by all of the moms. There were always tons of pies and sheet cakes, potato salads, canned green beans, and, uh, wildlife. This pretty much included anything that could be shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, or run over with a pickup. Sometimes all four.
The last year they hosted the fundraiser, I decided to get my Jed Clampett on and try some barbecued raccoon, and a side helping of possum. These were not good choices. This was my first lesson. While ‘coon is tolerable, if a bit gamy and stringy, possum tastes exactly like it smells. If you’ve never smelled a possum, then you should know that they smell just like they look. Even if you have seen a possum, this photo just says it all.
Like I said, it’s good to be a quick learner. However, even the most schooled of we culinary adventurers can be caught unprepared. A fellow foodie from work and I often head out for lunch to find new and different places to eat. This particular occasion, he had Cubans on his mind. Not the cigars, the sandwiches.
He’d spotted a new place near the Hispanic neighborhood downtown. It’s an area I love to go eat in, but one where I hate to park. The main lot is under a bridge, and usually inhabited by a huge flock of pigeons. The piles of pigeon dung are immense, and any time in the lot guarantees the need for a car wash and/or a shower. I dashed out of the car, hand over head, and ran for daylight. Funny thing, the pigeons were no where to be found, even though there was plenty of pigeon “evidence.”
It was a lovely summer day, high noon, outdoor seating and not a single other person in the tiny restaurant. Run. But J. was out for a Cuban, and the massive sign on the door advertised as such. Cuban it was. After scanning the menu repeatedly, I decided to ask what the special was.
“Guatamalen Tacos,” I was told. “It’s a specialty of my co-owner. His mother’s recipe.”
The sign is now flashing RUN, RUN, RUN AWAY. I ordered the tacos. Out they came, stale tostada chips with cabbage, carrots, onions, and what was supposed to be chicken. The meat was gray. I could not recall a single cooking method that produced gray chicken. Black chicken, pink chicken, raw chicken, but not gray chicken. It did not taste like chicken. I tried to place the flavor, this mildly pungent taste. Gamy like, like … a wildlife supper. Oh. My. I glanced over at the deserted roost under the bridge. Then I wondered, was I was eating The Other Gray Meat? No, couldn't be. Maybe it was just old chicken, that's why it was gray. Sure.
I just now did a Google search on the term Guatemala Taco. I can't type what I found. It's vile, worse than a Southpark marathon on late night cable. I wish I hadn’t looked. Oh, I wish I hadn’t. Run, run, run. Run, Lassie, get help, no, not the pigeons, Lassie! Lassieeee!!
So, now I know. More than I ever wanted to. I did find a reference to someone actually eating a real taco in Guatemala, and I am feeling a bit better. What would we do without this Internet thing? Not know the truth about Guatemalan tacos, for one.
I recovered from the incident. Well, as far as I know, we’ll see after the lab tests. The next adventure came along sooner than I had planned — the next day. I was ready this time. Queasy, perhaps, but ready.
It was Friday, a half day Friday. So, my husband and I went to an Asian furniture store that was having a closing sale. There was a lot of really interesting stuff in the store. Possibly the most interesting item was the store owner, who insisted on following us all around the place telling stories non-stop about life in Korea and visits to other parts of Asia. Every part of the store. Non-stop.
At one point, we were on the loading dock. The owner was going to show us something on a truck. As he tried to open the rusted lock, he groaned and complained that his back hurt. He then described his long-standing injury, in great detail.
The his voice got quiet, and his eyes got a bit wild. He looked around and came in close to us. Run, oh dear, sweet child, run.
“Ever hear of a Two-step Charlie?” he whispered. There was no one else on the dock. I do not know why he was whispering. “It’s a snake from Vietnam, if it bites you, you might live two more steps.” His eyes glowed, kind of like Kaa, the boa constricter’s in the cartoon Jungle Book. (Trusssst in meeee …) He ran off to the small, dingy bathroom where there was a cabinet. From this cabinet he pulled a gallon jar filled with cloudy liquid and a couple of filthy shot glasses from the back of the toilet tank. Run while you still can.
When the light hit the bottle, I saw floating in it a huge and very dead black snake. It had been dead for a long time, reminiscent of a 20-year-old dusty jar off the shelf in my old biology classroom.
“It’s snake wine!” the owner went on. “I drink it for my back pain. Just one little shot and I don’t feel a thing, the venom, you know. It’s diluted by the alcohol. You should try some!”
I eyed the shot glasses in his hand. Frankly, I am not sure which scared me more, the shot glasses or the wine. I felt my leg muscles twitch violently. I had the car keys. I could make it. One-step back Charlie, two-steps back Charlie. I was leaving my spouse in closest reach of the owner. "Sorry, honey, it’s been a bad week with the tacos and all …”
Just then the owner dived back into the bathroom, jar in hand, thankfully. “Oh, if you think this one is potent …”
Oh, please, no. Please, please, no.
“The Albino Two-step Charlie is even more venomous!” Another cloudy jar of doom proffered. Another step toward the door. Quiet, quiet, so he doesn’t see … "trusssssst in meeee, jusssst in meeee ..." Oh, sweet Julia Child in heaven, no ... three-steps back Charlie.
“But, then, I could get into trouble for giving someone something so strong!” he gloated. Some kind of testimony to his bravery for drinking a decaying reptile carcass in grain alcohol. Hey, it’s not a worm, but, you go for it. I did. I ran. We ran. Politely, quickly, but we ran.
Back in the safety of the parking lot, my husband looks at me and says, “Hey, how about Mexican for lunch?”
Oh, help me. Please, please, help me.
There were no tacos that day. It was all I could do to order the tamales wrapped in banana leaves. I was not packed for another culinary adventure. I was ready to sit home and eat a peanut butter sandwich. Although, peanut butter has been an adventure trip in and of itself lately.
In fact, should you want to go new places and try unpronounceable, exotic ingredients, and risky meat substances, you need look no farther than the nearest drive-thru. Tires hum on the hot pavement. Windows down, Pink Floyd on the radio. Your adventure beckons like neon arches on a dark, deserted highway. You'd better runnnn, run, run, run ...