November 22, 2006: Perspective
for the brave
By Christa Weil ’82
Christa Weil ’82’s second book, Fierce Food, was published in September by Plume. Weil, a writer, lives in London.
I recently published a book called Fierce Food: The Intrepid Diner’s Guide to the Unusual, Exotic, and Downright Bizarre. It’s not typical subject matter for an art history major, or for anyone except an anthropologist, for whom arcane local treats are an occupational hazard. The book is an alphabetical compendium of 73 foods that are regularly eaten in parts of the world but are foreign to the average Western palate, from armadillo (a popular Depression-era food in the United States) to yuba (a wonderful Japanese version of fresh bean curd). I describe what the foods are, how they are procured, prepared, eaten, and — this is key — what they taste like. Sampling these items allowed me to combine my love of adventure sports with my interest in cuisine, like a bungee jump for the taste buds.
I was not a particularly bold eater as a child, and there are some ordinary foods that still fill me with infantile dread, like soft-boiled eggs. But my brother, sister, and I did love to forage. There was a blackberry patch in the woods not far from our home in suburban Connecticut, and the sheer pleasure of finding ripe, sun-warmed fruit and eating it to the point of bellyache was the perfect antidote to the civilizing efforts of our parents (“Sit up straight! Use your fork!”). Thirty-five years later, discovering foods like honeycomb, one of the tamer items the book describes, offered that same blissful experience of fresh and wild — food as nature intended.
Whether it’s the scary first crunch through the carapace of a fried cricket (which resolves, quite pleasantly, into a taste akin to the crispiest of baked duck skin), or the delightful slippery richness of green coconut meat, fierce food is by definition novel — pushing the envelope of the familiar. Upon reflection, my Princeton experience, spanning the late 1970s and early 1980s, provided substantial grounding for later research. It began shortly after Freshman Week, when, in Wilson College, two classmates from Philadelphia invited my roommate Anne and me to their room and plied us with an entirely new-to-us food: cheese from an aerosol can, sprayed on a pretzel log. We were dazzled by this and their subsequent tale of a mysterious hometown sandwich, also involving cheese, plus onions and steak. It was hard to say what was more impressive — the radiant orange furl that sprayed pfsssst from the nozzle onto the pretzel, or the fact that we were in a boys’ dorm room in the small hours completely unsupervised, learning about the ways of their part of the world. This was what college was all about.
Around this time, the town of Princeton, like the rest of America, was opening up to alternative cuisines that had that alluring novelty of all things foreign to your mom’s fridge. There were the pita bread and sprouts at the Tempting Tiger down Witherspoon Street, and the salsa at Marita’s Cantina on Nassau Street. Possibly the freakiest of all was the ultra-traditional fare on the menu at Lahiere’s. One autumn weekend, Anne’s mom and dad came up from Louisville for a football game and invited their daughter and her three roommates to a gala dinner. Dressed to kill in turtlenecks and Fair Isle sweaters, all of us, save Anne, were hopelessly unprepared for the fine French dining that lay ahead. I opted for the snails, showing the same reckless abandon that last year saw me ordering up bugs, deliberately rotted fish, and armadillo.
One of the reasons fierce foods are so much fun is because many require specialized knowledge, techniques, and tools. As gadgets go, snail tongs are way up there in the degree-of-difficulty department. Technically speaking, they’re forceps, with an opposing spring action, and mastering them takes quite a bit of practice. Needless to say, shortly after the snails were set down, butter-slick shells went flying across the tony dining room. Meanwhile, another roommate was massacring her first lobster. Our wonderful hosts found it all hilarious.
In another phase of life, early this spring I attempted a different shelled critter: the bristling sea urchin, whose gonads are better known as uni. When sea-fresh, it’s a supernal food, with a meltingly sweet flavor that’s a bit like coffee-flavored custard, but this reward is damn tricky to get to. The French use a stainless-steel tool called a coupe-oursin to crack the shell. It looks like a gigantic egg topper, and operates the same way, but requires a daunting calibration of strength and restraint to bisect the creature without hopelessly scrambling the uni with its own spines. Once again, shelled critters went airborne in my first attempts.
As a junior, I dated a guy who lived off campus. The communal meals at his house were a continuing education in the realm of the new. One roommate, a math grad student who wore shorts and sandals well into the winter, introduced us to an Asian food that was as pale and incomprehensible as bare calves in January. I like tofu a lot more now, especially if it’s served in a fiery hotpot.
Today it’s hard to conceive that tofu was once really strange, since it, like so many other once-exotic dishes, is now standard fare. In the name of health, sophistication, and sheer boredom with the same old foods, Americans increasingly are willing to give deeply weird items a try. Gator is now a cliché on menus around the Gulf Coast. Toxic blowfish, or fugu, is sold in high-end Japanese restaurants in the United States with the blessing of the FDA. (Readers be warned: I tried this flavor-free puffer in Tokyo. Between courses three and six of the seven-course dinner my hands went numb, and I became convinced that my family would soon be accepting a Darwin Award on my behalf. Luckily, sensation returned.) Given contemporary diners’ huge appetite for the new, it’s conceivable that someday something as otherworldly as sun-baked African mopani larvae (which have a deep, dark vegetal flavor reminiscent of roasted coffee beans, but with lots more protein) may find their way into the snack kingdom. A fellow fierce foodie in London, where I live, has sourced the larvae from South Africa and is selling them in one of the city’s poshest department stores, Selfridges. The vacuum packaging is slick and attractive, the grubs less so.
During my junior and senior years on campus, I belonged to Charter Club, whose chef, Steve, dished up the finest meals on the Street. One item on the breakfast menu was particularly noteworthy — a fierce local delicacy that I wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole, and still have not sampled. In the days since, I have tried esoterica from betel nut (a stimulant that turns your saliva blood-red) to snapping turtle (a lot like pulled pork). When I return to campus for my 25th reunion next year, it won’t be just to see old friends and rekindle memories of youth. When I go back, I’m going to taste some of that scrapple.