Saturday, February 25, 2017

Unmentionable Cuisine

A few of my buddies and I used to get a kick out of getting each other "gag" gifts for birthdays, Christmas and other such gift-worthy events.  By "gag" gifts I mean gifts that were completely impractical or even bizarre whose only purpose was to elicit a laugh or at least an eye-roll or a face-palm.

I must confess that it was I who started the practice the year that I got my buddy, Mart, a 60-minute tape cassette of whale song for Christmas.  No, this wasn't an album named "Whale Song" or some new-age group or musician called "Whale Song", this was actual whale song, of the kind elicited by actual whales (humpbacks, I do believe).  Sixty continuous minutes of it, no less.  Now, this might have been understandable if Mart had been some kind of tree-hugging, environmentalist, hair-shirt, "Save The Whales" type, but he was, most decidedly not.  No, Mart had no interest in whales or their songs that I was aware of.  That's what made it such a grand gag gift.

Mind you, what goes around comes around and I did pay a price for my mischief (beyond the price of the tape cassette, I mean). You see, I ordered the tape from a catalog distributed by the World Wildlife Federation and I have been plagued, ever since, with a never-ending stream of pamphlets, catalogs and general requests for donations from that same organization, who have now identified me as being some kind of tree-hugging, environmentalist, hair-shirt, "Save The Whales" type.  This has been going on for over 20 years now.  I've since changed my address at least twice, but they still keep finding me!

So anyway, a couple of other mutual buddies also got into the act, such as Peter, to whom I once gifted a lovely, hard-cover tome entitled "The Tartans of Scotland", comprised of well over a hundred glossy pages featuring dazzling, full-color prints of the tartans of all the major Scottish clans, and several minor ones to boot.  Again, this might have made sense if Peter's surname were McTavish, Wallace or even Adams, but it happens to be Karwowski.  Peter's reaction, upon beholding the book cover after unwrapping the gift was to say "So help me, if I find a Karwowski tartan in there..."

Later on Peter, in a marvelous display of one-upmanship, decided that, since I enjoyed books so much, he would get me a tome of my own.  So he got me a book entitled Unmentionable Cuisine by Calvin W. Shwabe.

Unmentionable Cuisine is a cook book, of sorts, that provides recipes which, how shall I put this, you're unlikely to find in the Betty Crocker Cookbook.  The book's underlying purpose is to make the reader aware of alternative food sources, many of which are already enjoyed by other cultures, and to instill in the reader an awareness that, as the human population continues to grow on this planet of finite resources, feeding everyone will inevitably become more and more of a challenge and that challenge may be met, at least in part, by turning to food sources not previously or currently considered, at least in our Western culture.  Browsing through some of the recipes, it's not hard to understand why that is, even for those who, like myself, consider themselves as having somewhat more "adventurous" gastronomic proclivities than most.

The book begins with the following quotation by Frederick Simoons, who maintains that "Western man, despite his frequent temptation to claim his foodways are based on rational considerations, is no more rational in this than other men, for it makes no sense to reject nutritious dogflesh, horseflesh, grasshoppers and termites as food than to reject beef or chicken flesh".  (Mmmmmmm... dogflesh).

The recipes in the book are divided into five categories; Meat, Fowl, Fish and Shellfish; apparently vegetarians and vegans need not apply.  (Also, apparently fowl is not considered meat, but I digress.)  The fifth category (you thought I had mis-counted, didn't you?) is entitled Nonflesh Foods of Animal Origins but it only includes things such as Milk, Eggs and Sperm - no vegetable matter of any kind.

(Pausing now while my beverage-drinking readers towel off their monitors after having read the word "sperm" in mid-sip....)

To continue:  Further dissecting the aforementioned five broad categories, meat is broken down into Beef, Pork, Lamb and Mutton, Meat of Goats and Wild Ruminants, Horsemeat, Dog and Cat Meat, Rabbit and Hare and, finally, Rodent and Other Mammalian Meat.  Very considerate of the author to group together all the horsemeat recipes in one section, so that the reader needn't peruse the entire book for them when they get a hankerin' for horse.  And I won't even make the obvious "Chinese food" joke with regard to dog and cat meat.

The Fowl section is broken down into Chickens, Turkeys, Ducks and Geese (those are all one category), then Pigeons, Small Birds and Reptiles.  Yes, apparently reptiles are considered "fowl" (or maybe the author merely misspelled the word).

The Fish section is broken down into Amphibians, Bony Fish and Mudfish, Eels and Lampreys, Sharks and Skates and the Shellfish section is broken down into Molluscs, Crustaceans, Other Aquatic Animals (there's a catch-all if I've ever seen one) and Insects and Other Land Invertebrates.  I've already given the breakdown of the Nonflesh Foods of Animal Origin section earlier, so let's not go there again.

Okay, so much for the categorization.  Let's look at some recipes, shall we?  We'll start with something not too exotic.  Let's see now ... yes ... Pork sounds fairly safe. Oh wait, on second thought, in deference to my many Jewish readers.  Perhaps we'll go with Beef instead.  That particular chapter is even good enough to further break things down based on what part of the bovine we wish to eat, starting with the entire carcass (Roasted Ox on a Spit).  Well, I don't think I'm quite that hungry and, in any case, I haven't got a handy brick, refractory brick or stone wall available against which to build the necessary large, hardwood fire, so let's find us a recipe that just uses a portion of the animal.  There's Muscle Meat, the Head, the Tongue (a surprising number of recipes use beef tongue), the Eyes (Mmmmm.. Stuffed Calf's Eyes or Des Yeux de Veau Farcis as it would probably be listed on the menu of your favorite upper-class gourmet French restaurant), the Brains, the Feet, the Heart or even the Bones (great for making soups and marrow-based sauces).  Ah!  How about:

CALF'S HEAD WITH BRAIN FRITTERS (A 19th Century New England recipe)

Simmer a skinned and washed calf's head in salted water only and cool it.  Remove and slice the meat. Put the brain through the fine blade of a food chopper and mix it with a beaten egg, 1 T flour, 3 T milk and some nutmeg.  Fry the brain mixture as fritters.  Place the slices of head meat in some leftover beef gravy that has been seasoned with pepper, mace, cloves, herbs, onions and cayenne and simmer them 10 minutes.  Remove the meat, strain the sauce, and add some sautéed sliced mushrooms. Return the meat to the sauce and reheat.  Surround the head meat on a platter with the brain fritters and fried bacon.

No?  Okay then, how about seafood?  Let's see now... this sounds tasty...

EELS WITH SEA URCHIN GONAD SAUCE (a French recipe, also known as Oursinado)

Poach fillets of conger eel or any firm white fish (you know, if you don't happen to have any conger eels in the fridge) in white wine containing some grated onion and carrot, salt, pepper and a BOUQUET GARNI.  Prepare a purée of the gonads of poached sea urchins (which is given as a whole separate recipe in the same section of the book so you're covered), a mixture of soft butter and egg yolks, and a little of the fish stock.  Whip with a wire whisk over hot water until smooth and thick.  Cover the bottom of a shallow casserole with ½-in. slices of French bread, add only as much fish stock as the bread will readily absorb, pour the urchin sauce over the bread, and bake at 350°F only until heated well.  Serve the poached fish and pass the sauce dish separately.

The book goes on to note that, in fact, the variety of dishes into which sea urchin gonads can be incorporated to advantage is limited only by the cook's imagination.  Makes me wonder about that `secret sauce`that McDonald`s puts on its Big Macs.  I see the potential for a catchy slogan right up there with Beef Sounds Good or Put Pork On Your ForkGo Nuts with Gonads!  Pretty good, huh?

The only area where I found this book wanting is that it provides no guidance on how to identify the gonads on a sea urchin, nor even how to tell a male sea urchin from a female, which presumably would have no gonads.

I'll bet by this point you're wondering, Dear Reader, just how many more wonderful recipes like those presented above are to be gleaned from this incredible cook book.  Well, I'm happy to report that it numbers no less than 406 pages, and that's not even including the Epilogue, the Selected Bibliography (pointing you at other fascinating recipe books), the General Index or the Regional Index which organizes the recipes by country.

Oh and, one last note:  All of the recipes in Unmentionable Cuisine are presented, mercifully, without any pictures or illustrations.

Oh and, Peter, if you're reading this, consider this an open invitation to my place for dinner anytime.  There's a wonderful recipe for Palaman Palaka or Stuffed Frogs in the common vernacular that I've been dying to try out on company!