Recently the Wenches were discussing strange foods we've tried, and more familiar foods that some of us love — and some of us avoid like the very plague. There are strange foods such as sheep's heads, familiar foods like liver and onions and other nasty things that our parents may have foisted upon us in childhood (I'm not a fan of liver 'n onions!). Preparing food can be an art, eating an adventure — though eating adventurously can provide authentic historical research now and then!
So here's a smorgasbord of some of the things we brave (or not so) Wenches have tried, enjoyed, endured, run from, or found absolutely squicky, as Mary Jo likes to say.
Mary Jo Putney…
I've traveled to five continents, but I'm pretty
much of a food wimp. The weirder foods all seem to be animal in origin,
and they bring out my vegetarian tendencies. I won't eat cute little
guinea pigs baked in clay, Peruvian style. Or anything with a face that
looks back at me, though I'm enough of a hypocrite to enjoy a fish
No ants dipped in chocolate, or offal, no matter how
many interesting nutrients they might contain. I avoid sushi since I
have no interest in raw fish. Or Cornish hens, who lie there with there
little legs helplessly stuck in the air. I'd never be able to manage
the European custom of serving little songbirds!
Maryland, where the natives think it's good fun to spend an evening
smashing steamed hard crabs with a hammer and picking out the edible
bits, I confine myself to neutral crab cakes. And let's not talk about
soft crabs with their legs dangling from a bun! I'll leave the real
eating adventures to the more carnivorous among us. <g> I might
have starved in earlier days when a cook would use every part of a pig
but the squeal. Or much more likely, I would be a LOT less wimpy! Our
modern abundance of food gives us lots more choices, and the freedom to
I lived in France for a good many years. Now, the French are widely famous for their, shall we say, laissez-faire attitude towards edibility. They have no silly prejudices about claws, shells or
exoskeletons and proceed to, as my husband puts it, 'eat their way through the food chain'.
Imagine a pretty, middle-class restaurant overlooking the harbor. Open windows with curtains billowing in the warm breeze. Into the scene steps the lithe, dark-eyed French waiter who looks like he's been sent along by Central Casting to play 'minor member of the Maquis who does something heroic.' He ceremoniously presents the specialty of the house. Fruits de mer.
Literally, 'fruits of the sea'. You know those critters that crawl about in tide pools and cling to the craggy, sea-splashed rocks of the intertidal zone? The ones you studied in Oceanography 101?
That's them. The fruits.
You must understand, I am more adventurous in spirit than in action. This is useful for a writer but inconvenient when confronted, in Real Life, with the results of ordering adventurously from the menu.
I had children to set an example for and the honor of America to uphold so I did not say, "Will you take all those beady little eyes and armoured carapaces back to the video game where they are playing Invading Horde of Evil Minions and bring me a nice fish?"
Instead I smiled and picked up a pointy metal stick just as if I knew what I was doing and said gaily, "Dig in, my chicks," and attacked my first periwinkle.
It is one of the sad truths of this sublunary world that unknown foods fall into three categories; (a) tastes like chicken, (b) tastes like rubber bands, or (c) where is my napkin so I can inconspicuously spit
this out? Periwinkles fall into the rubber band food group. Fortunately, this was France and they followed one of the basic lawsof classical French Cooking, i.e. — 'Put it in garlic butter.'
I rather liked periwinkles when I stopped thinking about it.
I care about taste and texture, but I'm not so squeamish as some other Wenches. It might be because the reality of meat was all around me when I grew up. Some butchers still had game, such as rabbit, hare, pheasant hanging outside, head, fur, feathers, feet etc. Chickens were sold with head and feet, and we children got the feet to play with. Pull the tendons and the feet contracted. The giblets were all inside, and I was fascinated by the tiny heart and liver, and the emptied stomach. Herring and mackerel needed to be gutted at home etc.
This would be the experience of most characters in our books and more so. They would have witnessed slaughter and in many cases killed some food animals themselves. If they did any cooking, they'd be dealing with dead bodies. Or even live ones at times.
Odd foods in the past. They used everything! I have recipes for stuffed cockscombs (and not the callow young men,) baked ox palate, giblet pie, and broiled cod sounds. Anyone know what bit this is? I couldn't find a definition, but the instruction "Preparatory to boiling cod's sounds, it is quite necessary that they should be soaked in milk and water for at least six hours" is ominous!
My biggest eating challenges have occurred in Scandinavia. I really don’t like eating anything that still has bones in, let alone with wings, claws, beaks and feathers still attached. On one memorable occasion we were in a restaurant in Iceland and the speciality of the day was gannet. I knew that in remote societies like St Kilda the gannet was the staple food for centuries and people would risk life and limb climbing down the cliffs to catch the birds and take the eggs from the nest, also risking a face full of half-digested gannet bile in the process. Apparently the St Kilda population developed prehensile toes over the centuries as a result of this way of life. Gannet, however, was not for me, nor was the puffin that was also on the menu that day. On another occasion, in Norway, I was offered reindeer steak with loganberry sauce but again I couldn’t accept, this time because I had sentimental visions of Christmas running through my mind. I could not eat Santa’s furry helpers!
Cara Elliott/Andrea Pickens…
I'm pretty adventurous with my body-I've climbed to 13,500 ft mountain peak, I've golfed in gale-force winds in Ireland, I've mountain-biked down steep forest trails in the Alps. But when it comes to what I'll dare put in my mouth . . . well, call me a wimp.
I remember when I was little, my parents and their friend for some reason decided to have a party with really weird and wacky food-you know, pickled grasshoppers, rattlesnake, chocolate-covered ants. I look one look and . . . ran for cover. Anything with identifiable body parts intact (chicken and turkey wings I can stomach) is not overly appealing. I'm semi-vegetarian (chocolate is a vegetable, right?) so I dig right into risottos and quesadillas. But when it comes to more esoteric fare, like creatures with eyes, tails, spindly appendages, etc-my fork becomes a defensive weapon.
Which is too bad, because I've traveled to a lot of places where the cuisine has a lot of local color. In Scotland, haggis-a mixture of sheep's heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal and suet, all cooked in a sheep's stomach-is a traditional staple of post-round golf dinners, served up with single malt
scotch. I took a mulligan. French country cooking is delicious, but pig's feet and frog legs can take a hike, as far as I'm concerned. And on my recent trip to Marrakech, a popular snack was roasted sheep's head, displayed in a neat row. Brains were arranged in a neat little pile on the side for those who preferred a smaller nosh. I decided on dried apricots and dates from the neighboring stall.
So what's the most exotic thing I've tried? I did venture to order wild boar in Switzerland. However it was a filet, and steak looks like, well, steak.
I'm so very not a foodie that I'm not totally aware of what foods are historically accurate unless I look them up. But I do remember with great fondness my Irish grandmother's soda bread. I want fruit for breakfast and pasta or chicken with veggies for supper and anything cooked to death in heavy sauce is off the menu. But I do admire the historical ability to eat vast quantities of animal fat and not become obese and keel over into the eels!
Food fashions have changed dramatically in the past 50 years. My mother regularly ate sheep's brains. Loved them. Poached, fried, or on toast, usually. None of the rest of us would touch them. You used to see brains in the butchers, but not any more. Her generation regularly ate cuts like liver, brains, tongue, tripe, kidneys, sweetbreads, etc. I can't bear the thought of eel, either, but my dad used to love it. He caught eels as a boy and ate them with relish. People in the past, rich or poor, ate a lot more of the animal than we do now — and a lot more animals.
I have a 1790 English cookbook that has recipes for pickling sparrows and fricasseeing larks and potting swans, of a sauce to go with boiled cock's combs, and a dish of lark's tongues (how tiny must they be?) Cod's heads were roasted and served with gravy, pigs ears and pigs cheeks made into a "ragoo" (ragoût) and calves foot made into puddings.
I think we're more squeamish these days about the cuts of meat, too. We grow up distant from the reality of the animal and only see nicely wrapped slices. And the names of cuts that are graphic, or the cuts that look very lifelike (eg tongue), have gone out of fashion. But I think all sorts of offal is coming back into fashion; certainly I've seen expensive restaurants serving it in various fancy dishes.
As for terrible meals, the worst meal I ever ate was fed to me by a very poor old woman we'd stayed with (someone's relative.) All our meals with her up to that point had consisted of bread and cheese, or soup, or beans. For our departing breakfast she made us what she obviously thought would be a real treat — cubes of pork fat fried in olive oil! I remember choking it down with polite murmurs of appreciation and afterward we sat in a bus that hurtled and bounced down a never-ending twisty mountain road. We grimly held onto our meal. LOL.
Susan Fraser King…
Like Joanna Bourne, I had a similar experience in France when I encountered a big fish on my plate in a Parisian restaurant. Whole. Tail, fins, eyes. The thing was
practically bigger than its platter. I'm squeamish about flesh foods to
start with and couldn't even begin to dig in and fillet that thing. It
was crusted in herbs and covered in butter, but it was … looking at
me. Or not, since it was cooked. The very nice waiter took it back, got it all sliced up and transformed into nicely anonymous protein, and I ate a little of it. But, having seen the poor victim of my meal in the flesh, so to speak — I didn't eat fish for a long time after that!
Being a writer of many Scottish-set novels, I've tried lots of
Scottish foods, including haggis. Most people who haven't tried it think it has to be pretty nasty, though it's actually not bad at all. I did try it years ago, but now that I don't eat meat, I've lost my haggis eligibility. My husband loves haggis, which is hard to come by in these parts except at Burns Suppers held by our Scottish friends, so any haggis that's on my plate on those January evenings I gladly pass over to him.
And if you've a taste for pastries, there's little to top a high Scottish tea for the comfort factor of sweets and carbs, with the accompanying pastries, scones and goodies (and a true high Scottish tea includes sausages and heartier fare as well as pots and pots of steaming hot tea!). As for historical Scottish foods, I'll stick with porridge and oatcakes, salmon and soups, and not even think about that peculiarly Highland delicacy: raw oats mixed with fresh blood tapped from the nearest cow.
Now that we've possibly spoiled your breakfast, lunch or dinner with our food ramblings, let us know some of your favorite strange foods — what have you tried, what do you love, and what would you never, ever touch?