With Halloween looming like a ghostly figure in the dark, my culinary compass turns toward scary foods. I’m often asked about my worst restaurant dining experiences. But I’ve been lucky. After more than 500 City Weekly restaurant reviews, I’ve had very few scary dining encounters. That is, if you discount the canned, over-rehearsed faux enthusiasm of servers at franchise restaurants. Those performances are truly scary. And I’ve certainly had my fair share of mediocre and even appalling meals. But amazingly, I’ve encountered little in the way of bad (i.e., rotten) food. The only time I’ve ever gotten poisoned by anything I ate was at an airport restaurant in Houston—which is just one of many reasons to avoid Houston.
In truth, I was weaned on scary foods. My mother’s cooking was frightening. The foundation of her culinary philosophy seemed to be that if it was edible, it could be cooked in grease. An iron frying pan was her favorite weapon, and I don’t recall my mother ever using our oven. Morning toast was cooked in bacon fat and so was the SPAM we frequently dined on for dinner, with a side of either apple or pineapple rings—you guessed it—fried in fat. Pork chops were fried in oil and so was chicken, with no breading, batter, or coating of any kind. Steaks were fried in fat. Everything was cooked well-done. When the trend of stir-frying came along sometime in the late ’70s, and my mom purchased a Teflon wok, I moved out. I’m still aghast at what she was able to do to shrimp in that thing.
Luckily, I grew up as a military brat, and lived in more countries by the time I was 12 than most people ever visit in a lifetime. Even more luckily, my family often employed housekeepers and/or cooks who—at least some of the time—liberated us from my mother’s cooking. It’s for this reason that I was introduced to scary foods at an early age. Raw fish for breakfast might seem scary, unless you’ve had deep-fried SPAM for dinner the night before.
I’d eaten Spanish paella long before I ever tasted a hamburger. And I ate sushi before I ever tried pizza, thanks to our Japanese maid who helped feed my family for about five years from the time I was 6. I don’t even recall eating cooked fish until I was in my teens, when I discovered Long John Silver’s. But it’s hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t eat raw hamachi, squid, octopus and those oily little sardines my father loved with a glass of beer.
I suppose the notion of scary foods is largely a culturally based one. The idea of chomping into a rare-cooked rib eye steak would be scary and appalling to a Hindu. By the same token, most Americans don’t snack on grasshoppers, but some Mexicans do. And that’s a food I had to overcome my fear of when I spent a blistering summer in Oaxaca, Mexico. Vendors stroll around the “zocalo” in the city of Oaxaca selling fried grasshoppers from large woven baskets. Thankfully, the Oaxacan grasshoppers are on the small side. And when sautÃ©ed in hot oil, sprinkled with chile powder, and spritzed with fresh lime juice, they have a slightly smoky, nutty taste. Betcha can’t eat just one!
My first grasshopper was scary, but not as scary as my first caterpillar. My memories of dining on crunchy caterpillars (“gusanitos de maguey”) in Mexico are hazy, but the toasted little butterfly larvae that I munched on at a mescal distillery outside of Puebla really weren’t too bad after a couple glasses of mescal and freshly brewed pulque.
Now if you find eating grasshoppers and caterpillars disgusting, consider how normal and even elegant we treat the eating of snails in high-end restaurants. Of course, we don’t call them snails, but “escargot.” Is eating escargot in a fancy French restaurant really any more civilized than a fistful of caterpillars? And I can’t even imagine how hungry the first guy to eat a lobster must have been.
Living in Brazil means eating “feijoada” on Sundays. It’s the Brazilian national dish—a rich, dark stew of black beans and pork that African slaves in Brazil created from their owners’ leftover food scraps. Even today, feijoada still seems like leftovers. I had feijoada at the Brazilian superstar Gilberto Gil’s house once; now he’s Brazil’s minister of culture. The key ingredients were pigs’ ears, snouts and feet. It’s not that Gil couldn’t afford better cuts of meat for his feijoada, but that he had a desire having to do with historical continuity to keep this dish un-modernized, scary though it might be. And before you write off feijoada as low-end Third World cookery, consider that my German grandmother used to make us “schweinsohren,” pigs ears coated in bread crumbs and deep-fried in lard. Every country and culture has its scary foods.
I’ve had rats run across my foot in an Indian restaurant and have been driven out of a Belgian bistro by bats. But I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as scared in a restaurant as the time that Takashi Gibo, then a sushi chef at Shogun, shoved a helping of live baby crabs in front of me. Sitting at the Shogun sushi bar, I’d asked him to rustle up something exotic for my friend Al and me. Minutes later Takashi appeared with a tureen full of small, live, very vigorous crabs about the size of pingpong balls. “This,” I thought, “is where I draw the line. I will not eat a live crab, not matter how petite it may be.”
Thankfully, there is a happy ending to this story. It turns out that Takashi’s impish crabs were lightly dusted with flour and deep-fried before consumption, which made a big difference to me and Al (and probably also to the crabs). In fact, Takashi has scored twice on my Scare-O-Meter insofar as he recently, at his new namesake restaurant, made me eat monkfish liver. The idea made me queasy. Now I’m a monkfish liver lover.
So, wanna know what really scares me? An all-you-can-eat shrimp bowl. Now that’s scary.