Sunday, November 25, 2012

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Octopus

     I find the octopus to be quite a fascinating creature.  First off, its structure is odd.  Their bodies are essentially a long head with eight arms coming off of it, each covered in powerful suction cups.  Then there’s their extreme flexibility.  Because of their incredibly soft bodies (their weird birdlike beak mouth is the only solid part) they can squeeze through ridiculously small spaces.  Many of them also have the ability to change colors, due to mood swings or to mimic other animals.  Or, they also have venom.  Every octopus has some, although only the blue-ringed octopus has venom that can kill a human.  We’re not done talking about their defenses, though, as they have their signature ink spraying, enabling them to escape potential predators.  This ink also appears to interfere with predator’s odor detection, so animals with excellent senses of smell, like sharks, are often thwarted by this weapon as well.
     But the hallmark of the octopus is its intelligence.  They are among the smartest, if not the smartest, of all invertebrates.  Admittedly, this sounds like being the most hardcore rapper in Utah, but it’s true—studies have shown that they can learn, problem solve, and even use tools.  I’d stop short of having them take a crack at your advanced physics homework, but still, their intelligence is rather respectable.  I’ll illuminate this with two examples.  The first is from an aquarium in Germany.  One particular octopus had become known as a troublemaker.  Due to apparent boredom (another sign of possible higher intelligence), it reacted by rearranging the objects in its tank (which upset the fellow inhabitants), throwing rocks at the tank’s glass walls, and even by juggling some of the hermit crabs.  Then the aquarium started having problems with its electrical system—in a certain area the power kept going out, threatening some of the temperature-sensitive fish that required heaters, or filters, etc.  The aquarium staff soon discovered that the octopus was the culprit for this too—it had learned how to open its tank top, climb up, and to shoot water from its mouth at a light which evidently annoyed it, causing electrical shorts.
     A friend told me another anecdote, from a television show she’d seen.   A pet store was suffering mysterious fish disappearances.  After this went on for awhile they set up more security cameras, and discovered something funny.  Their resident octopus had learned how to open its tank, and then it rapelled itself over to other tanks, opened them, dropped down inside, ate some fish, and then returned to its home.  What I find most impressive about this is not just that it figured out how to escape (although that’s cool in and of itself), but it had the presence of mind to correctly reclose the tanks it fed from, and its own.
     You may be thinking, okay, they’re cool, interesting animals, but are they good eating?  My answer is an emphatic yes.  I’ve had them frequently at sushi restaurants, in two forms.  Most places serve the adult, usually a piece of a tentacle, with part of their suction cups still attached.  Granted, this last detail takes some getting used to, but the taste is very good.  They’re definitely chewy, but in a good way.  Baby octopus sushi is rarer, and involves consuming the entire body whole.  The babies are more tender, and also delicious, plus you can pretend to be, say, a gigantic sperm whale or another leviathan sea creature.  Finally, I’ve also had them canned, like sardines.  They don’t taste quite as good as the fresh sushi, but it’s still very decent.  I’ve even had them packed in their own ink, which I find darkly hilarious.  How insulting to the octopus that they use one of its own defenses as a sauce!  (Incidentally, the ink tastes good, but it does tend to stain the teeth.)
     A friend of mine who’s a militant herbivore took me to a special all-vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan some years ago.  I ordered the “mocktopus”—faux octopus made mostly from taro root, as I recall.  It was incredible.  Somehow they got the texture, color and even flavor right.  I don’t know if I could have told the difference if a switch had been made.  Sadly, I can’t recommend one of the restaurant’s beverages, though.  I sampled some sort of grass drink, and it tasted well, like grass, like they’d emptied a lawnmower’s catch bag and ran that through a blender and served it up.  Just awful!  The berry flavored smoothy was a marked improvement.
     One final point about any octopus post is one of spelling and usage—that is, what’s the proper plural of octopus?  Is it octopuses?  Octopi?  There are two correct plurals—octopuses and octopodes.  This latter one is considered outmoded, however, and I just noticed my computer’s spell check has red-underlined it, kind of reinforcing this distinction.  Octopi is incorrect, as users are mistaking octopus as being a Latin noun.  It is, however, based on a Greek word, so octopi doesn’t work.  The 2008 Oxford English Dictionary lists all three as okay, although it acknowledges that octopi is a misapprehension.  Fowler’s Modern English Usage is amusingly bitchy about it—it lists octopuses as “correct,” octopodes as “pedantic,” and octopi as “misconceived.”  So I hope this leads to fewer fights when you discuss more than one octopus with any English major or marine biologist friends who are sticklers for language accuracy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Golden Tomatoes

     With Thanksgiving being upon us, I thought I’d share some local history from my home state, New Jersey.  So picture this.  It’s September 26th, 1820, at the courthouse in a South Jersey town named Salem.  Garden State witch burning?  No, it’s something even more dangerous—tomato eating.  For you see, up until this point, people in the U.S. all think that tomatoes are deadly.  And a certain Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson has announced that he will eat not one, but an entire basket of tomatoes, right here on the courthouse steps.  A crowd of about 2,000 people has gathered to watch this man consign himself to a horrible death.  (Which sounds pretty morbid, but hey, it’s the 1820’s—entertainment options are fairly limited.)  Johnson’s own physician, Dr. James Van Meter, is quoted as saying, “The foolish Colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis.  All that oxalic acid in one dose and you’re dead.  Should he, by some unlikely chance, survive, I must warn him that the skin will stick to his stomach, and cause cancer.”  He also contends that Johnson is risking getting “brain fever.”
     Johnson, however, is undeterred.  He’s Jamaican-born, and brought back tomatoes from Europe back in 1808, and has been encouraging his neighbors to cultivate them since then, even going so far as to offer prizes for the largest fruit.  Some of them have done this, but only for ornamental plants—none of them are so stupid as to eat the dreaded tomatoes themselves.  Tomatoes are often known by other names at the time—the French call them “love apples” while others call them “wolf peaches.”  This last one is because the tomato plant is a member of the nightshade family, which is purported to be connected with werewolves.
     A band starts to play a funeral dirge, further emphasizing the mood.  High noon arrives.  And Johnson takes a bite!  The crowd gasps in horror.  Those of a more delicate constitution probably look away, or even faint.  The good Colonel takes another bite and another, finishing AN ENTIRE TOMATO!  Amazingly, he keeps going, eating several more and then…NOTHING HAPPENS!  His appendix doesn’t burst, his brain remains at a normal temperature, and he’s fine.  People realize, huh, guess we were wrong, and start to eat tomatoes themselves.  And thanks to the brave (if kind of grandiose) Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, America embraces the tomato, paving the way for countless tasty treats like better salads, chili, and pizza.
     Quite a story, right?  We here in Dirty Jersey take a lot of ridicule, but this is one thing we can be proud of, a time when Jersey stepped up and showed the rest of the U.S. that they were dumb cowards.  Except—whoops, this account is almost certainly folklore.  Ultimately, this tale is about as truthful as another Jersey legend—the Jersey Devil.  There was a Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson (1771-1850), who did live in Salem, NJ, but pretty much everything else about this story is made up or at least highly exaggerated.  The source of this story was reportedly an old farm journal written 86 years after the alleged event, which apparently just said that Johnson ate a tomato in 1820.  Later accounts, especially in the 1940’s, filled in the rest of the sordid, entertaining details.
     Tomatoes are native to Central and South America, and people have been growing and consuming them for at least 1500-2000 years.  Cortez (or possibly Columbus) introduced them to Europe in the early 1500’s.  The Spanish, Italians, and French all took to this new plant, and have been eating them ever since.  While the English, and English-American colonists, were slower to eat tomatoes, it didn’t take until 1820, and it wasn’t from Johnson’s bravery.  Thomas Jefferson himself was growing them in 1809, and they’re found on Presidential menus since 1806.
     But, back to the golden tomato (I bet you thought I’d never get back to my post’s title topic).  I had them for the first time earlier this year.  They were the same size as cherry tomatoes, only a yellow color.  The comparison to cherry tomatoes continued with the taste—they were maybe a little bit sweeter, but very similar.  I don’t know if I could distinguish between them in a blind taste test.  Now you probably realize why I spent so much time on the tomato folklore, to fill out the post of a just barely exotic, borderline unusual really, food item.  Also I looked it up, and apparently a “golden tomato” is a regional term, or my supermarket’s name.  Checking out the list of tomato types, I probably ate a “yellow pear” tomato.  And I certainly liked them a lot—but I’m a sucker for tomatoes, ever since I was paid one penny for every cherry tomato my plant produced for the family dinner table when I was about five.  (I grossed probably dozens of cents.)
     No discussion of tomatoes would be complete without getting into that thorny debate—are they vegetables, or fruit?  To botanists this has been settled long ago—since they’re ripened ovaries of the plant, they’re fruit, end of story.  However, many folks still lump them in with vegetables, since their taste is undeniably more traditional veggie-like.  I was amused to see that this argument went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  On May 10th, 1893, the Supreme Court ruled in Nix vs. Hedden that despite what the scientists claim, they’re legally considered vegetables, because they’re commonly eaten with dinner, and not as a dessert.  Before you get all enraged and start writing angry missives to the Highest Court in the Land, belatedly protesting their waste of time on food trivia, I should mention that there was a practical matter involved.  At the time fruit was not taxed, while vegetables were, and farmers used this sort-of loophole to their advantage.  But clearly this disagreement wasn’t truly settled.  Tomatoes are the official state vegetable of my home state, while they’re the official state fruit of Ohio (and the juice is Ohio’s official state beverage).  Arkansas covers its ass by having the tomato be both the official state fruit and official state vegetable.
     All this talk about the tomato has reminded me of something, so you’ll get a bonus film review—Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.  I had high hopes going in—the title is a classic, and I’m often a huge fan of so-bad-they’re-good films.  Alas, I was profoundly disappointed.  It simply wasn’t very funny.  I only remember chuckling at one scene (SPOILER ALERT), when a human spy who’s infiltrated the Killer Tomatoes blows his cover by asking for ketchup to season his supper.  It was amateurish in every way.  So bad it was just bad, I’m afraid.
     Finally, as is traditional, I’d like to say that on this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for folklore, no matter how silly and obscure it is.  In fact, the more absurd, the better.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Haggis

     Today I’d like to discuss haggis, the dish that is as quintessentially Scottish as bagpipes, kilts, Nessie, Groundskeeper Willie, and, well, Scotch (whiskey).  Let’s start with the unsavory aspects first—the ingredients.  Haggis is made mostly from sheep’s pluck, which is an adorable euphemism for the liver, heart, and lungs, which are then mixed with oatmeal, suet, onion, salt, spices and stock, all simmered together in the sheep’s stomach.  So, essentially, it’s a rather bizarre collection, a parody of forced cannibalism.  The purist in me was rather disappointed to learn that modern haggis sometimes omits the stomach and uses sausage casing as the “meat bag.”  But I suppose if it’s real sausage casing it’s using an organ just down the road a piece, intestinal casing rather than the actual stomach.  Traditionally haggis is served with “neeps and tatties” (turnips and potatoes), washed down with a glass of your favorite Scotch.
     This however, is just the basic form—modern chefs have experimented and come up with different presentations.  For example, a “Haggis Supper” is haggis that’s deep fried and served with chips (or French fries, to Americans).  A “Haggis Burger” is deep fried haggis on a bun.  A “Haggis Pakora” is a fried haggis variant served in Indian restaurants.  A “Flying Scotsman” is chicken breast stuffed with haggis.  And a “Chicken Balmoral” is the same as the Flying Scotsman, only the chicken is then wrapped in bacon—kind of like a Scottish version of TurDuckEn, only with a pig/chicken/sheep meat mixture.  Our vegetarian friends don’t have to be excluded, either, as there’s a version made using pulse (beans), nuts and veggies in place of meat.
     In tracing the culinary lineage of haggis, though, I was shocked to read that it’s probably not a Scottish invention.  A precursor dish is mentioned in Homer’s The Odyssey, and some believe that the ancient Romans made it, or at least a primitive form of it.  Based on linguistic evidence, others claim that the Norman French or the Scandanavians invented it, or at least introduced it to Scotland and the British Isles.  Putting that aside, it’s also thought that the haggis format was developed as a way for hunters to preserve fast decaying organs (like the heart, lungs, and liver) quickly, and while still in the field.  The first haggis recipe is actually found in a Lancashire (Northwest England) book dating to about 1430, the Liber Cure Cocorum.  (In a delightfully creative mix of literary genres, this is a “verse cookbook”—the recipes are rhyming poems.)
     Regardless of who invented it, it can’t be denied that the Scottish were the most avid embracers of haggis.  Poet Robert Burns is given the bulk of the credit for causing this with his 1787 poem “Address to a Haggis.”  Since then it’s become a huge part of their heritage, their national dish, in fact.  As such it’s available year round in their supermarkets, and it’s a common restaurant choice, too.
     But let’s get to my review (finally).  I’ve had it three or four times, all from a can.  I got these at a Scottish festival, and at a Scottish bakery.  (In a departure from usual practice, I’m intentionally not going to give the locations of these, for reasons that will be explained later.)  But long story short, I’m a major fan.  It’s certainly very reminiscent of a sausage, but it has a little je ne sais quoi, if I can use a French expression for a Scottish food.  Maybe it’s the lungs, but it has a distinct flavor and odor of its own—different, unusual, but good.  It’s a little mealy, but somehow in a positive way.  For those grossed out by the ingredient list, it’s similar to a sausage, or hot dog, in that it’s ground up and mixed enough that you can’t pick out, say, recognizable pieces of heart or anything.  Plus I’m sure that like pretty much every food, fresh haggis must taste even better.  Really, it’s quite delicious, and writing this post has given me a strong craving for it.
     But here’s the weird thing about haggis (okay, here’s another weird thing about it)—it’s apparently illegal in the U.S.A., or at least importing authentic Scottish haggis into the States has been banned since 1971 because of the sheep lungs in it.  So the haggis I purchased may have been illegal, which is why I didn’t name names or places—I don’t want to metaphorically bite the hand that fed me tasty sheep offal.  (It’s possible, of course, that I bought haggis made from the real ingredients, but it was legal because it was technically made in the U.S.  Alas, I didn’t save the cans, and I can’t recall the company name, so I can’t check this.  I will say that I have a strong memory of it being Scottish made, so inadvertently I may be a Food Desperado, a diner who plays by his own rules.  (Aren’t you impressed by what a badass I am?))
     Here’s some more haggis trivia.  The record for hurling a one and a half pound haggis (the stereotypical Scottish shot put, I guess) is 217 feet, by Lorne Coltart.  The record for throwing the most haggis down one’s throat in eight minutes is three pounds, by competitive eater Eric “Steakbellie” Livingston.
     Finally, the Scottish have developed a bit of folklore about haggis, telling na├»ve tourists that it’s actually an native animal which has the curious mutation of having the legs on one side of its body be longer than the other, so it can better run around steep Scottish slopes without falling down.  So their version of the jackalope, hoop snake, or squonk, etc.  I’m embarrassed to see that Americans are reportedly particularly gullible about the haggis tall tale—evidently one third of them believe it.

P.S.  I also recommend the Scottish Festivals in general.  The one I went to (and I assume it was typical of the style) had various Scottish bands, products, and obviously food and drink.  Also an entertaining border collie herding show, and several new and different athletic events.  These including hurling hale bales, and giant iron weights, and, most impressively, caber tossing, which is basically throwing a telephone pole.  (Really.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Brass Monkey

     I first heard of a Brass Monkey when I was in high school, from the Beastie Boys (RIP Adam Yauch) song of the same name (I also learned about White Castle from them).  Back then, alas, drinking was limited to whatever beer was at a party (usually cheap swill) or whatever liquor could be stolen from parents’ liquor cabinets, so needless to say, I didn’t get a chance to sample it.  I wasn’t even sure if it really existed, or it was just a joke.
     This all changed in college.  The first couple of years were frustrating, as no one I talked to knew about it, and after I turned legal the bartenders I asked replied with blank stares.  Finally, my friends and I discovered it, at the liquor store, in the form of a premixed cocktail from Heublein.  It was rum, vodka, and natural flavors, and was pretty strong, being 17.5% alcohol.  The taste was somewhat harsh, but good—it was lemonade-y in flavor, and best over ice.
     After college, they stopped selling it, and it kind of faded from my memory.  About fifteen years later it came up again, with a huge difference.  These new drinkers claimed it was malt liquor mixed with orange juice.  This sounded awful to me, but feeling nostalgic and experimental, I gave it a try.  The “preparation” consisted of drinking the malt liquor down to the top of the label, and then topping it off with the orange juice.  Surprisingly, the result was very palatable.  I’m not normally a big fan of malt liquor in general (Mickey’s, in my opinion is the best of the lot, and even that’s just okay) but the OJ really added something to it.  I was confused, though, on the disparity between the two drinks I’d had with the same name.
     And in fact, it gets even stranger.  There’s a third variant, which is made from gin, triple sec, tequila, OJ, sour mix, and grapefruit juice.  I know that drink recipes sometimes list different ingredients, but usually there’s much more common ground.  Essentially, it seems depending on the crowd or the area you live in any alcohol mixed with any citrus juice or flavor can be called a Brass Monkey.
     Tracing the drink’s name is a little convoluted, too.  Heublein, which began making the prepackaged version in 1972, had an ad campaign which claimed it was based on a World War II spy named H.E. Rasske, who ran guns into China while operating out of a bar in Macao named The Brass Monkey, which also served a drink by that name, and this became Rasske’s code name.  It’s also a British expression—“it’s cold enough to freeze the tail of a brass monkey!” (or in the 20th century, his balls), based on the common figurine/statues of such.  Taking it further, the derivation of the statue/figurine brass monkey has a couple of stories, too.  Some claim it’s the brass plate that helped keep cannonballs piled up and unrusted, while others claim it refers to the metal spheres mounted on brass arms on either side of ship’s compasses, to offset any magnetic shifts.  Evidently the latter is considered more likely.
     Back to the drink itself, I can certainly recommend it for folks looking to try something a little different.  Happily the original prepackaged version is now available again, from Diageo, (which is the same company that owns Guinness) after they got it from one of the companies that absorbed Heublein.  Or you can try the gin, triple sec, tequila, etc. type, although as I mentioned, you’ll most likely have to tell the bartender the ingredients.  Finally, there’s the malt liquor—OJ mix, which has the advantage of being cheap, and it helps to stave off scurvy (of importance if you’re drinking with time-traveling 17th century sailors).*  I’ll close with the ending of the Beastie Boys song.
               “We got the bottle—you got the cup”
               “Come on everybody let’s get fff…” **
*Actually, if you are drinking with 17th century sailors, maybe ask them which nautical explanation for “brass monkey” is correct, and then get back to me.
**  I didn’t censor this—it’s the actual lyrics, which cut to the chorus to avoid completing the naughty word, kind of like Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft.”


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Coffin Hop Contest Results

    I'd just like to announce that the winner of my contest giveaway was Clarissa Johal.  Congrats, Clarissa, you're entitled to a free copy of either "Dead Reckoning" or "Kaishaku."  I'll contact you and we can work out the details.
    Also, thanks to everyone who stopped by--hope you had as much fun hopping about as I did.  And finally, thanks to Axel and Julie over at Coffin Hop for setting up and hosting the event.