Sunday, August 25, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Liver

      It could be claimed that liver barely qualifies as an exotic food, as it has to be the most common (or at least among the most common) consumed organ.  But, on the other hand, many folks do consider it distasteful, if not revolting.  Additionally, I'm running out of organs to write about, so here we go.
     This immense organ (largest of the internal organs, and second in size overall to the skin), has several functions, including detoxification, production of bile, and protein synthesis.  It also has several traditional, cultural interpretative functions.  People in Iran, Pakistan, and India have considered it to be the source of courage.  The Jewish Talmud lists it as being the source of anger, in direct contrast to the gall bladder.  The Persian word for it, "jigar" is used as an adjective for things considered attractive and desirable, including women.  The Greek God Prometheus, credited with providing fire to humanity, was of course punished by being chained to a rock, where every day his (constantly regenerating) liver is savagely eaten by a giant eagle.  (I always wondered--wouldn't the eagle get bored by this same meal every day?  If it was me I think I'd occasionally eat Prometheus's heart, or tenderloin, or something else just for variety's sake.)
      Moving to historical figures, American Western mountain man/hunter/trapper John Johnson (almost certainly an alias), said to have lived from 1824-1900, acquired the nickname "Liver-Eating Johnson."  After his Flathead Indian wife was allegedly killed by some Crow Indians, he's said to have embarked on a twenty-five year period of revenge against them.  After killing the Crows, he supposedly cannibalized their livers, since in their belief system a person needed that organ to continue into the after life.  Another account has him kidnapped by some Blackfoot Indians, who planned to get a reward for delivering him back to the Crows.  Johnson purportedly managed to escape, and ate the leg of one of the Blackfoots, this time more for survival than for insult and spiritual punishment.  The successful 1972 Robert Redford movie "Jeremiah Johnson" is based largely on Liver-Eating Johnson, but for obvious reasons they didn't include his cannibalistic exploits.  (Although I think it would have been awesome if they had.)  Also, Johnson is thought to have been born in my home state of New Jersey, so represent and all of that.
     But back to the actual food.  The livers of many animals (cows, pigs, sheep, various poultry and fish, etc.) are commonly consumed.  I've had them from cows, turkeys, chickens, and geese.  There's no denying that it has a distinctive, "organ-y" texture and flavor, which obviously many people find off-putting.  I enjoy it, but it's not something I could eat often--generally once a month at most.  Liver and onions is a traditional meal, and a nice, effective flavor pairing.  I've had the chicken and turkey livers as part of giblet gravy, which is one of the better gravies.  I also like liverwurst, usually as a sandwich, with mustard and sometimes onion again.  Liverwurst is a more milder form of liver--I ate it for lunch lots of times as a kid without realizing it was actually made from liver (I know, I know, it's right there in the name--I was young and na├»ve).  Goose liver, in the form of pate, is another way I've had it, and is also tasty.  It's almost earthy and rich, and is a nice appetizer spread on a cracker.  I've never had the opportunity to try foie gras (due to various animal cruelty laws, rarity, and cost), and probably wouldn't even if I could.  Clearly I don't have an issue with eating animal flesh/products, but I would probably draw the line here.  Force feeding using essentially a funnel (the gavage) stuck down a goose or ducks' throat does sound cruel, and perhaps unnecessary, as apparently you can get a similar effect just by letting the animals gorge of their own accord.  And of course, no mentioning of eating this organ could fail to cite fictional character Dr. Hannibal Lecter, he who loved his census taker's liver, "with fava beans and a nice chianti."  I'm not writing this blog post from a prison cell, so I haven't tried human liver myself.  And like the foie gras all over again, there'd be severe moral implications with cannibalism, so it's safe to say this won't ever change, barring a gun to my head, or being in a plane crash in the Andes, or something.
      Healthwise, liver has several nutrients, such as Vitamin A and iron.  And obviously cod liver oil is a common vitamin supplement.  One warning though--getting too much Vitamin A can be toxic, or even fatal.  Certain animals' livers, including polar bears, seals, moose, and huskies (yes, the dog) have unusually high Vitamin A concentrations, so these should be strictly avoided.  I realize that probably very few of the readers of this blog live in areas where these species live, or are part of cultures that would conceivably eat these animals, but still, a warning's a warning.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Mexican Soft Drinks, Including a Grand Experiment

     Unlike the other exotic, imported sodas I've blogged about before (Jamaican, English, Italian), Mexican soft drinks are much more readily available here in the U.S.  You can only find those others in high end groceries with very extensive selections, but even mediocre supermarkets generally have a couple of Mexican sodas for sale.  The examples discussed below are almost all Novamex products, some from their Jarritos line.  Novamex seems to have a monopoly on exports to here--I would have tried other companies' offerings for some variety, but was unable to locate any.
     I'll begin with a fairly common flavor, Jarritos fruit punch.  It's an eye-catching red color.  And it's just okay.  Granted, fruit punch is not one of my usual favorite flavors, but I was rather indifferent toward it.  I wouldn't seek this one out again.
     Happily, Jarritos Mandarin (orange flavor) is good.  Clearly, orange is a very common soda flavor, but this one holds up well.  I've gone back to this one repeatedly.  I think even the late, orange soda-loving inhabitants of Waponi Woo would have approved.  (This reference is for the other five or six people who appreciated the 1990 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie "Joe Versus the Volcano.")
     Next up is Sidral Mundet, also a Novamex product.  This one is apple flavored.  It was disappointing.  I only sensed a hint of apple flavor, and it was bland overall.  Like the fruit punch one, I don't recommend it.
     I was amused to see that there is a sangria flavored soda--Sangria Senorial, to be specific (from, you guessed it, Novamex again).  It's just the flavor, though, as it's non-alcoholic.  I'm not a big fan of real sangria, so I was surprised that I really enjoyed this.  It was nicely sweet and fruity, and I will buy it again the next time I see if offered.
     Now, as the end of this post's title mentions, I actually did an experiment here.  "Grand" is a wild exaggeration, however, a shameless ploy to try to increase readership.  In these food posts, I've often stated how certain exotic foods and beverages taste similar to more familiar variants, and I don't know if I could tell the difference in a blind taste test.  Well, this time I was able to do so.  One of the hallmarks of Mexican sodas is that they're proud to use real sugar, instead of the now typical American penchant for sweetening using high fructose corn syrup.  I was able to find each country's version of Sprite, and bought both.  I marked identical plastic cups, and poured the two different Sprites in them, mixed up the cups, and then blindly tasted both, noting my reactions.  The result was that my taste buds are evidently either patriotic, or boringly provincial, depending on one's point of view.  I liked the high fructose corn syrup Sprite better.  The Mexican, sugar-sweetened one tasted weird, and had a sour aftertaste.  Admittedly, this wasn't a strict, double blind, lab-type experiment, but for the purposes of a blog post I think it was sufficient.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Top 10 Horror/Sci Fi Movies with Movies Within Them

     For a change, today I'd like to discuss something that relates back to some of my own published writing.  As readers of previous posts may know, one of my ebooks, "Dead Reckoning," concerns  a team of low budget filmmakers shooting a zombie movie in an isolated wooded state park.  Unbeknownst to them, a group of Luddite campers are also in the area.  Due to some coincidences, misunderstandings, and bad decisions, mayhem and murder ensue.
     The movies listed below have a similar type of thing happening.  Some are pseudo-documentaries, or "found footage" movies, or they have movies shown within them as a significant part of the story.  Some minor spoilers ahead.

1) "Cannibal Holocaust" (1980), Ruggero Deodato, director.  This is the granddaddy of all "found footage" movies.  A documentary team investigating possible cannibals has disappeared.  The first half or so follows an anthropologist's search for them, and his finding of their film canisters.  The second half is the footage itself.  We learn along the way that the missing team (leader Alan, his script girl/lover Faye, and his cameramen Jack and Mark) is horribly unethical and immoral, and completely unsympathetic.  The audience relates to the cannibals, as they suffer various abuses before they take their bloody revenge.  I'm a huge horror movie fan, and this remains one of the most powerfully disturbing films I've seen.  You don't "enjoy" it in the normal sense, you endure it.  As a marketing ploy, Deodato had his principal actors agree to stay out of the public eye, to fool people into thinking that the movie was real.  Eventually he had to produce them to avoid being arrested for filming actual murders!  Alas, he went overboard in another way, too.  Be forewarned, he stupidly and needlessly (since he did have special effects artists) killed real animals in the movie.

2) "Videodrome" (1983), David Cronenberg, director.  An executive of a small television station looking to push the envelope on edgy programming gets embroiled in possible snuff films, a TV feed which may cause hallucinations and brain tumors, and general bizarreness.  I can't go into much more detail about the plot, because I can't say I fully understand what goes on!  It's one of those movies where you're not always sure what's really happening, and what's being imagined by the characters.  Still worth watching, in my opinion.  Star James Woods gives a great performance, as usual  The found footage scenes are very disturbing, as are some of the weird, imagined? occurrences--a TV/VCR starts coming to life, men start growing vagina-like slits in their bellies, etc.  Few filmmakers do "body horror" as well as Cronenberg.

3) "Demons" (1985), Lamberto Bava, director, Dario Argento producer/cowriter.  Passersby are invited to a free screening of a mysterious movie shown in a Berlin theater.  The movie shown is about a bunch of young people who disturb Nostradamus's grave, resulting in one becoming possessed by (of course) a demon.  Meanwhile, in the theater, life imitates art, as a person is possessed in a similar way, from some objects evidently shown in the movie itself.  Disaster strikes as the moviegoers learn that they're trapped inside, and that the demons infect everyone that they claw.  This movie is gratuitously violent and gory, but energetic and a lot of fun to watch.  The acting and plotting are typical low budget horror fare--mediocre at best, inept at worst, but it's still claustrophobic and frightening.  One of the highlights is an infected woman giving birth to a vicious ugly monster out of her back.

4) "Demons 2" (1986), Bava and Argento again.  Decent sequel.  In this one, residents in a high-rise apartment building are watching a documentary concerning the demon outbreak in "Demons."  As before, the situation is transported from the screen into real life, resulting in another outbreak.  In this film, though, this happens in a more literal way--a demon somehow senses it's being watched, and it claws its way through a TV screen into our reality.  Like the previous entry, the story is deliriously paced, wildly violent/gory, and compulsively entertaining.

5) "The Blair Witch Project" (1999), Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, directors.  I'm guessing most people have heard of this one--like in "Cannibal Holocaust," a group of documentary filmmakers have disappeared on their project, an investigation in a woods that supposedly has an evil witch haunting it.  We the audience are purportedly seeing the lost and then found footage.  This movie seems to be polarizing--people seem to either find it boring and the characters annoying, or they think it's incredibly scary.  I myself enjoyed it.  Clearly, I like over the top, grossly violent horror a lot, but I also can appreciate more subtle, psychological horror, too.  I thought this movie worked effectively, and I admired the filmmakers' creative, ad-lib approach in filming it.  And the marketing was near-genius, since many people actually believed that the story was true for a time.

6) "REC" (2007), Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, directors.  Spanish movie that has seen several sequels and a Hollywood remake.  A documentary crew following firefighters joins them as they're called to an apartment building.  Once inside, they discover that the inhabitants have become rabid(?), and  are attacking everyone in sight.  Through various reasons the crew and some firefighters/police are trapped inside with them.  Towards the end we discover a nasty surprise about why this is happening.  This movie was a tad overrated, I thought, but still worth a look.  The filmmakers made good use of the hand-held cameras, generally poor lighting, etc., to increase the tension.  Haven't seen the remake or sequels as of yet.

7) "Cloverfield" (2008), Matt Reeves, director, J.J. Abrams producer.  Like "Blair Witch" this movie seems to inspire either love or hate.  A giant sea monster runs amok in Manhattan, and a group of 20-somethings are filming the entire thing live.  I guess I'm in the minority, as I thought it was decent but not great.  They wisely keep the monster mostly unseen until the end, which works well for the story.  The confusion and feeling that you're in the action is compelling, too.  I especially liked the smaller, parasites of the monster that disturbingly attack some of the characters, and the footage with the partially collapsed skyscrapers (I have some fear of heights).  But, as with all pseudo-documentaries, there is the plot hole of, "Why do these people keep filming, instead of running away from the monster/demons/danger?"

8) "District 9" (2009), Neill Blomkamp, director, Peter Jackson producer.  I thought this film was a bit overrated, too, but still okay.  It's about aliens who have come to Earth, and are now forced to live in poverty-stricken internment camps.  A government official is filmed partially documentary-style interacting with the weird, insectoid looking E.T.'s, and then gets involved in a weapons and gene splicing conspiracy.  It doesn't take a film expert to recognize the obvious "aliens equal oppressed racial minority" subtext, especially since it takes place in South Africa.  I did appreciate the grittiness of the whole affair, which made it seem more realistic.

9) "The Last Exorcism" (2010), Daniel Stamm, director, Eli Roth producer.  A cynical minister agrees to be filmed by a documentary team as he performs his titular last exorcism, of a young woman who lives in backwoods Louisiana.  Throughout most of the film we're not sure whether the girl (Nell), is actually possessed, or simply exhibiting mental problems, which seem to be made worse by the family's stifling religious atmosphere.  The ending does offer a conclusive answer to this, and some viewers have criticized this.  (Personally, I didn't mind the ending.)  I thought the acting and writing were a cut above the normal low budget horror outing.  Ashley Bell (Nell) and Patrick Fabian (Rev. Marcus) were especially good.  And although most of the uneasy scenes are of the subtle variety, I still found the film to be quite disturbing and scary.

10) "Trollhunter" (2010), Andre Ovredal, director.  Norwegian found-footager about a documentary crew who come to investigate, obviously, a troll hunter.  I really loved this movie.  In particular, I liked the way they presented trolls as a real animal, with scientifically-plausible explanations for some of their attributes--multiple heads, aversion to sunlight, etc.  Given the sometimes gargantuan sizes of the trolls, much of the effects are necessarily CGI (which I sometimes am not a fan of).  However, these are well done, and with rare exceptions were very convincing.

     Finally, for any new readers of this blog, if you're interested, you can find short descriptions and excerpts of both my ebooks--"Dead Reckoning" and "Kaishaku," either in this blog (August 2012 posts) or at the Musa Publishing website (www.musapublishing.com)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Raw Meats

     It probably almost goes without saying that eating raw foods entails some serious risks.  Several viral and bacteriological diseases can be spread via raw foods, as can, obviously, a slew of revolting parasitic worms.  Many of these conditions can even be fatal.  So bear this in mind, and be careful.  If you do partake, make sure as best as you can that the restaurants, or preparers are sanitary and know what they're doing.  So maybe don't eat raw meat from a seedy gas station, or if it's being sold out of the trunk of a crappy car.
     First up is a fairly recent (about 100-200 years old) Western European innovation, steak tartare.  This is most commonly raw beef or horse mixed with capers, pepper, onions, and sometimes garnished with a raw egg.  I had this once at a French restaurant in Washington, D.C.  I enjoyed it--it was weird eating raw beef at first, and cold beef at that, but the flavor of the meat was tasty.  Other variants include using tuna, salmon, goat, lamb, or venison.  I'd definitely like to have this again, and to sample the other tartare meats, too.
     Next up is ceviche, which is raw fish marinated in citrus juices (usually lemons or limes) and chili peppers, salt, onions, and sometimes coriander.  The invention of this dish is shrouded in mystery, with various South American and Central American nations claiming it.  My favorite, most convoluted theory is that Moorish women from Granada accompanied the Spanish into Peru and developed it there about 500 years ago.  Whatever the true story, the Peruvians consider it part of their national heritage, and even have a holiday for it.  I had this at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C.  Again, I really liked it.  Since I'm a big sushi fan, this wasn't a surprise.  It was distinct from sushi, though, as the spices and citrus juices gave it a different, pleasing tangy-ness.  Sea bass is the traditional fish used, but octopus, squid, mackerel, and tuna are also utilized.  I think the one I ate was tuna.  Again, I recommend it highly.
     The final stop on our culinary world tour is Africa, specifically Ethiopia.  The dish is gored gored, made using raw beef.  It's similar to one of the national dishes, kitfo (also ketfo), although it's not marinated like kitfo is.  Gored Gored is (dry) spiced with hot peppers, garlic, ginger, and sometimes with other spices like salt, cloves, and cinnamon.  I've had it several times, most often in, once again, Washington D.C.  (A weird coincidence for this post--I do eat exotic foods elsewhere.). I adore gored gored--it's phenomenal.  It's got a great spicy "bite" to it, but you can still taste the delightful flavor of the raw beef itself.  I crave this dish often.  Word of warning, though--the spice takes its toll.  The morning after I typically have, shall we say, digestive issues.  But I refuse to learn a lesson here--it's definitely worth it.  Part of the problem is that I invariably eat too much--I bet if I exercised some restraint the problems the next day would be avoided or minimized.  (Also, I find the name amusing, as it's close to Gor Gor, a homicidal dinosaur character from the heavy metal/hardcore band GWAR's stage show and lineup years ago.)
     So, if you're feeling slightly adventurous (and definitely aren't pregnant), you might want to give one or all of these a go.  In addition, if you like to pretend you're, say, a lion while you tear into some meal, or a zombie, raw meats lend themselves more easily to this silly, immature (but fun) practice.