Monday, January 26, 2015

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Jellyfish

     First off, the common name is a misnomer; jellyfish aren’t actually fish, and aren’t even vertebrates (some folks call them “jellies” to clear up this misconception).  A backbone isn’t the only body part they lack—they’re also missing specialized respiratory, digestive, circulatory, and central nervous systems.  Their “brains” are merely nerve nets.  Most don’t even have true eyes—they might have, at best, sensory organs which can detect light.  Also, most don’t even truly swim.  They just drift along in the current.  Despite this, jellyfish are carnivorous, as they sweep up other small organisms that become tangled in their tentacles and pass close by their bodies.  Like flatworms, they have a rather disturbing attribute; one hole serves as both a mouth and an anus.  Jellyfish structurally consist of a main body, or “bell,” with tentacles extending from this.  Their bodies are typically roundish in shape, or squarish.  All of these primitive characteristics aren’t surprising, given that they’re so ancient a species.  Really ancient.  Like 500-700 million years old.  They are, actually, the oldest multi-organ animal.  So they’re primitive and simple, to the extreme, but it’s sure worked well for them.
     There is a fair bit of variety within the species.  Some types reproduce asexually, others sexually.  Most are marine, but a few can live in fresh water.  Most dramatically, some are less than an inch long, while others, counting their extended tentacles, can be over a hundred feet long.  The heaviest one is the Nomura’s Jellyfish, which body ranges up to a two meter (6.6 feet) diameter, and weighs up to 200 kilograms, or 440 pounds.
     But when we discuss jellyfish, there’s the animal’s most distinctive trait—their sting.  When I was a child swimming off the coast of Ocean City, NJ, I encountered this several times.  As I recall, late summer was the worst time, when they would be plentiful.  These jellyfish, which were about 6 inches to a foot in diameter, fortunately had relatively minor stings.  Slight pain and some skin irritation was about the extent of it.
     Some jellyfish aren’t so comparatively harmless, though.  Some types can cause significant pain, or even kill people.  The worst kind is the box jellyfish family, which is native mainly to the tropical Indian Ocean and western and central Pacific, although some species are found off the coast of Japan, California, the Mediterranean Sea, South Africa, and New Zealand.  They are potent enough that during certain times of the year beaches are closed because of their peak periods.  And unlike most jellyfish, this type has true eyes, and actively hunts its prey.
     The absolute worst, though, is the subspecies of box jellyfish called irukandji (found mainly off the coasts of Australia and Malaysia, but occasionally found in the waters off of Florida, Japan, and even the British Isles).  This jellyfish can be tiny, less than the size of a person’s fingernail, but packs a whallop.  I can remember seeing a nature documentary where scientists were studying it.  Two of them accidently got stung while diving, and the viewer got to see them writhing in agony in the hospital.  Sufferers of what’s called “irukandji syndrome” get symptoms like headache, nausea, sweating, vomiting, excruciating muscle cramps, severe back and kidney pain, burning skin, and even a psychological effect of feelings of impending doom.  Another victim described the pain thusly; the worst peak of pain during childbirth was like the minimum level of the irukandji pain.  This pain can last for days, and lingering symptoms for weeks.  It’s not uncommon for sufferers to beg doctors to kill them to end their misery.  So, in closing, if you see a warning about box jellyfish, or especially irukandji, in the waters where you’re thinking of swimming, I’d emphatically heed them.
     Even though they’re such a common sea animal, jellyfish don’t seem to be a very popular food item.  Evidently only the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese really like them.  I’ve only seen them on the menu a few times, at Japanese and Chinese restaurants.  The most recent time I sampled them was at the same place I had sea cucumber (see November 22, 2014 post).  On the plate they look like clear whitish to light brownish strips of gelatinous flesh.  Most are flavored with vinegar, and/or soy sauce.  It wasn’t a strong taste, but it was okay.  The texture was similar to that of seaweed salads in Japanese cuisine—soft, and (of course) jelly-like.  Both times I had jellyfish as an appetizer, and I think that’s the best option.  I think an entire dinner of it might be a little underwhelming.  Good (but not spectacular), in small doses, every so often.
     Finally, there are many folk remedies for easing the pain of jellyfish stings.  Most prominent are vinegar and human urine.  Both are ineffective, alas.  In fact, application of these can actually make things worse.  Evidently sea water can help somewhat, but otherwise you’ll just to wait it out.  Recently, researchers have been working on a chemical to counteract the pain of even irukandji stings, which hopefully will prove effective, since waiting that one out is quite the ordeal.  Furthermore, despite the awful descriptions of what happens during a box jellyfish, or irukandji sting, bear in mind that these stings are comparatively rare, and human deaths are seldom.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Dock Street "Walker" Beer and Zombie Movie Top 10 List

     Dock Street Brewing Company is a well respected Philadelphia-based brewery and brewpub.  This offering is inspired by the AMC show “The Walking Dead.”  Inspired by, not literally affiliated with it—I don’t think Andrew Lincoln harvested the hops or anything (although his character might have, during the “Farmer Rick” period in the prison in Season 4).  The reason it qualifies for my blog (and honestly, it’s a bit of a stretch) is its zombie theme, and that it contains actual roasted goat brains.
     Walker is a fairly well respected beer, according to reviews.  Men’s Health Magazine, and the websites RateBeer and Beer Advocate all gave it decent, if unspectacular marks.  Good or solid seem to be the consensus.  Type-wise it’s an American pale stout, which is a variety I’ve never heard of before.  It’s brewed with wheat, oats, barley, cranberries (to simulate blood, I guess), and the previously mentioned brains.  And I should thank my friend Cody, for making me aware of this beer, and generously giving me a free one.  Since it’s a small, sought after batch, I’m particularly indebted.
      I had misgivings right off the bat, as stouts are not a beer type I normally enjoy.  And in some ways this foreboding was confirmed—I didn’t love it.  However, evidently I like American pale stouts better than the other subtypes, as I didn’t hate it, either.  I rate it about a C-.  It was slightly short of average, but far from a drain pour.  The goat brains were supposed to give it a smoky flavor.  I was hoping for a rauch bier-ish result (see June 25th, 2012 post), but alas, I didn’t taste anything like that.  Nor did I detect much of the cranberry flavor.  It seemed like a lighter version of a stout.  It did, though, hide its alcohol content (7.2%) well.  So, all in all, I don’t think I’ll have this again, but to those who like stouts, and/or want an atypical beer with a fun label (there’s a zombie on it, of course), it might be a good purchase.  It probably will be a little pricey, and hard to get, though.
     To flesh this post out a little, I thought I’d repost one about zombie movies.  This is one of my first blog posts ever, back from February 2012.  It didn’t appear on this blog, but on my publisher’s blog (  As always, feel free to chime in with your own choices, criticisms, etc.
                                        Top Ten Zombies Movies

     Since my book (“Dead Reckoning” due out February 17th) is about the tragedy that unfolds when a cast and crew filming a low-budget zombie movie meet a group of Luddite campers, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss my Top Ten zombie movies.  To a zombie geek such as myself, whittling the vast number of films I love down to just ten was rather agonizing.  I made an effort to include the major types—a couple of George Romero’s movies (of course), a few Italian opuses (opii?), and a few intentionally funny/satiric films.  Just missing the cut were “Day of the Dead,” “Zombie Holocaust” (AKA “Dr. Butcher, M.D.”), “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie” (AKA “Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue”), “Dellamorte Dellamore” (AKA “Cemetery Man”), and “Prince of Darkness,” among others.  Movies listed in order of release.

1)      “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) Directed by George Romero.  The Granddaddy of the zombies-are-flesh-eaters theme.  Also originator of the idea that every dead body becomes your enemy (with rare exceptions).  Before this movie, zombies were basically fleshy robots, controlled by others, usually in small numbers, and therefore, not as dangerous and frightening.  NOTLD changed this forever, and created zombies as a new horror archetype.  Its unflinching violence and pitch black tone also were innovative at the time.  Truly, this could be said to be the “Citizen Kane” of zombie movies, in that it affected this subgenre and the whole genre of horror profoundly.  It’s never been the same since.
2)      “Dawn of the Dead” (1978)  Directed by George Romero.  Continues and tops the elements from NOTLD.  The hordes of the dead are expanding, and are threatening society.  Romero’s social satire (present in all of his movies, but most noticeable here) is a statement about how consumer culture in the form of shopping malls makes mindless drones of us all.  Very entertaining, with likable characters, good action, and incredible, gruesome gore.
3)      “Zombie” (1979)  Directed by Lucio Fulci.  Fulci’s tour de force about zombies running amok on a tiny Caribbean island.  Nasty, sweaty, and disturbing, yet oh so fun at the same time.  Includes two unforgettable scenes—one a horrifically painful and graphic death from a splinter of wood, the second a fight between a living corpse and a shark (!)  And the latter is real, not CGI.
4)      “Burial Ground” (AKA “The Nights of Terror”) (1981) Directed by Andrea Bianchi.  Another “spaghetti dead” offering, with all the typical elements of that—poor acting, ludicrous storyline, gratuitous nudity and gore, sleaziness of every kind.  To paraphrase John Waters, it’s indefensible, and therefore awesome.  You’ll probably feel the need to take a shower afterwards.  Also notable for the industriousness of the zombies—they show use of tools, and have problem-solving capabilities.
5)      “The Beyond” (1981) Directed by Lucio Fulci.  More Fulci, with all his trademark extreme violence and gore. A woman discovers that the Louisiana hotel she’s inherited is over one of the doors to Hell. The whole film has a dreamlike quality, or more properly, a nightmarish quality.
6)      “Dead and Buried” (1981) Directed by Gary Sherman.  A series of bizarre murders in a quaint New England coastal town bedevils the local sheriff.  Especially when the victims later seem to reappear.  Boasts an effective plot and good acting, along with spectacular special effects.  Oddly poignant, too.
7)      “Return of the Living Dead” (1985)  Directed by Dan O’Bannon.  Clearly meant as a satire of zombie movies (and does an excellent job at this) but also tense and frightening.  The dead are a revelation, too--smarter and nearly indestructible.  Originated the fast zombie idea over fifteen years before the zombie-ish folks of “28 Days Later.”
8)      “Re-Animator” (1985)  Directed by Stuart Gordon.  Loose (in every sense of the word) adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft story, where university med students learn how to raise the dead, with devastating (yet often humorous) consequences.  Delightfully graphic in every way.
9)      “Braindead” (AKA “Dead-Alive”) (1992) Directed by Peter Jackson.  Before “Lord of the Rings” Peter Jackson put out low-budget, often gleefully gross yet imaginative fare like this.  Completely over the top in all ways—there’s gallons of blood, a zombie baby, ghoul on ghoul sex, reanimated intestines (!), and disturbing Oedipal events.  Despite all of these things (or because of them?) it’s also a sweet love story, and very (intentionally) funny.  Beware the Sumatran Rat Monkey!

10)   “Shaun of the Dead” (2004)  Directed by Edgar Wright.  Another zombie satire, and one of the best.  The dead return to life in England, menacing a slacker and his circle of friends.  More of a comedy than horror movie, but has some intense moments.   

Monday, January 12, 2015

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Dandelions

     The dandelion is, for most people, an extremely common sight.  They can be seen scattered across people’s yards and gardens in Europe, Asia, and North and South America.  But, as it turns out, there’s a lot more to this humble little plant than I’d imagined.
     When I was a young child, dandelions were a source of some amusement.  When the flowers were immature and yellow, we did the old folk trick, wherein you place the flower underneath someone’s chin.  If it reflected yellow, it meant that the person liked butter.  Oddly, a long series of scientific studies have shown that this is actually true.  Sorry!  Just kidding, of course.  Why even a six-year-old believes that there’s some connection between a flower and an appreciation of a dairy product doesn’t say much for kids’ common sense.  Not to mention, as I recall, it pretty much always reflected yellow—so this was a test which seemingly always had the same result.  Later in the season, when the flowers turned into whitish balls of parachute-equipped seeds, was kind of neat, too.  Blowing on the flowers and dramatically releasing the seeds was fun, and sort of rebellious, too, in that you were helping to spread a plant that those who kept pure, green, grassy lawns really hated.
     The most common name, at least in the U.S., dandelion, is based on the French name for “lion’s tooth,” as the leaves were considered to resemble these.  Other common names are more obscure, or entertaining.  Evidently the white seedy form of the flower is called a “clock,” but I can’t recall hearing that one growing up.  An English folk name for them comes from their believed diuretic effect after consumption—“piss-a-bed.”  Staying scatological, because they’re so typically found on the sides of sidewalks, where pets often relieve themselves, in Italy they’re known as “dog pisses” (pisacan).
     Also, their reputation as being a nuisance is mostly unfounded.  Because dandelions are actually a member of the groups called “beneficial weeds” and “companion plants,” as they actually help out in the cultivation of other plants used by people.  They attract insect pollinators, release ethylene gas (which helps fruit ripen), add nitrogen to the soil, and bring up nutrients with their deeper tap roots for their shallow-rooted comrades.
     I was further surprised to learn that dandelions are a common food source, although evidently not so much in the U.S.  The flowers, leaves, and even roots are all edible.  The greens and flowers are sometimes eaten raw in salads, or cooked with other foods.  The roots can be dried, and ground into a dandelion version of coffee.  They’re also used to make a British dandelion and burdock (see April 13, 2013 post) flavored soft drink, and occasionally made into wine.  Nutritionally dandelions are a solid choice as well.  They contain Vitamins K, C, and A, along with manganese, iron, potassium, and calcium.  They have some potential downsides, though.  They can cause allergic reactions for some consumers, and their pollen can cause minor skin irritations.  More seriously, their high potassium level can cause hyperkalemia in some, and leaves contaminated with snail parasites can result in the nasty and serious fasciolosis.  I didn’t see how to prevent this last affliction, so it’s probably a good idea to thoroughly wash dandelions before eating, and probably even safer to buy them in a grocery unless you really know what you’re doing.
     Speaking of groceries, I just had dandelions as a food from a Korean supermarket.  It was part of dish called jinga, not to be confused with the tiny wooden block stacking game.  It was dandelion plants along with chili powder, onions, salt, sesame, and anchovies.  I found it rather disappointing.  The main stalks were very tough, and hard to bite through.  The leaves coming off of these were softer and had some flavor, but not enough to recommend, even with the abundant spice.  Moving on, many years ago I was at a weird winery in the Amana Colonies in Iowa.  Apparently grapes don’t grow well in the area, as all of their wines were made from other fruits and berries, and dandelions.  The dandelion variety was strange, and not in a good way.  Granted, I’m not into wine in general, but still, I wasn’t a fan.  (Also, as I recall my friends, some of whom did like wine, also were less than impressed by the dandelion kind.  Conversely, I thought the Amana Colonies’ attempts at brewing beer were good—I liked those quite a bit.  Furthermore, their German dishes were an excellent example of this food type.)  To be fair, as I said, there are many ways to eat dandelion, so I’d be willing to try it in its other forms.  But I don’t have high hopes.
     Finally, despite the folk name, I didn’t notice that the dandelions had a particular diuretic effect on me.  But, staying on that, I plan to try to promote these slightly naughty names for this plant, and I encourage others to as well.  I hope to hear people in the future exclaiming things like, “Look at all those piss-a-beds!” while gazing out into their yards.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Frogs

     Frogs, I was somewhat surprised to learn, are one of the most common animals on Earth.  Except for some of the Sahara Desert, Antarctica, the extreme northern tips of land above the Arctic Circle, and a few isolated islands, frogs are pretty much everywhere.  Although, alas, that’s perhaps only for now:  Frog populations have plummeted in the past 60-70 years.  Diminishing habitats, environmental toxins, various diseases, and over exploitation by humans appear to be the main culprits.  But more about this later.
     Moving on, the distinction between frogs and toads is completely overblown.  They’re both part of the same order, and essentially, from a taxonomic standpoint, they’re all frogs.  “Toad” is just the common name for those frog species with dry, warty, skin, that live on land (as adults).
     With such a wide range of homes, it’s not too shocking that frogs have evolved a whole host of weird, interesting attributes.  Some types can survive being frozen.  Others can glide from tree to tree, similar to “flying” squirrels.  And now we get to their  defenses.  They commonly emit secretions from their skin to discourage predators.  These secretions range from making them slippery and tough to grasp, to making them taste bad, up to being deadly poisonous.
     Reproductively they can be a bit odd, too.  Some species have unfortunate high male to female ratios.  The males compensate for this by being well… extremely unchoosy, and occasionally disturbingly aggressive.  Females are sometimes fatally overwhelmed by suitors, and it’s not that rare for males to mount other (unreceptive) males, random inanimate objects, and even deceased frogs.  So they take the “any port in a storm” adage to disgusting and even terrifying extremes.  Once mating has been successful and the female is ready to lay eggs things can get unusual, too.  Darwin’s frog males keep the eggs in their vocal sacs for a couple of months, and then give oral birth when the young frogs have matured enough.  And, revoltingly again, the Suriname toad’s eggs end up under the skin of the female.  They gestate there, looking like some bizarre honeycomb.  After they hatch, and mature enough to leave, they erupt from the toad’s back, like some sort of huge, living zit.  Check this out on YouTube—it’s even more disturbing to actually see it.  I got to see a frog egg mass in the wild once in Virginia, and it was strange looking.  It reminded me of a breast implant—it was a firm-ish jellylike disc.
     Monty Python did a funny sketch wherein police officers are horrified that a confectioner is making literal “Crunchy Frog” chocolate candies.  However, folks actually eat them fairly frequently.  The French are probably the most famous partakers, but they’re also consumed in Belgium, Slovenia, India, Luxembourg, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Portugal, Spain, Greece, and parts of the U.S., especially in the Southern states.  Typically only the legs are eaten, as this is the best source of meat on them.  They’re fried, stewed, grilled, and put into soups.
     I’ve traveled fairly extensively in the South U.S., but evidently in parts that aren’t big on eating frog, as I have almost never seen it on the menu.  I can only recall having frog twice—from a Chinese restaurant in New York City, and at a casino buffet on the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina.  Both times I remember the legs were breaded and fried.  The cliché about the taste, like many other exotic meats, is that frogs, “taste like chicken.”  Well, in this case, the cliché is accurate.  They do have a mild, chicken-like flavor.  Very good, I enthusiastically ate many.  Their little legs even resembled chicken wings visually as well.  I would certainly order them again, if/when I get the opportunity.
     But, to end on a cautionary note, as I mentioned before, frogs in general are threatened, and many species extremely so.  To be an environmentally conscious diner, then, for these reasons (and certainly not the taste) I don’t recommend eating them often.  Save them for an occasional, change of pace treat, is my advice.
     I'll end with a bit from the Monty Python sketch.  The manufacturer, Mr. Milton, of the Whizzo Chocolate Company, says the Crunchy Frog candy is made from baby frogs "dew-picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in finest-quality spring water, lightly killed, and then sealed in a succulent Swiss quintuple smooth treble cream milk chocolate envelope, and lovingly frosted with glucose."  And they leave the bones in to make them crunchy.  Other odd candy choices include the Cockroach Cluster, Ram's Bladder Cup, and Anthrax Ripple.