There is something about trading "have you eaten stories" that will never cease to tire me. Listed like battle scars, or better yet, victories, these stories vary in their level of what I would call obvious excitement, but always hold something important for the teller of the story. For instance, there was the friend who was so proud to have finally eaten fish off the bone instead of fishsticks - not mind-blowing for all of us, but for her, a step in the right direction. And then their was the other friend who couldn't get enough roasted chicken feet to satisfy.
It's all relative.
Generally, it's the more exotic stories that I like to hear: alligator stews, rattlesnake bbq, yak yogurt, salted grasshoppers...in the end, it seems like flavors are the, but the question of taste is secondary to the excitement of that daring moment of consumption.
My own roster of exciting foods has grown over the years, beginning with my first chicken livers tossed into a French salad, and most recently ending with a spoonful of lamb brains.
But I'll come back to that. First, I wanted to mention Peru.
A few years ago, I spent a goodly chunk of time tramping around the jungle, teaching English, testing kids for malaria, planning reforestation projects, and visiting local health clinics with an organization called APECA that operated out of a few small boats running up and down tributaries of the Amazon River. I wrote lengthy emails home that were circulate among family and friends, and instead of rehashing, I thought I would share a bit of one here. It concerns masato, a drink made from fermented fruit-flavored saliva, and also delves into some of the other jungle excitement I got myself into.
This particular day, we had spent the afternoon on a lake, the entrance to which had been allowed to seal with tree branch growth to keep out the larger boats of commercial fishermen. In our small four person motorboat, we spent over an hour hacking at branches and vines with machetes to clear a path to the lake. APECA was planning a rainfall catchment project there, and while Pablo, an Amazonian native, talked details with high-ranking villagers, I was fed snacks by one of the families. The following are two short unedited excerpts from my 19 year old mind:
In exchange for a few soles, we were served a grape nut like substance made from ground yucca, the woody fruit pihuayu to be skinned and dipped into a pile of salt, and also big bowls of pihuayu masato. Yes, masato, the spit drink. I tried it, finally or unfortunately or thankfully I have no idea, but I had to! This grandma had made it. I have a very clear picture in my mind of her sitting on the edge of her rocky porch in the afternoon sun, swatting bugs and chewing the bright yellow fruit for hours, spitting whenever she has a good glob in her cheek of saliva, then shoving some more fruit in to keep the fountain going. There was a huge bucket of this thick yellow liquid, which, in this case, had been boiled.
Pablo seemed to think that since it was boiled, no problem! That solves every qualm, apparently. But it is still a bowlful of spit that I drank from, cautiously but curiously. Well, it didn’t taste like much, it hadn’t been fermented for very long so it had yet to turn very alcoholic, and was mostly like a salty fruit juice.
As I downed yellow spit and chewed on Amazon grapenuts, there was action going on around me. Pablo was looking over a gutted armadillo, which was sitting in a big plastic bowl on the porch next to where the babies were playing. Intestines all attached but hanging strangely, its trunk long and bent around its jellied body. Dinner....
...Returning, we found a fish waiting for us. Earlier in the morning Pablo had bought a live giant catfish, pregnant with a full belly of eggs, to be put into one of the ponds. A new fish colony. While we were gone, somehow it didn’t get into the water soon enough, and it died before it even hit the pond’s surface. Nothing left to do but cut it up for dinner. Chicle, the compound caretaker, brought up the fish, hanging from his shoulder to his knees, presenting it tragically but eagerly (thinking maybe he’d get some). Two of his kids followed him up, excited for the action.
Whiskers like half cooked spaghetti, a pristine white belly, black spots fading to a dark gray back. Smack it down on the counter, get out the biggest knife, plunge it into its middle, sawing straight through for circular chunks of bleeding fish flesh. I watched, fascinated and totally nauseated. I could never even watch the dissections of worms in middle school, so as I stood in the hot little El Fundo kitchen I was proud of myself that not only were my eyes glued to this atrocious sight, but I wasn’t vomiting all over myself. Red fish blood leaked all over Pablo’s hands, and splattered against the walls and the small machete was brought up into the air, then swiftly down to break the thick spine. Slicing through the juicy skin, sawing through the cracking bones, and cutting through the delicate egg sacks. The children were rewarded with a large piece of meat, the twelve year old boy having helped hold the fish steady as the hacking took place. The fish showed up in every meal we ate from then on.
Chilicano for breakfast (a thin, simple fish soup that is easy and popular), fried fish for lunch, grilled in a bijao leaf for dinner. Even the boney head showed up one night, bigger than a plate, overflowing with rice off the edges. I just wondered where the whiskers had gone.
Of course, not every meal in Peru was like this. Plenty of boiled plantains and plain white rice graced our plates, and there were also things that I refused to eat, like turtle eggs and the infamous monkey soup. But it was eye opening, in the sense that if something showed up on my plate, and we were sitting with a group of villagers, our meal lit dimly by a fading sun, the mosquitoes beginning to swarm around my painfully pale skin, there was never the question about whether I should eat it or not. There was no asking the timid question: um, can you tell me about this food please?
Once I tried. We had been eating a salty meat for days on end. No recognizable body parts showed themselves, just chewy meat and chewier gristle clinging to chunks of bone. When I asked for some kind of an idea as to what animal I was eating, the closest description I could extract from anyone was "jungle beast."
Which brings me back to another primal experience I had this past weekend, in a place much closer to that which I call home. A meat festival in Napa county, and lamb brains. Scooped from the head. The head sitting close to its neighbors, charring nicely on an open flame. The eyeballs, intact yet jellified, staring at me from above the bony jawline filled with teeth.
Imagine a custard. A pot de creme, perhaps. Make it savory. A bit salty, almost. A delicate meatiness to it. And a squirt of lemon to cut through a slightly cloying richness. That is my newest story of a lamb brain scooped straight from the scull. Frighteningly delicious.