A Load of Old Codswallop
The particular substance is ugly, unmentionable edibles not to be confused with edible unmentionables, a subject you will have to discuss in a quieter moment in the bicycle shed. The matter of unmentionable edibles arose during a delightful tea held by the ladies of the local library. What, I asked, is the ugliest, unmentionable edible you have ever tasted?
It so happened that there were several world class travelers seated at my table. The refined sipping of tea and delicate nibbling of strawberries and cakes became intense with a fervent desire to profess ingestion, though not necessarily digestion, of the nastiest meal known to man or woman for that matter. This may seem to you to be an unseemly subject for genteel folk at a library tea but let me remind you "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Wine press or printing press, the Constitution does not say. Library aficionados are hot on this freedom of speech business and so, despite the inelegance of the topic, and having the constitution to do so, we pressed on.
Here is a discussion of the primary candidates that, as in our political scene, may cause you some physical discomfort if not actual nausea. From our French traveler, a rotund lady in blue with a small strawberry stuck in her décolletage and seated to my right, came fromage de cochon or hogshead cheese which is apparently made by dividing a pigs head, removing the brains and tongue, and soaking in cold water for two hours. That is presumably the time it takes to drink enough wine to proceed with the cooking.
Across the table from the lady in blue, sat the product of a Vietnamese mother and an Austrian father, Herr Ng-Kipper, who claimed that, during a seven year visit to Japan, pickled sea cucumber was the most vile viand he had encountered. It is like a huge slab of slug dropped on the plate, he said. This is the great Chinese delicacy known as "Trepang" which, when roughly translated from the pidgin English, means three pangs or triple the heartburn. Trade in this valuable product is associated with the spread of pidgin English throughout the Pacific, a kind of verbal Montezuma's Revenge. The bright yellow, orange and purple gonads are eaten raw and, naturally, thought to be an aphrodisiac. The things we do for love. The good Herr went on to explain that one of the oddest things about sea cucumbers is that a type of small fish live within their cloacae and can be seen darting in and out. John Steinbeck and "Doc" Rickles, on their famous trip to the Sea of Cortez, named a new species of this fish, Proctophilus winchelli, after Walter Winchell. We have to take our fifteen seconds of fame any way we can get it.
Here is the recipe should you ever decide to cook a creature that has a fish swimming in and out of its nether regions. Soak the dried sea cucumber for four hours in cold water. Next, scrub with a brush, the sea cucumber not yourself, although you may wish to do both. Bring to a boil, cook for five minutes and allow to cool. Repeat ten times! The meat is then swollen and ready to use. I cannot imagine that anyone has any appetite left after that.
Herr Ng-Kipper was followed by Myrtle who was seated on my left. She mentioned that she had sampled a dish made of the entrails of a turtle, "chopped up and made into a delicious soup called sarapatel". This had me thinking about a night long ago in a hotel in Soho run by a Pakistani named, of course, Mr. Patel. His lively, young daughter showed me a novel use of the fire escape which contributed considerably to my education and which I will tell you all about some other time.
I was brought back to the tea party by the Very Reverend Algernon Sauerkraut, a recalled missionary to China. He mentioned Fu yung sui which is a silkworm omelet. There followed a spate of insect dishes from others: red ant chutney from India; bee grubs in coconut cream from Thailand; Widgetty grubs eaten raw from Australian acacia bushes; and crisp roasted termites from Swaziland. Should you be dying for the recipe here it is. Swarming termites are drowned in water, sun dried, and roasted to a delicate crispness. They will keep this way for a year. If I have my way, they will keep that way forever.
The conversation switched to non-flesh of animal origin when an old soldier who had returned with MacArthur mentioned Balut from the Philipines. Chip a hole in the top of a 15 to 18 day old fertilized duck egg and suck out the liquid. Then break the shell and eat the embryo. I wondered how you say, "Thank you, but I am watching my cholesterol," in Tagalog.
This brought to the unfortunate mind of the missionary the memory of Pi-tan, which is not a lovely, golden wench he met in the bamboo woods, but one hundred year old eggs. To prepare them, he said, boil salt, lime, lye and tealeaves then soak eggs in the solution for three months. Dry and coat with a paste of clay, lime, ashes and salt and bury in the ground. "Whose ashes?" I asked. The yolks turn an attractive green and are cheese-like, he continued unabated. The whites are gelatinous and yellow. These eggs are eaten raw with vinegar and ginger sauce. I was reminded of a saucy Ginger but I remembered my mother's admonitions to never eat with my mouth full nor speak with my mouth open and I kept mum.
My mind had wandered off, "yondering" my sister calls it, and when it came back we had changed from eggs to innards. Professor Limburger was discussing haggis.
In the paleolithic era, he said, the women gathered plants for food and medicine, while the men loafed around and hunted animals. Before the advent of bronze and pottery there was at least one type of container that was waterproof and heatproof enough to be hung over, if not in, the fire. This was an animal stomach. The hunter, having killed his prey and carved up the flesh for transport, rewarded himself with a banquet of the most perishable parts - the heart, the liver, the fat behind the eyeballs, which is not to be confused with the brain, the brain itself, and some of the soft internal organs such as the spleen and the pancreas. In cud-chewing animals partial fermentation takes place in the rumen. That may account for the popularity of the stomach.
Sean "Bloodsausage" O'Seanessy recalled "drisheen" was an Irish dish similar to haggis. Peasants in the area around Cork bled cows and boiled the blood with some milk and butter from the same beast. He stated that the Irish stuff the sheep's stomach with mashed potatoes, onion, sage, salt and pepper suggesting that his country was the origin of haggis as well as that other abomination, the bagpipes. But Limburger said that the Romans ate it, the haggis not the bagpipes. They stuffed a pig's stomach with a mixture of pork, brains, eggs, pine nuts seasoned with lovage, asafoetida, anise seed, ginger, rue, garum and oil. The stuffed stomach then was rolled in brine-soaked bran and roasted. Alternately they used fish roe, eggs and fruit.
In Scotland haggis is a traditional dish served appropriately to the sound of bagpipes, (why not be really miserable), and accompanied with lots of whiskey and turnips in either order. This, let us not forget an auld acquaintance, is to celebrate the great poet, Robert Burns on Burns Night, so named for its inordinate proliferation of heartburn.
I paused while lifting my teacup to my lips, pinkie dutifully raised, to express pride that my native England did not have a haggis recipe. But pride goeth before a fall for Professor Limburger taught me about "yrchins". To disguise the haggis the Ancient Brits inserted almond slivers so they looked like a hedgehog or sea urchin, as if that would help. They ladled over all a thick batter of eggs and pig blood and browned it in the oven.
Looking around the library community room, I noticed that other tables had only a few hard-of-hearing couples remaining while ours was full and the crumbs were flying. I needed a capper. Lutefisk came to the rescue. Lutefisk is a piece of cod not to be confused with a codpiece which is an article of gentleman's apparel. It is a delicacy in Norwegian cuisine. To give you perspective, allow me to ask, "When was the last time you saw a Norwegian restaurant?" I rest my case. Cod is gutted, beaten with stones to extract the juices, and hung on wooden frames to dry. This is stokkfisk a cheap and almost indestructible food reserve.
Limburger stuck his nose in again by telling us that a 14th century Paris merchant recommended that, "when preparing 10 or 12 year old stokkfisk, it behooves to beat it with a wooden hammer for a full hour and then set it to soak in warm water for at least two hours, then cook it and scour it very well. Eat it with hot mustard or soaked in butter." I was once soaked in butter while sliding down the fire escape of a hotel in Soho, but I promised not to tell you about it.
That is just stokkfisk, I added. Lutefisk is stokkfisk that has been soaked in a solution of water and lye till the bones are gelatinous. It is the most foul smelling, odoriferous, stinking, festering foodstuff. Norwegian farmers still boil it for Christmas but it is an Old World dish ever since the US Congress passed the Clean Air Act. There are rumors that, deep in the woods of Wisconsin, on cold winter nights a pungent, acrid, fishy odor wafts over the ice-bound countryside congealing in the trees and denuding vast acres of forest.
Lutefisk won the day. There was nobody left at the other tables. The ladies of the library were busily washing dishes and clearing up. I went home to my wife who asked, "Nice tea?"
"Yes," I said, "Very nice. And good conversation too"
"About what?" She said.
"Oh, just a load of old codswallop really."