Mind over Matter

Any time I'm in a new place, I want to try the local food. The local, legit, simple, unadulterated representation of the place. I want to know what's good wherever I am, and I strive to experience new and interesting foods whenever possible.

While we all like to think we have an open mind, there are very likely foods somewhere in the world that will make you realize you're might not be as prepared for bold experimentation as you thought. It happened to me, not to a tiny island in southeast Asia or the outback of Australia, or high in the mountains somewhere "away from it all", it happened on my first trip to Paris.

My work colleagues and I had just completed an obligatory day of supporting tourism and were anxious to eat. We were in search of a local place serving the “real stuff” made the “real way”.

Fifteen minutes and a concierge recommendation later, the 10 of us were seated at a long table against a wall; perhaps an effort by the staff to isolate the unmistakable volume and pitch of Americans.

Prompting our translator and co-worker for a recommendation, he noted that this particular restaurant specialized in something called - and it's key to note the spelling here - "andouillette". Our translator, Tanguy, who was also my boss, interpreted a thickly-accented description of the house specialty: "It is very... 'natural', it's very French, and there is an entire association dedicated to it - the AAAAA." I somehow reasoned that, if there was a society dedicated to it, it must be good. His description and the vaguely familiar name made it sound like just some kind of sausage. "Andouillette", I reasoned, must be a lot like "andouille" sausage. Four of us ordered it.

Here, dear readers, is where the rails of the logic train run directly into the side of a mountain. Rarely in my life have I been so very, very wrong. I failed to recall that there are also "associations" who do all manner of insane things like skinny dip in the icy waters of Sweden, people who skewer their bodies on religious pilgrimages to prove their devotion and - most frightening of all - drink Red Bull when not at gunpoint. Just because a large number of people do something and organize themselves around that activity doesn't mean it's good, it just means that it's “popular”.

From his description, we'd just ordered what might be the most authentic and amazing meal we would have in Paris and settled in to wait for our meal with our glasses of wine.

The approach of the food to the table was almost covert, given its eventual impact. The servers arrived silently, like a team of Navy seals surrounding the noisy table of tourists. The plates hadn't even reached the table when the true horror of our choice became evident.

As the aroma wafted down and across the table, each of us froze in horror, certain that our senses had been thrown off calibration. The smell halted conversations mid-sentence as if someone had hit a pause button on reality. Alarm bells rang in our heads individually, and then collectively.

Motionless and in silence, each of us tried to recognize what we were smelling. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn't related to food. I forget who identified it first, but "elephant cage at the zoo" nailed it.

Andouillette, is basically pig intestine stuffed with even lower intestine, along with some onions and herbs. Even so, it didn't smell like onions, nor herbs, nor the broth in which it had been cooked for many hours; it smelled like intestines and nothing else.

Despite every ounce of my being telling me that this was not food, I refused to let a mere 33 years of bias and prejudice spoil my dinner. I went for it, cutting off a conservative slice and, while holding my breath, took a bite. I think I managed a total of 3 pieces before I could no longer fool my brain.

I've had other food biases against which I've rallied. My hatred of ketchup stemmed from my younger brother's abuse of it and has only been overcome in the last few years.

I still hate Wintergreen gum (it reminds me of Pepto Bismol which my parents usually gave me shortly before I vomited; hence, it reminds me of vomiting. My brain will forever confuse the cause and effect).

"Miracle Whip" is among the worst ideas ever (and never confuse it with "mayonnaise").

I became quite ill one night after eating a meal that included foie gras and, despite the probable lack of blame on the part of the foie, a connection was wired in my brain that "foie" equaled becoming ill. That has been the toughest one to overcome. Millions of years of evolution have been spent preventing you from eating the same bad thing twice.

My first bout with sushi back when I was probably 22 years old was cautious, but eventually grew into an addiction.

Alas, I don't think I can overcome andouillette. I have a hunch I'd face the same problem with durian fruit which carries the powerful scent of a dirty diaper thus preventing most animals from eating it. Just about any dish containing tripe which hasn't been washed and bleached of its former role, will probably always remain at arm's length. It seems I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Hey, at least I gave it a shot.


R-Co said…
I hope you all took Tawn-Gee out back after the meal and beat his ass for recommending pig bowels. I'm betting he ordered something else. When it comes to food, cultural differences always amaze me. People started out eating what was available locally and seasoning it likewise. Regional flavors emerged. That's easy to understand. But how in the name of all that's holy did someone decide, "Hey, you know that long squishy thing where all the poop is? Let's eat that!"
R-Co brings up a good, if difficult-to-swallow, point.

However, his own answer is in the word "decide". We are a country riddled with immensely-subtle luxuries; potable water, for one. In fact, so much water, we can turn it on, adjust the temperature of it(!), and have fresh drinking water showered over us to rinse away epidermal by-products. And we can have this every day.

It requires complete recallibration of everything we know and think about food, to be able to fathom not being able to pick and choose which parts of the animal to eat. In the good old days, when you bought "beef", it was still blinking at you as you paid for it. It did have the benefit of being able to carry itself to your home. At that point, you had to have a difficult conversation with the critter.

They ate not just what they chose to, but everything they could. (Fur and hooves seem to be the only universal exception.)

Jeffrey Steingarten makes a great (among many) points in his "Man who Ate Everything" books, that babies have no inherent revulsion toward maggots, feces, worms, insects, or even Chicken McNuggets (which, one could argue, have killed or subtly-poisoned FAR more people than the others combined, and continue to do so.) Food is a learned experience, sprinkled with personal taste, and tempered by location.

Just thank your lucky stars someone ELSE separates the beef from the entrails these days.


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