Don’t Ask. Just eat It!
I am a fairly adventurous eater. I will try almost any kind of food particularly if I know that someone else in the world actually stays alive by eating it. I am not overly squeamish, but like any other human being I can at times display a gag reflex. I have learned over the years that there are only four tastes distinguishable by the human taste buds—sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. A fifth taste is now on the scene called Umami which is a loaned word from the Japanese language meaning “pleasant savory taste”. So our taste buds can detect savoriness as well. Flavor on the other hand is determined by the combination of the chemical senses of taste and smell. Interestingly there are thousands of flavors due to our sense of smell. Have you ever wondered why when you have a cold and are all stuffed up that you can’t detect the flavor of your food? It is because your sense of smell is blocked. This is an important fact to remember as I tell the story of my food and drink adventures in various parts of the world.
It has been a standard joke, and a tool of parents for generations who have tried to get their children to eat something off their plates that the child did not want to eat, by saying, “Eat it. It tastes just like chicken.” Surprisingly many exotic meats do arguably taste like chicken, but… some do not. Goat’s brains, for instance, tastes nothing like chicken. In fact it is very hard to describe what goat’s brains do taste like to the un-indoctrinated. The closest I have been able to come is to describe it as a salty fishy taste—that is, a salty fishy taste from a fish that should have been eaten on a Friday during the last Lent season.
I have had goat’s brains on a number of occasions. Each time it has been awarded to me as an honor for my position as team leader. Each time I have felt that the brains actually grew in size with every bite instead of shrinking. Each time I have fought back the gag reflex as best I could, but let’s face it—a reflex is a reflex and can’t be fought! So in the midst of my face turning beet red, the veins in my forehead bulging dangerously, and my eyes bugging out of their sockets I have prayed this prayer, “Lord, please help me to get this down. Please help me not to kak.” It should go without saying that God knows what kaking is, and in His mercy helped me swallow the wonderful honor bestowed on me. I was always able to soldier up and finish my goat’s brains as my host would look on expectantly, and then afterward offer me a portion of goat’s intestines as a reward for finishing my brains.
In a village in south central Albania a school teacher that we were staying with said he wanted to kill a goat for supper in honor of us being in his village. This village was very remote and by the testimony of everyone who lived there, they almost never had guests so I had no moral problem with them killing a goat just for my team and I. I didn’t realize at the time, however, that I was going to be an integral part of the whole process—from the picking out of the goat, to the holding of the goat while it was being slaughtered, to the skinning and cleaning of the goat and the ultimate cooking of the goat over hot coals after it had been spitted from fore to aft with a long pole. The word for this in Albanian is hell, pronounced hail, and I thought that it was and is a pretty good description and translation of the whole process. The teacher, my teacher, stuffed handfuls of salt in various places within the muscles and tissues for flavoring before cooking it. After a couple of hours the goat was ready to be served, and although I would have preferred to simply sit at the table and be served, the fact that I was a part of the entire process made the honor even greater. No portion of the goat was waisted. For the next two days while in the teachers home we ate everything from the meat, brains, stomach, heart, intestines, kidneys, you name it everything was eaten. The pelt was also used for other utilitarian purposes. And truthfully the brains are not so bad when accompanied by the right portion of raki (see last post What Proof Was That Again?)
In Kazakhstan I had heard that two common beverages are fermented horse and camel’s milk. Now it is very cold in Kazakhstan. We were there in late November and the temperature had dropped to negative ten degrees Fahrenheit. I remember in one of my college biology classes my professor saying that the fat bunny survives the winter to breed in the spring, and the skinny, athletic bunnies freeze and die in the winter. So people who live in cold regions are looking for ways to put insulating on not take it off. Camel’s milk and horse milk happen to be high in fat so it is a good beverage for cold climates. I decided to try the fermented camel’s milk. I was informed that the milk is fermented, but has no alcohol in it and was just for drinking because…”It is good for you.” I took a pretty good sized swig of it. I am not always a look-before-you-leap kinda guy so I dove right into it. The word for today is No Bueno. I decided after the initial assault that this was going to be a once in a life time experience. My team mates Karen, Dwayne, and DeAnne asked me how it was. We were sitting in the back of a dark van at night traveling to our host village so they had not seen my facial expression. I assured them that it was good, in fact I made a yummy sound and said it was great, and that they should try it—after all who am I to say that they wouldn’t like it if it was not previously prejudiced by me? Upon sipping the fermented camel’s milk, the others informed me that I had lost their trust.
My oldest son Josh was with me in northern Albania when he was one month away from turning fifteen. I shared the story of leaving Josh on a mountain top in an earlier post, You left My baby?!!!. One morning Josh and I woke up in the home of our host family. The young boy of the house walked into the room we had been sleeping on the floor in, and had his shirt tail rolled up and full of crab apples. The boy fanned out his shirt tail and the apples caming tumbling out and rolled onto the floor all around us. This was to be our breakfast—freshly picked off the tree. We each picked up an apple and began eating the very sour apple, thankful that we had anything to eat at all. The boy stood over us and watched as we ate. As I bit into my third apple I noticed that there was the stubby half of a worm in the tracks of my teeth marks. I leaned over to Josh and said out of the side of my mouth, which by the way does not conceal your conversation from anyone, and said,”I just bit into a worm!” He said out of the side of his mouth, “Nah-uhh.” I rolled my apple discretely toward him, and let him see the carnage for himself. His eyes widened, and he said out of the side of his mouth, “What are you gong to do?” I said, “I don’t want to offend our host. I’m going to finish it.” Which I did. The apple was so tart, however, I couldn’t taste the worm, and knowing that there are people who eat worms in other parts of the world, I didn’t let it bother me. A few days later we were in another house in another village and the same scenario was played out with freshly picked crab apples being served from the shirt tail of another young boy. Josh informed me out of the side of his mouth, “Dad, I just bit into a worm!” He rolled the apple bite toward me for me to see the half eaten worm.” I said, “What are you going to do with it?” “I’m going to finish it,” he said. Ahhh… a father’s pride.
As I said earlier, flavor is present with the combination of taste and more importantly smell. Have I been guilty of holding my breath, or worse, holding my nose when eating certain foods in different parts of the world? I have to admit, YES! But I have never not eaten something offered to me in hospitality. Because after all, it is all about building relationships. And sharing culture expands your universe. Just have the anti-acids ready.
I will share more food stories later. Until next time, may God Bless you!