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We Eat What? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Unusual Foods in the United States
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INTRODUCTION xv Often foods we take for granted as normal are, in fact, unusual or even off-put- ting when you think about them critically. Imagine eating insect vomit. Any vol- unteers? When you realize that our beloved honey is made by honeybees that eat pollen and then process it through regurgitation, you may look at it differently. The sweet taste and seductive aroma certainly masks its provenance. Or how about a dish made from sour, moldy milk? It may be more familiar as cheese. Put this way, it becomes easier to understand why someone from one culture may find a blue cheese dressing as deplorable as another finds stinky fermented tofu. It is critical, then, to remember throughout this encyclopedia that while weird can be fascinating, it is also relative—weird to you may be snack to me. And vice versa. Weirdness Despite the relativity of weirdness, we can, nevertheless, categorize unusual food— beloved by some, hated by others, and totally ridiculous to more—into a few categories. These are arbitrary for sure, but most of the unusual foods we con- sider are: • Animals. People are picky about their meat. In the United States, for example, Amer- icans eat fish and seafood, chicken, beef, pork, veal, lamb, and turkey, and almost nothing else. But there is a host of edible animals eaten throughout the world: insects, snake, lizard, frog, armadillo, rabbit, bear, squirrel, turtle, horse, dog, sea cucumber, seal, camel, and even human. • Fermented. Fermentation is a process where yeast or bacteria eat the sugar in food and produce alcohol, heat, and carbon dioxide. The thought of bacteria in your food may be off-putting at first, but many of the staples of diets around the world—bread, beer, wine, pickles, yogurt, cheese, sausages, soy sauce, ham, and even chocolate— are fermented. Fermentation can yield a variety of flavors, as illustrated by the list above. The same process can also yield some strongly flavored, often dubbed “weird” foods like kombucha, natto, stinky tofu, poi, hákarl, and fermented walrus flipper. • Manufactured. Sometimes weird foods are not long-standing culinary traditions but products introduced by creative manufacturers or commercial versions of traditional foods. Canna Cola, Spam, Vegemite, and salmiakki come to mind. • Slimy. Often the sensory properties of the food make it seem weird or inapproachable to those unfamiliar with it. Words like “slimy” and “gooey” are used for foods like lutefisk, natto, fish eyes, octopus, squid, frog, snake, hákarl, and blood. The image, texture, and mouthfeel of these foods go a long way to putting them high on the weirdness scale. • Creepy/crawly. Anthropologist Mary Douglas theorized that taboo foods in the bible are those that do not confirm to standard categories—for example, shellfish are sea creatures but do not swim. Foods like squid, octopus, eel, insects (including honey ants), rat, and snake fit into this category. Many people don’t quite know what to do with creepy, crawly things, and eating them may not come to mind right away. • Body parts. Many people relish the opportunity to eat part of an animal (a ham, for example), but other parts nearby (such as the pig’s testicles a few inches from the ham) are weird or gross. Placenta, sex organs, liver, bile, ink, blood, eyes, and air bladder are examples.