Wednesday, June 15, 2011
One of the advantages of living alone is the ability to concoct some truly bizarre dishes without the accompanying complaints of eaters others than myself. I have made things without names that I could never make twice. Some have been amazing, more have been odd, and the majority has been largely bland with the occasional bite of Mexican hot sauce that makes all things taste spicy and still uninteresting.
My father, who served with the Free French in North Africa during World War 2, recounted the day he was in a Bedouin camp trying to persuade the tribe’s chief to throw his lot in with the Allies. A sumptuous meal of roast lamb was served, and the chief honored my father by giving him the eyes of the beast. The interpreter whispered that not only was the guest supposed to eat both eyes, but he must chew them thoroughly while making various sounds of appreciation. My father, young and flush with the importance of his mission, did as he was told. When he had swallowed and followed the treat with great slugs of date wine, he noticed that the chief could hardly suppress his laughter. In a moment, the entire tribe was rolling on the carpeted floor of the desert tent, mimicking the young Frenchman’s stalwart expression. According to my father, the tribe fought with the Allies and had a hand in decimating the forces of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.
Though I’ve not had to eat the eyes of anything, I have had my fair share of inedible meals. Bouillie, for example.
Bouillie was—and remains, for all I know—perhaps the most offensive victual ever created by the French. It was a staple of post-war Paris at a time when fresh vegetables, meat and dairy products were almost non-existent. In my house, bouillie was made with warm water, two-day old bread and a liberal dash of salt. Serve in a soup bowl, eat before bedtime to foster the illusion of a full stomach.
My mother invented a close second to bouillie when we came to the Unites States. The muttonburgers she made smelled so foul I could tell with one sniff from a street away what was on the menu. Even my father, the same man who years before had eaten the eyes of a sheep, had a hard time with them. They were greasy, grey, odiferous, and the taste they left in my mouth lasted for hours. My mother served one to my friend Happy Sweet (real name) and he ran away.
The third concoction was served every time we went to my mother’s best friend’s house. I don’t know why anyone would invent cold soft-boiled eggs in aspic save to torture adolescent boys. The adults seemed to relish them and often asked for seconds even as I tried to scrape the beef jelly from the egg white. When the yolk broke, it mixed with the aspic to make a dreadful, blood-colored semi-liquid that tasted like wounds.
The last entry is nuoc-mâm, a Vietnamese fish sauce brewed by layering anchovies and salt in a barrel. In three months, a brownish liquid escapes. This is poured back into the barrel and left to ripen for an additional three months. What it comes down to is six-months-old fish juice. Do I need to say more?