I have a small confession. For someone who loves cooking and eating, I've always been repulsed by certain foods. I wasn't raised to be a pampered, choosy eater, either. My parents were both gourmet cooks, and I grew up under a no-nonsense kitchen decree: Eat three bites, even if it makes you want to gag. For the next two decades, I took this meekly pioneering, a-little-goes-a-long-way attitude with me on various travels. I've attempted blood sausages in England and kidneys in New Zealand, quail eggs in Texas, snails in Normandy; and during a short visit to Lebanon in the mid-1970s, I sat down to a dinner consisting of little baby birds, complete with black, forlorn, why're-ya'-doin'-this-to-me-mister? gazes on their teeny feathery faces. But I drew the line at what I've come to think of as my own three horsemen of the apocalypse: tripe, eel, and shad roe.
At some point it struck me that a lot of the foods I'd been picking at had all arrived at the table swaddled in the same filigreed euphemism: delicacy. That giddy air-kiss of a word. "Oh, yes, it's a delicacy," the adults would insist knowingly. It was as though they were all members of a winking, cosmopolitan insider's club, while I was still wiping Skippy peanut butter off my chin.
I wondered, though: If these foods were such delicacies, why were people so squeamish about calling them by their actual names? Instead of grainy babies of a pudgy girl-fish, it's shad roe. Stomach lining of a sheep? No, have some marvelously jaunty tripe, old sport. As for sweetbreads, well, in lieu of acknowledging that you're chowing down on a calf's thymus gland, sweetbreads sounds like an afternoon confection for a chunky English schoolboy. Milk and sweetbreads, my pet? Oh, yes, thank you, Mummy.
If bizarre inappropriateness seems to be the only requirement for a delicacy, why not gnaw on your grandfather, or lure, trap, and grill that apricot poodle down the block?
Recently, though, I became acutely aware of my own gastronomically risk-averse nature. I was sitting at the dinner table, eating broiled salmon, when I realized that my middle child, who's 7, hadn't touched her fish. "I hate salmon," she announced when I commented on it. "Oh, c'mon," I said. "How can you possibly hate something if you've never even tried it?" "I bet there are foods you hate," she countered. "Right," I replied testily. "But I know I don't like them because I've actually tasted them."
Liar, hypocrite, coward! What about my old archenemies: tripe, eel, and shad roe? At age 42 I was still deeply grossed out by even the thought of these "delicacies." Someday, when I'm older, I'll try them, I had told myself 30 years ago. But how much older, exactly, was I supposed to get? Dead? Was dead old enough? It was then that I resolved to go on a weekend eating adventure. I would finally confront the sources of my culinary nightmares. The only condition I set? Three bites.
It's not easy finding a place that serves tripe, and after two weeks of vainly cold-calling various places around town, I was ready and more than willing to give up. But then a friend phoned to tell me about a venerable German restaurant that served a dish called honeycomb tripe, which sounded a little like tripe stuffed with bees.
The waitresses at the Student Prince Café flocked around my dark red booth as I explained my challenge to them. "So have you ever tried tripe?" I asked the blondest of them. She laughed, I thought, semihysterically. "Dude," she said, "you couldn't pay me enough."
The tripe came out of the kitchen with suspicious speed. Coated in thick brown batter, it was about the size of a child's hand. I took a bite. The batter fell away. The tripe itself was moist. It was ghostly white. Slippery. Fatally chewy. Nearly tasteless. But not nearly tasteless enough. I seized the jeroboam of Diet Coke I'd ordered and took a swallow that lasted longer than the Godfather trilogy. Followed by two more bites. The last one was the most tormented. I honestly thought I was going to retch, but I managed to hang on. Another triple-feature of Diet Coke. Now get me out of here.
At home, when I described what I'd just eaten, my wife took a tiny, geishalike step backward. "Please don't come near me again," she said. Hah! She hadn't seen anything yet. I felt strangely gutsy, victorious, and ready to take on eels.
The last time I remember seeing these creatures was as a little boy at a fishing dock on Cape Cod, when I happened upon a pail of saltwater thrashing with what looked like half a dozen dark, wild neckties. Unlike the tripe, eel was distressingly easy to locate—a quick trip to our neighborhood sushi place would deliver me to my next food phobia.