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.
When the eel arrived at our table, black-belted to a little keg of rice, my two daughters laughed. "Dad, why aren't you eating it?" they taunted. They scrunched up their faces and closed their eyes as I downed the thing, quickly, cleanly, maturely. Three bites, marinated in a little bowl of soy sauce and wasabi. Eel tasted much sweeter than I expected, but still it wasn't something I'd be going out of my way to order again. The hip-hopping necktie eels thrashed in my memory as I lunged for the pot of green tea. Two down, one to go.
Shad roe happens to be in season only two months a year, but guess what? The Grand Central Oyster Bar had just gotten in its first batch. "We like 'em when they're nice and fatty," the eager chef told me. He made a special trip out of the kitchen to present me with not one but two plates of his beloved shad roe—one draped with bacon, the other encrusted with onion.
I took my first bite. Followed by a second bite and then a third. And here was the shocking thing: I actually liked what I was eating. The shad was soft, smooth, strange, but in a good way; the roe part (poor man's caviar), soft, seedy, almost mellifluous. I finished my shad roe with bacon, then, unbelievably enough, started in on the one with onion.
Imagination has its merits. Usually it's dead-on (tripe and eel); other times it's wasteful, shy, a wallflower, joyless. In the case of shad roe, my imagination had led me astray. Delicacy or not, shad roe was utterly delicious, nothing to be scared of. How could I have missed out on it all these years? Had I overlooked other things? Should I be giving one of those John Tesh Christmas CDs a chance? Spring vacation in Yemen? Why couldn't I breed hairless Chinese dogs or wear horizontal stripes? Aren't civilians allowed on the space shuttle now? Today shad roe, tomorrow Everest.
I returned to the Oyster Bar the very next night.
Have a Culinary Adventure