What a way to go.
One minute you're idly slithering about the clear-sided house you share with 200 friends, the next you're scooped up in a net.
It's then that you ask yourself, if you're the querying kind: Why me?
But you'd better be quick. His brutal hand, partially gauntleted with steel wool that outmatches your slippery skin, plucks you from your nest of undulating kin. He gives you a once-over, checking, you must imagine, that any wounds have healed and all infections vanquished.
The inspection complete, he tosses you in an unceremonious arc onto the stainless-steel counter that until now, if you'd noticed it at all, had only been a glinting presence to the north. But here you are: gasping for breath, writhing on your back in a futile S-curve.
Soon another pair of hands this one rougher, more businesslike sheathes you in a white plastic bag. There's one chap, who just this morning slid past you without a care in the world, slowly asphyxiating in the corner. Soon you're joined by two others, but by now that set of hands has double-bagged the sack, and the world is going dark.
You feel yourself pressed against the bag, then....
You've been broadsided by a coral reef.
You're dizzy. One of your mates is unconscious.
Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham!
When finally you emerge into the fluorescent light, you're back on the shiny counter. Those businesslike hands now wield a tapered knife, glinting and cruel. Sure you're dazed, but how could you ignore the blade of pain that enters just below your fins?
Another, this one not so deep, pierces your belly and zips toward your tail. Then you feel those hands unhinge your heart, liver, stomach and intestines.
He's not adjusting; he's removing. And then there they are, right in front of you. Still, you wriggle, hoping upon hope that if only you could get back to that clear-sided house, all would be well.
You're already dead. You just don't know it.
Yes, your death was brutal, but it was not in vain. You see, that net, that steel wool, the bag, the scale, the glinting countertop, those knives they all were mere instruments of your transubstantiation.
Once a lowly eel, you're now on your way to becoming the third and pivotal course of five in...
Keep It Down: The Dinner Party!
I'm not squeamish, but in this age of shrink-wrapped steaks and boneless, skinless chicken breasts, it's not every day that you see your dinner slaughtered before your eyes.
I wasn't shaken, but I was stirred. After all, my aim with this meal was simple: I wanted to take a selection of unspeakable bits the vile, forgotten cuts and turn them toothsome. Offal was my intended medium: a healthy dose of tongue, brain and intestine, supplemented with putrid fruits and slithering creatures from the deep.
But after seeing those eels bruised and abused, I thought it sage to invite a priest to Keep it Down: The Dinner Party!
My confessor of choice: Father Vincent Heier, who directs the Archdiocese of St. Louis Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Although Father Heier conceded that he was a "pretty plain" eater who "didn't always agree with the Riverfront Times," he agreed to partake in my five-course foray into some of the seldom-visited nooks of the gustatory kingdom.
To make the proceedings more...well, catholic, I also invited Rabbi Michael Alper, director of education at the Central Reform Congregation. A good sport and an affable spirit, Rabbi Alper assured me that he had no dietary restrictions and readily agreed to strap on the ecumenical feedbag.
Next on my invite list was Mike Gaillard, a Zen Buddhist who, although strictly speaking a vegetarian, described his dietary mandate in Clintonian terms: Don't ask, don't tell. In other words, if Gaillard is a guest and his hosts serve him meat, he accepts. But if asked to someone's house knowing full well that he'd be served meat, he'd have to turn down the invitation.
Seeing as how "pig brains" led off our conversation, Gaillard felt he had to decline. A shame, really; he seemed like a nice man.
But there we had it: Keep It Down: The Dinner Party! Prepared by me, and attended by Father Heier and Rabbi Alper. To keep myself honest, I also invited this newspaper's food critic, Ian Froeb, as well as my own leavening agent, Jasmin Aber.
So it was that the day before the feast I found myself hunched over a steaming cauldron of honeycomb tripe I'd purchased from the Shop 'n Save in Maplewood. Though thick and rubbery, by night's end it would be transformed into Tesselated Tripe and Liver Terrine.
There are those who will tell you that honeycomb tripe is a delicate substance a carrier of flavor that, when cooked properly, will disappear as a foodstuff itself, and, Zelig-like, assume the flavors that surround it.
I can now attest that this is true to a point. After boiling a two-pound piece of balloon-like stomach lining for the better part of an hour, I soaked it in milk for twenty minutes, hoping mother's milk would erase the organ's memory of all the acids, grains and liquids it once housed.
Rendered down to what I imagined was a bland anonymity, I sliced my tripe into thin strips and layered it (per the recipe I found at tripesite.com) with ground pork, chicken livers, wild mushrooms, roasted red peppers and wilted spinach.
Whatever culinary alchemy I'd achieved by boiling the main ingredient to oblivion, this terrine was not kosher on several levels. And although Rabbi Alper assured me he could see his way past any such indiscretions, I secretly worried I, and my terrine, would place him outside of God's good graces.
For better or worse, I never got the chance to test Rabbi Alper's faith. He called at four o'clock on the afternoon of the banquet to cancel.
I was disappointed, but not surprised. A few hours earlier Father Heier had his assistant ring me up to say something had come up at the good father's parish and he wouldn't be able to attend the evening's feast.
Damn them, you might say. But really, can you blame them? No doubt these are forgiving men, but it takes a man of a certain thread count to accept a total stranger's invitation to a repast of home-cooked organ meat.
Not one to let a good batch of duck tongue go to waste, by 2 p.m. I was on the phone to Washington Avenue gallery owner Ellen Curlee and her photographer husband, Durb, who didn't let me down.
In fact, as the light turned golden and tilted in from the west, the Curlees were among the first guests to arrive. Mindful that Keep It Down: The Dinner Party! had been abandoned by the church, Durb had outfitted himself with a priest's collar, an article of clothing I can only imagine he has lying around for just such occasions.
For our dining environs, we'd chosen a stone-sided home tucked away on a wooded lot near Faust Park in Chesterfield. The table was set on an elevated patio that veritably floated upon a dense forest, now and then offering views of the emerald valley off in the distance. The air was cool and slightly moist on the skin, and we'd lined the iron railing with a string of soft-lit globes. A swimming pool, long since converted to a pond, gurgled in the background, and a colony of frogs stepped out to feast in the evening air.
I must say, the thought of serving those frogs to my assembled guests occurred to me more than once.
Lucky for them, I'd already prepared my Tesselated Tripe and Liver Terrine.
As it turned out, despite the hours I'd labored over it despite the boiling, the milk bath, the pastis, roasted red peppers and the wilted spinach my Tessellated Tripe and Liver Terrine could not overcome its basic tripeyness.
Not that it tasted bad. It didn't. Not only did you have a lovely layering of reds, greens and grays on the whole, it was quite delicious. But that honeycomb still had some fight left in it. The meat was rubbery, and each time a tooth hit a chamber, it sprung back. Sort of like eating a trampoline.
Not only that, but every so often I'd hit upon a morsel of tripe that was unseasoned, yielding forth the unadulterated flavor of aged, boiled dairy cow stomach.
I've tasted worse, but I can't remember when.
"Have you ever seen those posters that display different species' penises?" Durb asked. "This sort of reminds me of one of those."
I'd just served the second course, Crispy Fried Duck Tongue Salad, and we'd discovered, to our collective amazement, that a duck's tongue has a small bone at the base that runs the length of the organ, slowly transforming into cartilage.
A smallish man with square steel-rimmed glasses and a closely tended mustache, Durb Curlee looked positively priestly as he held his duck tongue bone aloft and pronounced: "There must be an art project to be made out of these."
He was right. I hadn't paid much attention to aesthetics when I picked up the tongues the day before at the Olive Farmers Market (where don't ask me how I'd managed to resist a package of pork uteri). Looking at them now, it struck me that the tapered length of cartilage was reminiscent of a miniature whale penis.
Abstract musings vanished with my first tongue-to-tongue contact. Maybe it's just me, but I find that when eating tongue it's hard not to anthropomorphize the animal that once relied on it. I wonder:
Is this tongue tasting me?
Am I kissing a duck?
OK, so maybe it falls short of erotic, but you're definitely eating something a bit more intimate than, say, a leg. After all, along with wings and webbed feet, the tongue is one of the primary means a duck has of navigating his world.
This is one important muscle. What's more: There's only one of it. Maybe that's why they're considered a delicacy in certain parts of the world. And I can see why despite that penile bone, these crisp little tongues were one part muscle, two parts fat. Dressed with salt, pepper and crushed red pepper, then flash-fried in olive oil and butter, the tongues rendered their fat almost immediately, imparting each bit with a silky essence that tugged admirably against its crisp surface.
Ian, hunkered over his plate and de-boning his tongues with a practiced hand, deemed the dish a success. As he tossed a few tongue bones into the nearby woods, he assured me he could keep them down by the plateful.
He had a point: When your own tongue encounters this other tongue's bone, it's surprising, but as you skin it clean, any thoughts of this food's former role are tossed aside as you reach for the next tongue on your plate.
They were sort of like exotic French fries. Ellen, a petite, elegant woman born in Egypt to French parents, compared them to chicken wings an apt observation, though I think the ducks of the world might take umbrage.
I liked them. Though I must say that if I were to make them again, I think I'd try higher heat and less oil. There's a lot of fat in these little tongues, and they get greasy awfully fast.
But I digress.
Skinning an eel is not child's play. Not by a long stretch.
After watching the fishmongers at Seafood City bag them, bash them into submission, slit their throats and relieve them of their innards, I thought the heavy lifting was over.
Wrong. An eel, slithery in life, is slippery in death. You need a supple pair of needle-nose pliers to remove the skin, and it's essential that when you slit the animal's throat you not cut too deeply. You see, that notch just below the fins is your only handle. Cut too deep, and as you're removing the long tube of skin, the head is liable to pop off, leaving you with nothing but a slippery flesh tube that's always eluding your grip.
But once skinned, decapitated, diced and breaded, these critters were on their way to becoming Eels, San Sebastian Style. Which is to say: stewed with roasted red and Anaheim chiles, pine nuts and parsley.
Flecked with red and green, the stew wasn't much to look at. It sort of sat there on the plate, a grayish blob. But that didn't stop our guests from praising the dish.
Jasmin said the eels were "earthy" an assessment everyone seemed to agree with for a moment. Then Ian suggested that "muddy" might be more accurate.
This met with another round of instant approval, prompting Ellen to remark: "No wonder you're a food writer."
When I betrayed a tinge of self-doubt, they reassured me that "muddy" is a good quality for an eel to have.
That was news to me, but I figure if people praise edible mud, I must be doing something right.
Either that, or my guests were insane.
By now we were dining in the gloaming. The frogs were throatily serenading, and off in the distance a raccoon was picking over the discarded duck tongue bones.
Sure, the first three courses had been exotic, but they hardly rivaled the fetid intensity that marks much of what I ingest in the course of writing my weekly installments of Keep It Down! Then again, maybe the vat of Chuck Berry Strawberry Sangria I'd prepared to fuel our little enterprise had lowered our defenses. Sickly sweet with a quick tart punch, the wine blended nicely with the lemon, lime and orange marinating in the pitcher. The sangria left little doubt that the fourth course, Beef Tongue Served with Tomatoes, would be a knockout. (Of course, I had the inside track on this one, having followed a recipe from James Beard's American Cookery.)
Preparing a beef tongue is an experience that verges on the metaphysical. Not only must one boil it for hours and hours and hours, but there are few meats in the butcher case that look so much like they did in life. Think about it: Plucked and butchered, a drumstick bears little resemblance to the chicken appendage it once was. A tenderloin? You rarely see one untrimmed, and in any event it's a cut of meat that's invisible to the naked eye when it's on the hoof.
Not so a cow's tongue. From its lolling plane of coarse taste buds to its flaccid muscularity, all the way down to its crudely torn and fatty root, a tongue of beef looks pretty much like it did when it occupied its former home, but for the addition of a silver dollar-size USDA inspection stamp.
Not even four hours on the stovetop expunged that inky imprimatur from the skin of the tongue. It did, however, cause said tongue to surrender its bud-pocked skin as smoothly as a seasoned stripper sheds her polyester negligee. An hour later the tongues had absorbed every nuance of their tomato and olive stew. By the time meat hit plate, it was held together by nothing but a memory of its former self, and its gossamer flesh was melt-in-your-mouth tender.
It received high marks all around.
It was enough to give us hope that Keep It Down: The Dinner Party! may have found redemption.
Our religious leaders had abandoned us. But who needs the cover of the cloth when the animal kingdom has revealed that even its most derided bits are, in fact, bounty?
Our folly was quickly exposed by the final course: Durian Sorbet.
A large fruit with a hard and spiky shell, a durian doesn't exactly beckon the unwitting to sample its vomit-like flesh. This fruit takes butchering, and after you've split it open, you must ferret out the meat from the rind's many cavities.
It's not an easy fruit to prepare, and the smell somehow simultaneously redolent of mangoes and a blend of all known human excreta warns that your labor will be in vain.
Still, I had faith. I'd managed to purée the durian into a thick cream, to which I added simple syrup, a touch of lime and, for the sake of purity, a few shots of vodka. To top the dish before serving, I prepared a pomegranate reduction.
In other words, I did everything I could think of to accentuate the good in the fruit and mask the evil.
It didn't help.
Lulled into a false sense of security by the tongue course, my guests hardly noticed as I placed the dishes of sorbet before them.
One spoonful was all it took, however, to cause us all to very nearly wretch in unison.
"This makes me want to start smoking again," said Jasmin. "Anything to get the taste out of my mouth."
The bravest among us ventured a few more tentative tastes in hopes of unlocking the durian's secret allure, but the vile fruit defied us. Like the tongue bones before it, my durian sorbet headed over the railing a poison feast for our foraging raccoon.
God bless him.