My students eat dog. OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not exactly a lie. Last week my World Lit class spotted the bags under my eyes and took advantage of the situation by asking off topic questions and making distracting statements. This kind of thing happens occasionally when students are bored by an assignment and I’m tired: like wolves taking down an old or sickly caribou, they moved in for the kill. I gave up quickly, figuring that since they didn’t want to talk about avant-garde short fiction in contemporary Japan, we might as well talk about symbolism in food.
I suggested that a culture’s food is a kind of narrative that reveals as much as its literature. One of my students, let’s call him The Devil’s Advocate, challenged me on this statement and so I asked the class to name the strangest food they ever ate. One young woman answered balut. I got other answers like alligator, piranha, and of course, there was the dog. While dog meat was the most taboo, the balut proved to be the most revealing.
Balut is a partially developed chicken or duck embryo that’s boiled in its shell and eaten sometimes with a little salt or chili pepper and vinegar. I asked the class why Americans would shy away from a treat like this. The student who had actually eaten it said that you can taste the feathers and the beak, which, gastronomically speaking, is aesthetically interesting but not necessarily appealing. But another student, let’s call him Quiet Guy at the Back of the Class Who Occasionally Pipes Up and Says Something Brilliant, said that Americans have a problem with food like balut because it’s something “in between”. Americans, he claimed, like things in black or white rather than shades of grey; eggs are cool, so are chickens, but you know, pick a side, dude.
I agree with Quiet Guy, but I would extend that notion to human beings in general, not just Americans. Especially when it comes to food. We need categories. We tend not to enjoy the culinary chimera, the gustatory hybrid, until we have been trained to do so (as in the “gourmand” or “foodie”) or until a category emerges that can explain what we don’t understand. For instance, had I suggested to you five years ago that a Roasted Garlic Onion Jam was tasty and delicious, you might have balked at the idea, but the recent emergence of the “Sweet & Savory” category has given us a place to put this creature. It’s no longer “Weird,” it’s “Sweet and Savory.” Kettle Corn was the first place I recall seeing the Sweet & Savory concept widely consumed. It’s been around in cultural pockets for some time (i.e. the Southern “banana sandwich,” more on that in a minute) but it’s only recently that Sweet & Savory has become an acceptable food for the McDonalds Masses. Balut, however, poses a special intellectual problem for Americans. It’s an embryo. Americans have been shot over the definition of this word, for crying out loud! I could be wrong but my guess is that, unlike kettle corn, balut is never really going to take off. (If you ever do get a hankering for it, and you’re a local, you can actually pick some up right here in Fairbanks at the Asian Food Market.)
So, am I suggesting that you shouldn’t eat the balut? No. Finding pleasure in eating is like finding pleasure with a new lover, you have to be curious, willing to experiment, and willing to pay close attention to your own sense of being. Adventurous eating is a way of experiencing the present moment with new, childlike wonder, a moment that occurs less and less as the years march by. So, I say eat the balut. You might not like it, but think of it as good material when you’re being forced to engage in small talk…rather than “What about all this rain, huh?” you can ask “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?” knowing that whatever the other guy’s answer is, yours will surely beat it.
About that Banana Sandwich… This is something I frequently ate as a child and I’m sharing it because it’s a combination of ingredients that seems strange to some (Yankees); it breaks Acceptable Food Combination Rules. But here’s the category it falls into: Things Elvis Ate. Some of you may not find that an acceptable category, so you should know that it also fits into the Sweet & Savory slot. See that? New Category = Acceptable Food Combination. Be brave. Try it.
- 2 slices whole wheat bread (that’s how my Grandmother made it, so that’s how you’re going to make it)
- 1/2 banana, sliced lengthwise into 1/4 inch thick slices
- 1 tablespoon chunky peanut butter
- 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
Instructions: Put the peanut butter on one side and the mayo on the other, bananas in the middle. Put a good chunk of butter in a frying pan and fry the sandwich like you would a grilled cheese. This is great for breakfast, but I don’t recommend combining it with Valium and Demoral, because that will apparently kill you.
I know what you’re thinking. The mayo is the difficult part. But if you don’t include it, you haven’t made an Elvis, you’ve made toast with bananas and peanut butter. Don’t be a sissy. Put the mayo on.
*By the way, I was reminded of this sandwich (I haven’t eaten it since I was about 12) by a nice fellow from North Carolina who offered to send me some Duke’s Mayonnaise. He is clearly a man after my own heart because he sells a pig cooker called the Carolina Cooker. I’m hoping he will create one painted pink and call it the Tart Little Piggy Cooker. It should come with custom flames on the side.