Menuplease: On Mystery Meat and Authenticity

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You eat meat, Fleischman. Well, say hello to meat. – Maggie O’Connell to Joel Fleischman, showing him the buck she shot, in “Northern Exposure.”

Meat is murder. – Morrissey

Femme de Joie has noticed a few comments directed squarely at her for mentioning that she ate horsemeat in France. One person seemed astonished and disgusted that M. de Joie would pass up locally available rattlesnake but dine on cheval. Fact: horsemeat is a common food in much of Europe and Central Asia (though there are recent attempts to end the sale in France, see http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1950375,00.html).

Femme de Joie is a former horse owner, loves them, admires their beauty, personality, and grace. While understanding the anger about eating horse, Femme de Joie poses the question: how do we choose which animals to eat? (Side note: While M. de Joie has great admiration for people who can follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet; she is an omnivore by choice.) Is it based on the adorable factor? The companionship factor? Or shibboleths and blind habit we’re not even fully aware of? No matter what it is, somebody somewhere thinks it’s disgusting or just plain wrong to eat.

People less blessed with abundance than Americans are accustomed to making do with what is available, and use the entire animal. We eat steaks and chops but retch at kidneys, tripe, testicles, and the other parts, to say nothing of animals not normally included in the “normal” American diet – like horse.

Having said that, someone is going to bring up the cat and dog factor. Femme de Joie has no plans to eat Fluffy or Rover; that is too far outside her personal comfort zone and cultural upbringing. But consider this: It’s easy to criticize India for not slaughtering sacred cows while people starve and beg, but is it really any different when Americans go hungry every day while thousands of unwanted cats and dogs are euthanized?

About the rattlesnake: Femme de Joie has written before that she finds rattlesnakes loathsome, disgusting, and completely abhorrent. She is not going to eat any. But if someone else wants to snarf up chicken fried rattler, have at it.

Femme de Joie is not suggesting anyone go out and slaughter their pet horse for a barbeque. She is, however, suggesting we consider our eating habits and ponder if that’s all there is.

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Authentic or Pandering?

When a reviewer starts explaining how the preparation of a quiche Lorraine at the restaurant he has visited differs from the way one prepared a true quiche Lorraine, I always want to interrupt. “But did you like it?” I want to shout. “Did it make you happy? Did you clean your plate?” … I was eating some homemade gazpacho and talking about how it differed from the more authentic gazpacho one got in Seville. The more I talked about the difference the faster I wolfed down the gazpacho – until I realized that one way what I was eating differed from authentic gazpacho was that it tasted better. – Calvin Trillin, “American Fried”

When people in the North Valley talk local Chinese restaurants, the highest compliment paid is that a place is “as good as San Francisco.” For Mexican, the geographic reference is Southern California or “that place in Mazatlan.” Not to disparage anyone’s happy memories, but chances are what you ate was still designed for tourists.

Walk into a hole-in-the-wall Chinatown café and you’ll likely see handwritten wall signs in Chinese characters: those are the authentic Chinese dishes. Black-bean steamed fish stomach, salted mustard greens with goose intestines, fish-brain soup. Away from the tourist districts in SoCal or Mexico City, find a taqueria serving brain or cow’s eye tacos or huitlacoche corn fungus stew.

Yes, the local restaurants tend toward the tame and the expected: they need to stay in business. There simply isn’t a lot of call for goat tacos around here; even lamb is a tough sell for most restaurants, ethnic or otherwise (though buche, tripitas, and birria are available at places like Ortega’s, El Mariachi’s, and Los Gordos; check with each restaurant).

M. de Joie doesn’t expect every local ethnic restaurant to serve “authentic” food, so she reviews them on their own merits. Was it good? Was it worth the money? Was a good time had by all? If they do happen to offer a fabulous vuelvealavida (shrimp, oyster, and octopus cocktail), well, that’s just icing on the cake. They’re making their money through Combination Plate #3.

Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once. – Anthony Bourdain

Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment.

Femme de Joie
Femme de Joie's first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at femmedejoiefood@yahoo.com.
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11 Responses

  1. Avatar RadioFreeJefferson says:

    Dandy article. Culture holds sway when it comes to opinions on food, child rearing, and mores, and that can be unfortunate, if not downright stupid.

  2. Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

    This really is a gem of an article. While I love every single one of your restaurant reviews, I find this piece equally fascinating. I'm not a a foodie by any stretch of the imagination, and probably will never be as I'm an eat-to-live kind of guy, but I appreciate how you explain your philosophy of eating. I might turn my nose up at a million different dishes, but that's a choice I make much as you choose to give everything a try. I just love that. The fact that you can make a food review interesting to someone who isn't into food is a gift.

    Thanks for sharing what you're thinking, and I look forward to every one of your articles.

  3. Avatar Adam Mankoski says:

    Femme – Thanks for this piece. While I'm not as adventurous as Anthony Bourdain, or you for that matter, I do think we all need a little lesson in cultural relevance once in awhile. And respecting another culture's food is a great first step.

    One of the best things I've eaten recently was goat, as part of a farewell dinner in Haiti. It was slow cooked and amazing. If I recall, you reviewed a great Mexican restaurant in Palo Cedro that serves goat. See ya there.

  4. Avatar amber asaro says:

    Femme, another great article. And nice props to Anthony Bourdain in there as well. While recently meandering around the Northeast I was pleasantly surprised to discover the best salsa verde at a Mexican restaurant in Easton, Massachusetts. Easton! A quiet little town that didn't have any Mexican food to speak of when I lived there 20 years ago. So I was muy contente, as were the servers who were surprised I asked for it. Then, on to Boston where I had some kick-ass Pho. So good that I went there twice…and could have gone there more. I love these types of surprises during my adventures….I'm always hungry for more too.

  5. Avatar gamerjohn says:

    Good food is good food. I eat all over. There is a type of Mexican food I expect at Taco Bell and another off a taco truck off Monterey Road in San Jose.

    The best Chinese food I ever had was introduced to me by a Chinese friend who took me to a place in SF, near Chinatown, on a side street on the third floor. It was a big room, but I was the only white guy there. It was mostly dim sum with some sea food, the whole fish looking up and slowly breathing as people ate it live. very different from the breaded chicken chunks in sugary red sauce.

  6. Avatar Tree Goddess says:

    There are many animals I will not eat. Some because of the cuteness factor, others because they simply do not appeal to me. When I lived in So. Cal I visited Mexico often (monthly) and some of my favorite dishes were shared with friends on the dirt roadsides between towns. Mystery meat indeed! But oh so tastey.

  7. Avatar Dr. E. Coli says:

    I've traveled widely and have always enjoyed eating whatever the locals eat. When it comes to what's on the plate I prefer a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to dining. It's better that way.

  8. Avatar Joanne Lobeski Snyde says:

    Wonderful article. Thank you so much.
    As a child on the chicken farm I gnawed on chicken feet instead of candy. We ate rabbits, cow tongue, sheep, chickens and ducks. In small quantities amidst the vegetables. There is so much culture involved in this activity, eating, that we do every day. Thank you again.

  9. Avatar lee riggs says:

    Excellent article. In recent years we have become much too delicate about food choices.We want our meat ground or sliced in way that doesn't remind us that it came from a living creature. Until recent years one was able to buy organ meats and other parts from mainline stores i.e. Safeway and others. Then they disappeared from the shelves. Happily recently they have reappeared on the shelves often in little sections that cater to hispanics. Case in point tongue (one of my favorites) and pig"s feet and oxtails.when I buy tongue at work my younger coworkers always go," Oh whats that? You are going to eat that?" First of all they don't know what they are missing tongue is one of the alltime great cold plate dishes. Secondly in my opinion it is much more respectful of the animal to use all of the edible parts. Gee, now I want some ox tail soup like Mom used to make.

    • Femme de Joie Femme de Joie says:

      Dear Lee,

      Too true. Meat displayed in the butcher case is packaged in such a way that association with the animal is largely in name only (though heavily ethnic neighborhood butcher shops in places like Chinatown in San Francisco or Astoria in Queens, New York, present a less sanitized-for-your-protection picture, with calves' heads, whole rabbits, geese, ducks, etc. in the windows). It's well-neigh impossible to find such delicacies as sweetbreads, kidneys, etc. in the local supermarket any more (though R&R often has them available frozen).

      Tongue and oxtails are much more flavorful than steak but little-known nowadays, especially with younger people, and more's the pity as they make for very fine dining and creative cooking. And "Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer" is just an old blues song.

      Cordially,

      Femme de Joie

  10. Avatar Adrienne jacoby says:

    As a junior higher I was introduced to goat and horse meat at the family table of my best friend. They were a Dutch family who immigrated to No. San Diego Co. right after WW II. There were ten children in the family and they had survived the war with their family in tact due, in no small part, I'm sure, to surviving on what was at hand. These meats were served at the dinner table with no raised eyebrow or looks askance. . . so i did the same on several occasions. Good on you for giving us a mirror to illuminate our quirks and foibles. . . We all got 'em 'n' there ain't no shots available but the best antidote is laughter.