JANUARY 2, 2014
“For the first time, I’m scared.” — Emilie, a member of the dining group, Pleasure Palate, being passed a tureen of ox penis bobbing in a bullion of sticks and ruffles of black fungus.
“It was difficult, but I tried it … pretty gnarly.” — Chris Cosentino, chef and part-owner of the San Francisco restaurant Incanto, describing the Filipino dish balut, an unhatched duckling cooked in its shell.
“What could be healthier than eating something completely unprocessed?”
“Like the cavemen did.”
“Animals don’t cook their food. They can survive anything. Humans on a cooked diet are weaker.” — Three disciples of the raw-food nutritionist Aajonus Vonderplanitz, on why they’re following his recommendation to eat, among other things, rotting meat.
THESE ARE BUT A FEW of the dozens of voices speaking from their particular precincts of self-interest in the world of extreme foodie-ism. As described by Dana Goodyear, in her ambitiously reported and researched book, Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters and the Making of a New American Food Culture, it’s a balkanized culture of deep culinary strangeness that has evolved — or devolved, depending on how you feel about digging into a serving of live octopus tentacles “anxiously squirming” on their plate, or grasshoppers sautéed with onions, jalapenos, and tomatoes, or a dessert parfait of black rice, coconut milk, mango, and frog fallopian tubes — into an ethos of adventurous eating that’s “become astonishingly mainstream.” To many it’s a hobby, to some a cause, to others an obsession. But in sum, Goodyear repeats later in her book, “mainstream.”
Throughout her exploration, Goodyear remained unfailingly curious and commendably hungry. Early on, she was guided through brave new worlds of the extraordinarily edible by the Los Angeles Times’s pioneering restaurant critic, Jonathan Gold, whom Goodyear terms “the patron saint of foodies,” and who, she says, “rightly suspects that he has encouraged what he calls the ‘dining-as-sport’ crowd.” Sprinkled through the book are testimonies that lend support to both Goodyear’s beatification and Gold’s suspicion. “I feel,” Goodyear quotes an ardent admirer of Gold’s, “that because he’s willing to eat this stuff, it’s almost like a dare. I have to try it, even if it’s horrifying.” Says another, studying a menu in a place he’s reviewed, “Jonathan Gold says we have to get the squid, and we listen to Jonathan Gold over all things.”
This is not to say she didn’t venture out on her own. Over many months, Goodyear visited Oriental restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, and ate, among other things, her first pig’s ear. She sat with 60 “brave, open-minded diners” at a private dinner in a Long Beach restaurant, where the many courses included corn fungus and a raw oyster concoction “made to resemble ‘a festering disease.’” She rode with a chef to a strip-mall restaurant on the American side of the Mexican border, the designated drop point for half a kilo of illegal escamoles, baby ants, preserved in a pale-orange slush in a ziplock bag. She accompanied three chefs on a shopping run to a Chinese apothecary, where among the $2000 bottles of Latour and Château Lafite, she discovered dried seahorses in $500 soup-making kits, dried fish maws, “yellow as dead toenails,” and “deer tendons, hoof on.” She attended a Primal Diet potluck dinner in a Marina del Rey condominium and encountered a table bearing dishes of room-temperature oysters, raw chicken chunks, and strips of raw bison. She writes, “The whole room stank: warm, bilious, inescapably animal, like a nursery full of neglected babies.” A most fitting simile, since she was herself pregnant at the time and had to make a hurried exit “before I embarrassed myself by throwing up all over the faux fur.”
Goodyear proves a more than capable anthropologist of appetites, clear of eye and brave of palate. But her book does not, in the scope of its geography, seem convincing in its claim that the extreme foodie movement is particularly widespread, never mind “mainstream” — a term that would suggest there are a lot of people nationwide cooking and eating things that Americans have not historically considered food. Instead, the interest and inventiveness she observes seem profoundly local. It’s true that there are nods to the Modernists, the molecular gastronomists who found their cuisines on foams and scents, in Catalonia and Chicago and New York. There are passing mentions, as well, to the pop-up restaurant trend in Austin, Texas, and Philadelphia. But those quick excursions (often no more than allusions) to the wider world aside, the scenes that get Goodyear’s full attention are set almost exclusively in kitchens and Oriental markets and restaurants in Los Angeles, with one foray north to San Francisco, and another through the desert to the casino restaurants of Las Vegas.
Further, it seems, at least as described, that a great part of the appeal for the people in this book who eat daringly, or rebelliously, or expensively has to do with their desire to stay separate from those who eat more conventional, which is to say, more mainstream, food. Goodyear divides her adventurous eaters loosely into groups. She first identifies the scavengers, inspired by Gold, eager for a cuisine of strange creatures and strange body parts. Here are folks who seek to eat what most people are afraid to. (Quoting Gold: “These are the guys who say, ‘I’ll see your live octopus and raise you a chicken foot.’”) Then come the insect-eaters. (“Dave, where’s the tailless whip scorpion? I’m thinking about doing a tempura type of fry and a spicy mayonnaise.”) After them, the raw-food advocates. (“Raw milk […] tends to be richer and sweeter and, sometimes, to retain a whiff of the farm — the slightly discomfiting flavor known to connoisseurs as ‘cow butt.’”) Many in this group wish to consume what an untrustworthy government and its suspect safety regulations tell them they can’t; some of them, less politically motivated, perhaps risk their health in what they regard as their sacred quest to better it. Next, the whole-animal devotees. (“For dessert, he made a doughnut filled with pork-liver-chocolate ganache and served espresso brewed with pig’s blood.”) And finally, in a fascinating chapter detailing the migration of some of the world’s great chefs and their haute restaurants to Las Vegas, along with the incredibly colorful purveyors who sell them truffles and Spanish caviar and incalculably fatty Japanese beef, there are the high-rollers, who eat things that cost a lot, principally, it seems, because they cost a lot. (“There are some who say that if the casinos were to stop serving shark-fin soup in the high-limit rooms — where it goes for $100 to $300 a bowl — the city’s economy would collapse.”) So whatever uniquely motivates these various groups’ choices about what they eat, they all — with one exception — appear united in a wish for culinary elitism.
The exception: the bug-eaters. They divide between enthusiasts who find sautéed Mexican grasshoppers or chilled live ants on cabbage with crème fraîche quite delicious, and demographers and scientists who see insects as an inexhaustible, eco-friendly source of protein in a world whose population is growing at a frightening speed — nine billion of us by 2050; far too many people and much too little food unless, their thinking goes, we find other things and other ways to eat. Obviously, these primary interests may differ, but they aren’t necessarily in opposition. People who think insects are tasty might also be worried about the growing threat of an unsustainable population, and vice versa. Goodyear quotes a young entrepreneur working on a “pressurization technology” to de-shell insects, husking them in effect, before they’re offered as food, and thereby reducing what he calls “the ick factor.” He says, “When you think of a chicken, you think of a chicken breast, not the eyes, wings, and beak. We’re trying to do the same thing with insects.” He is, in other words, like others interviewed here, hoping to make the idea of bugs on your plate, on your food, on purpose, mainstream.
Goodyear remains for the most part an impartial reporter, rendering scenes with a finely observant eye: the elaborate planning for an invitation-only, privately hosted dinner around the theme of marijuana as the new oregano; the kitchen preparation for a Head to Tail dinner at the San Francisco restaurant, Incanto, a place widely known for its dishes featuring offal; another dinner, described from conception through evening’s end, at Wolvesmouth, a private restaurant run out of the Los Angeles apartment of the chef, Craig Thornton, who “stands over a saucepan with his head bowed intently, his hands quick and careful, a sapper with a live one,” while 16 strangers who’ve managed to score the hardest reservation in town (the waiting list runs to months) watch from the dining room table just a few feet away as Thornton prepares the evening’s nine to 12 courses. “From above,” Goodyear writes, “the food — smeared, brushed, and spattered with sauces in safety orange, violet, yolk yellow, acid green — is as vivid as a Kandinsky.”
Here, her perceptions and descriptions are those of an invisible narrator, which is generally the case in Anything That Moves. And while I salute her restraint in some ways, I often found myself wanting her to be a more active participant in the episodes she offers up. Not to dominate them, but rather to convey a clearer feeling of what she thought of them, of what was going on in them, and of the people populating them.
Of course, the moments of preposterous comedy take care of themselves, like the young man proclaiming, “I am not a foodie, Goddamn it. I just like good food,” after the sucker of a live octopus tentacle attaches itself to the inside of his lip. At times I felt I was reading a DeLillo satire, lines from White Noise: “In its first issue, in 2007, Meatpaper, a San Francisco journal devoted to exploring meat as a metaphor […]” Such gems as these would only suffer from explicit commentary, and Goodyear is wise to let her deadpan prose do its droll work. But in general, I would have welcomed a more lively interpretive sociology, a much stronger sense of her opinion about these new attitudes, however parochial or global the trends may be. As I read Goodyear’s book, I grew so accepting of the cooks’ and eaters’ descriptions of, say, the sublime delicacies of chicken testicles and lamb spleens, that when I came to this passage — “When they lost their jobs in 2008 [Josh and Amanda] thought they’d try making edibles out of their house in Los Angeles” — I thought to myself, Wow? What parts? The shingles? The kitchen tiles? The wooden siding? How did they prepare them? Reading Anything that Moves, yielding to the steady slide into its weirdly wondrous worlds, can do that to you, and maybe it’s because I was so liable to losing my perspective that I very much wanted the broader cast of hers.
Goodyear doesn’t say, for instance, if she noticed that hardly anyone other than herself actually talks about the way the food they’re eating tastes. There’s all manner of conversation about the act of eating, the challenge, the adventure, the intimidation quotient, but rarely anything about the flavors being savored. And when there is, I have to report, things tend not to taste very good. Goodyear on pig’s ear: “oddly flavorless, but the texture reminded me of biting on a knuckle, unstable and unforgiving at once.” And Goodyear, again, on embryonic bee drones: “like everything chitinous, [they] left me with a disturbing aftertaste of dried shrimp.” And Gold, himself, on fried grasshoppers: “the mellow, pecan-like flavor isn’t bad.” Not exactly high praise.
Early in the book, Gold is quoted as saying that, in his work of reviewing restaurants, “We don’t write about food. We write about eating.” And perhaps that helps explain it: while Gold may be deeply interested in describing the entire experience of eating — the textures, the aromas, the ambience, the ethnic origins, as well as the tastes — his acolytes, as reported by Goodyear, seem far more focused on the bragging rights, on surviving in order to eat another day. Reading her book, one imagines a play-by-play announcer: He’s got the section of bull’s penis on his fork. He’s taking a deep breath as he brings it to his mouth. Will he? Yes, he’s swallowed it!
Goodyear also doesn’t say if she felt any sense of what might be lost in all the new approaches to eating — most of all the quaint idea of preparing food as a gesture of hospitality. Virtually nothing and no one in the book speaks to the notion of sharing a meal as something as social as it is sensory, of food as a reason for gathering and welcoming guests. Certainly not the food-as-death-wish machismo crowd. Certainly not Chris Cosentino, the chef at Incanto, who, when he sees that a rival has a reservation at his restaurant, vows, “I’m going to fuckin’ destroy them,” his competitive juices raised to a vigorous boil.
The closest this old, outmoded spirit comes to making an appearance in Anything That Moves is at the 16-person weekend-only dinners at Wolvesmouth in Thornton’s apartment. I’ve said that I wished Goodyear had told readers more frequently how she feels about the people who populate her book, but it’s clear she likes Thornton, and she made me like him, and his way of cooking, too: preparing “what he likes, on his own terms, for a tiny, very specific group; it’s his music on the stereo, his bedroom just beyond that makeshift door. Here, [Goodyear] thought, was a chance to look at unassimilated American cooking.”
No wonder it’s so hard to get a reservation.