When I was a kid, I felt as passionately about the food I hated as I did about the food I loved. My mother, who otherwise fed us stuff we liked or even adored, had the occasional sadistic spell during which she dished up the most disgusting things on the planet: smooth but granular chunks of fried calves’ liver that tasted the way cat poop smelled and had, I imagined, a similar texture; frozen okra that she boiled into sluglike tubes with creepily crunchy guts held together by strings of snot; Brussels sprouts both soft and coarse that tasted bitter and gaseous; and wretched heaps of foul, mealy, slimy Lima beans. I could tolerate broccoli and spinach, barely, in a stalwart mood, but otherwise, they made me gag. It was the 1970s, and meat was expensive, so my mother sometimes bought cheap steaks that came with pieces of gristle embedded in them; these likewise caused me to retch and want to spit them out.
These rare but intensely memorable awful meals were the occasion of much subversive drama amongst my sisters and me, silent antics, because we weren’t allowed to complain about our food. We were expected, like most kids, to eat it. So we mastered the near-universal childhood table arts of the wadded-up napkin containing half-chewed bites, the under-the-table palm-off to the cat, the pushing-food-around-the-plate maneuver into patterns that minimized volume. We also all developed our own, other means of avoiding hated food. Emily, the youngest, who unlike Susan and me was given to histrionics and wild displays of rebellion, could always plausibly throw a tantrum and be sent to sit on the hamper in the bathroom (her usual punishment), thus escaping the horrible item in question. Susan, the middle sister and the most sly and resourceful of the three of us, would excuse herself to go to the bathroom and sneak an entire napkinful of liver or okra with her and flush the whole thing away, never to darken her life again.
As the oldest, or, in other words, as the people-pleasing rule-follower, the obedient one, the mama’s girl, I found ways to actually, literally eat whatever food I couldn’t feed to the cat or hide in my napkin. I taught myself to simultaneously disarm my gag reflex and block my sense of smell by lifting my palate up into my adenoids, or something like that. Then I’d fork a gigantic piece of liver or okra or gristly steak into my mouth, barely chew it, keep it off my tongue’s surface taste buds as much as possible, and take three big swallows of milk. And so, while one sister got herself banished to the bathroom and the other one snuck there to throw her dinner into the toilet, I stayed behind and powered through the vile stuff under my own steam. And presto, voila, my plate was clean, and I could have dessert. Revulsion gave me a certain shivery almost-pleasure similar to that of the most terrifying ghost stories. I was proud of my ability to overcome and control it.
As an adult, I learned to love all the things I couldn’t eat as a kid, or at least like them. Because there is nothing I am forced to eat now, revulsion has become a state of mind rather than an actual sensory experience. It still packs a psychological punch, even though the most disgusting things in my present-day life are vicarious, and generally come from books or movies or an account of another culture’s consumption of things that my own does not consider remotely edible — cats, dogs, grubs, worms, insects, monkey brains, horsemeat; reading or hearing about or watching people eat these things can feel as viscerally terrible as those long-ago dinners of childhood disgust.
In the book “Alive,” the true story of a soccer team whose plane crashed in the Andes and who then turned to cannibalism in order to survive, there is one particular scene so graphically disturbing, so complexly disgusting/fascinating, I find myself thinking about it still, years after I read the book. It’s as viscerally memorable a scene as any of M.F.K. Fisher’s best food writing, but, in order not to be like the mother who forces her children to eat fried liver, I will refrain from inflicting a description of it on the unsuspecting reader. I imagine that anyone who has read the book might instantly know what it is (hint: it has to do with lungs).
Thinking about this scene, I have to lift my mental palate into my mental adenoids and keep the imagined taste as far from my mind’s taste buds as I can. But in a weird, perverse way, I also find it as interesting as any mouth-watering description of a feast. The things I consider delicious and the things that revolt me are still equally powerful. The shivery pleasure of eating something that could be disgusting but isn’t – like caviar, raw oysters, or sea-urchin sushi – is equal to the horror I feel when I think of something truly disgusting that others might consider edible, or even a delicacy. Apparently, nothing has changed since I was a kid.
This dish of chopped raw meat and a raw egg is my favorite thing to order in a restaurant; whenever it’s on a menu, I ask for it. I’ve eaten it in various places in Paris, Rome, New York, Seattle, Montreal, and Portland, Maine. It varies in texture and quality as much as any dish. In Paris, I always get a professional, superior concoction. The Italian version is a fat disc of raw hamburger mixed with parsley and capers. In Seattle, the ground meat, egg, and condiments arrived separately in little dishes on a large plate, and I got to mix it all together myself. In Portland, it was very simple and coarse and almost tasteless. In New York, at Balthazar, it is always luscious and sublime, as good as it gets: an alchemy of tender, fine, very fresh, savory beef, a sweet raw quail egg, and just the right additions and flavorings.
I have never made it at home, but if I did, I would buy a pound of the freshest available beef tenderloin and grind it myself, fairly fine, and mix it with a rubber spatula quickly and lightly in a very clean glass bowl with just the right (small) amounts of minced anchovy filets, minced red onion, capers, minced parsley, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, mustard, olive oil, and hot pepper flakes. I would divide this mixture onto 4 plates, mold each with the spatula into a disc, press the back of a spoon into the top to make a depression, and crack a very fresh quail egg onto each.
Steak Tartare! It is a big Hanauer favorite, served at all the family weddings, Cathi’s included. I must admit that I have never actually tasted it but Lonnie is quite the connoisseur. In the Hanauer version, chicken eggs are used instead of quail. His mother even served it at home occasionally.
Oh my. I still remember one family dinner of lima beans and hamburger overcooked to the point where it resembled ground up corrugated cardboard. Ketchup will only cover so many culinary sins, and with cloth napkins you can’t hide anything away…. Shudder.
Give me my beef blue, thank you very much!