Van Gogh's short and tumultuous life could perhaps have been made it a little easier, if he had been discovered during his lifetime. Which begs the question, what is it about us that we can't recognize genius when it's right before our eyes?
June 27, 2012
"Wise choice, sir. It is a local delicacy."
Is there another phrase that can strike more fear into the heart of the veteran traveler, hunched over the menu in a bracingly "authentic" local bistro and puzzling over the descriptions of various items with a shaky grasp of the local dialect? Surely "birds in a nest" must be a bit of poectic license, you reason, looking for confirmation from the perpetually smiling and agreeable waiter.
And then you wait for the plates to arrive. What you ordered could be a delightful array of succulent squab nestled in some doughy creation shaped to resemble a nest. Or it could be half-plucked sparrows splayed in an actual nest.
But really, you can't call a trip much of an adventure unless you've suppressed your gag reflex a few times. There's a large swath of Asia, for example, that you really haven't experienced unless you've at least sampled the flesh of the durian fruit. Football-sized and covered in formidable spikes, the uncut durian looks about as intimidating as a fruit can get. (Asian newspapers routinely carry reports of rural people injured by falling durian.)
But you don't truly appreciate the durian's offensive power until you cut inside and release its smell, a malodorous symphony that has been variously compared to dirty gym socks, stale vomit, skunk spray, raw sewage and rotten onions. The scent is so powerful that Singapore and many other metropolises expressly forbid durian consumption on public transit and in hotels.
But muscle past the gag reflex induced by the smell, and you discover the wonderous flavor of the fruit's creamy interior, a custardy mash with hints of almond and caramel. Anthony Burgess compared the nose-vs-tongue durian experience to "eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory."
Similarly, you haven't really done Europe unless you've sampled at least a few organ meats generally reserved for pet food in the States. Whether it's Scottish haggis (sheep stomach stuffed with liver, heart and lungs), Greek splinantero (lamb liver, spleen, and small intestine) or French tete a veau (a calf's head, classically served with brains, glands and all), just tell your brain that "meat is meat" and try to enjoy. I'm always reminded of an old Jay Leno routine about searching through a British garbage can after one too many nights of kidney and pancreas pie and finding that's where the Brit's keep the filet mignon.
Or maybe your buttons will be pushed over what types of animals, rather than which parts, are fit to eat. Consider the guineau pig -- cute, low-maintenance pet here; revered delicacy in Latin America. (Jered Diamond notes in Guns, Germs & Steel that it was the sole domesticated food animal in the Americas pre-Columbus.) Spend much time in any of the Andean countries, and you'll no doubt have numerous opportunities to sample cuy, fried, roasted, fricassed or, best of all, barbecued, and served more or less whole.
The flavor? Guineau pig is frequently described with perhaps the second-most-fearsome phrase for off-the-beaten-track diners: "Tastes like chicken!"
But nobody's calling you chicken. Tells us about your most adventurous dining experiences, favorite local dishes, and saved-by-Tabasco moments.