We know the terrible price, which is why trite entreaties to seize life through cookery are beneath the Stunt Foodist. What separates us from the flabby, jabbering mass—the saccharine television hosts, self-satisfied recipe pimps, critics, and columnists, the lot of them—is the understanding that good cooking is much more than a life-affirming exercise. It is the belief that when performed at the highest level, cooking is a contact sport. It comes with glorious rewards and stupefying defeats. Success is not a requirement of stunt cooking, but neither is success the only marker of victory. We are concerned with the journey, less so with the result.
Don’t get me wrong; success is preferable, and last-minute saves make up the great myths of our tradition. But the failures are equally spectacular—if not more so. I have witnessed a DIY spit crafted by a fellow Stunt Foodist fracture under the weight of a side of beef and collapse into the inferno below. I’ve watched in awe while the deep-fried turkey (remember them?) I was preparing for 18 hungry and drunken guests disappeared into an angry vat of roiling peanut oil never to be seen again.
Shit yeah, we served suckling pig. And Winny got falling down drunk, as usual. Late start in the morning, but the feed was worth it. Good times. Can’t wait for Yalta.
Most recently I came to posses that rare treasure, a Kobe beef tongue. The plan was to prepare slices of seared tongue for my father who has frequently regaled me with tales of grand, white marble edifices dedicated to the sale of countless varieties of tripe, and ripping yarns about the many marginal meats available in England during The War. So I boiled the tender Kobe tongue in a carefully prepared spice broth, tending it lovingly as it cooked. In my haste to impress my father, I ignored the central commandment of the tradition: “Great food takes a long time: Sometimes days, sometimes longer.” Forsaking the strict instructions of fellow traveler Brad Farmerie, the chef/owner of restaurants Public and Double Crown in NYC, that I be sure to take care and let the tongue rest and cool over 12 long hours, I cut a corner, and plunged the flesh in an ice water bath. The tongue I fished from its watery grave 45 minutes later was ruined. The once impossibly delicate meat was now a knot of furious flesh, unyielding to ministrations and massage, tough beyond repair.
Still, I sliced it fine and prepared the heavy skillet to receive the angry tongue, steeling myself by remembering the Stunt Foodways motto: In Dubiis Constans (“steady in doubtful affairs”). As I stood trembling at the stovetop watching over the ever contracting tongue, the Second Commandment of stunt cookery steadied me: Try Again Later.
Dad and I spent the entire meal marveling at how much worse the dinner could have been and commemorating past failures, notably a whole rabbit prepared with sour cream. “Why you left the head on, I’ll never know!” my father exclaimed. “I was thinking of the presentation,” I protested. Both laughed.
It is often assumed that Stunt Foodways are male ways. Not so. There was no more dedicated Stunt Foodist than Julia Child, and, while Georgia Pellegrini, the Girl Hunter, is no Julia Child, she certainly cleans up in the firepower department. A similar misconception is that people with no interest in blood sports need not apply. While it is true that an instinct for The Stunt in cooking often begins with protein acquisition, it is not a requirement that animal be turned to flesh by one’s own hand. Sure, Stunt Foodists can be found in deer blinds, or marching through grain fields with working dogs and shotguns, or trudging along the beach, surf rod in hand—but we also frequent live poultry markets, Halal butchers, and pork specialty stores. I’ve even seen one or two in the aisles of Whole Foods.
Commandment Number Three: You need not be a butcher, but you should get to know one. It’s true that a commitment to the whole beast or primal cuts—those bold divisions better accomplished with a band saw or an axe than a knife—is a hallmark of Stunt Foodways. The charts detailing the various divisions of goats, pigs, sheep and cows adorn our walls and our imaginations. Enrollment for classes in butchering and related arts—once considered as counter cultural as yurt-living—increases every month. The sale of Hummer-sized barbeque grills are booming (sort of). If you have had a chance to peruse the kitchen tools section of the 2011 edition of Cabela’s Master Catalog you’ll observe that the management at the world’s vast outdoor adventure retailer is evidently expecting to add its share of Stunt Foodists to the client base. We have always been among you. We were the heroes of past eras. We are the heroes of the 21st century dinner table. We prepare for death by filling our lives with adventure one mouthful at a time. We are Stunt Foodists. Join us.
Manny Howard is the founder of Stunt Foodways International and is a James Beard Foundation Award-winning journalist. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, The New York Observer and more, and he has appeared on The Colbert Report. Howard is also the author of the runaway hit memoir My Empire of Dirt and contributed (along with Stephen King, Jim Harrrison and Mario Batali) to the essay collection Man with a Pan.