1940s Archive

An Alphabet For Gourmets

continued (page 6 of 8)

I later learned, from no less an authority than Henri Charpenrier, that the best thing to do if and when a bad oyster has been swallowed is drink generously of coarse red wine, whose tannic content will counteract the acid in the rotting mollusk. I have never had a chance to prove this, I add almost regretfully….

Imagination tells me that probably the hardest test I could face would be to eat live maggots which had lived in cheese, like the dish Charles Reader wrote of in The Cloister and the Hearth. But I am quite sure I would try, without too much squeamishness, the white termites in Africa, which one should snap at skillfully before they bite the tongue, and which, more than one gastronomer reports, taste very much like pineapple. For some reason the thought of them does not repel me nor, at least theoretically, does the story of the tiny live fish which are swallowed by some South Sea tribes during feasts, to jump around in their stomachs and make room for more food.

As for roasted locusts, strung on twigs over a fire and basted with camel butter, I think they sound very good indeed, since I react well, gastronomically, to things that are crisp and not sweet and might find them almost as irresistible as my peak in this category, the potato chips in the bar of the Lausanne-Palace, which were hideous to any kitchen purists, tasting one time of chicken fat, another time of lake perch, but so fresh and so crisp and so salty that ten years after I last ate one I can enjoy it still, and will ten years from his present enjoyment….

I have found that people, when questioned about the strangest things they ever ate, are vague, and I myself am so. One man to whom livers and lights are anathema will say that the worst experience he ever had was finding himself halfway through a grilled kidney before he realized what he was eating. Another will go dreamily into the story of the time William Seabrook picked up what is presumedly an oxtail bone and announced to his well-fed guests that was the best human coccyx he had been able to buy for a long time. Personally, I can murmur no such ghoulish titillations at the proper or improper moments…but although none of my acquaintances has eaten yak, one man I know who later became a bishop told me, long ago, of the time he went to a high, savage Oriental village and was served, by the head man, a stew of what he knew at a glance was boiled newborn baby. The Christian pretended to eat it, feeling souls at stake, and later confessed he was not overly relieved to learn that it was little monkeys, not babies, he had nibbled at.

So…limited as I am to shrimp, oysters, and wild boars, I still do talk with people, now and then, who have known stranger flavors…monkey and crocodile, the ordinary whale, the extraordinary innard of a calf….

Z is for zakuski…

…and for a few reasons for my thinking a discussion of hors-d’oeuvre is as good a way to end an alphabet as they themselves are to begin a banquet.

The main trouble with them, almost a legendary one, is that if they are enjoyed to the hilt, the meal that follows is, can be, and usually must be more or less ignored…except by real trenchermen, that is. The variety, the tempting high, spicy smells, the clashing flavors, all lead even jaded appetites to a surfeit that destroys what is to follow, no mater how simple or how Lucullan.

Gastronomically, this may well be thought a pity, at least by the sad hosts have commanded a feast thoughtfully and then found their fine balanced courses almost painfully ignored by their surfeited guests. Even so, it is fun now and then to roam uninhibited and unhurried through a smörgåsbord, a buffet russe, hors-d’oeuvre variés, however it may be called. Myself, I like the name zakuski, although I don’t know why, for I have never had them in the classical way, countless bowls and dishes and platters set out upon a long table, to be tasted as and how I wished and swept down with frequent little glasses of vodka.

The nearest I came to that was when I used to go to a small cellar restaurant behind the Russian Church in Paris, after the Sunday morning services. I always stopped in the bar and drank one or two vodkas and ate pressed caviar, the black at about eight francs if it had been a flush week, the red at five francs….

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