19 October 2011

Fortune Favors the Bold

"He was a bold man that first eat an oyster."

So say Jonathan Swift, long-dead professional satirist and author of future Jack Black movies.

I've seen variations of this quote all over the place (occasionally with better verb tenses) and I get what he was saying. Oysters don't look like a thing you'd want to eat. They're quite gray, and wet. If you were coughing up sea life, the things that came out might look like the inside of an oyster. That means that someone, somewhere, decided that they were hungrier than this beach garbage looked bad and decided to smash one open and give it a go. Raw.

Wonderful for them -- and for the eminently quotable Smith -- that their accomplishment would go on to give us the much more eatable Oysters Rockefeller.

You may recognize them as:

     Cheese & Bacon in an Oyster Shell          14

I think what Jonathan Swift failed to do is give credit to all of the other gastronomical astronauts (gastronauts?) who also came between him and the Bravest Oyster Eater.

For the record I feel bad for using "gastronauts"; it seems lazy.

I think picking a bivalve up off the beach and eating it raw is far tamer than the legions of people throughout history who have done so much more with so much less.

An aside: I'm fascinated with the thing inside of us that recoils in horror when we smell something terrible, and then immediately sets us to finding someone else to share in that smell. I expect a lot of these hypothetical food proto-scientists did the very same thing right before declaring their invention a "delicacy".


The innovators of the first cheeses deserve some credit. Adding acid to milk creates a pretty basic cheese that's present in nearly any culture that had ready access to dairy. Farmer's cheese, queso blanco, Paneer, and so on. Good on them for deciding to roll with curdled milk instead of throwing it out but the whole process is pretty tame. If you're set on using up your milk I don't think it's too much of a leap to strain the lumpy bits out and see how they taste on their own. These innovators are noteworthy but I don't believe they are trailblazers.

The real pioneer of cheese is the guy who opened his cellar and noticed that his carefully hoarded cheese wheels had hideous bleu veins running through them. It would have looked a lot like any other thing he had ever tried to eat that had become, over the course of days or weeks, lousy with mold and inedible. On top of the visual warning the smell (mildew mildew mildew mildew) would have hit him first. He should have thrown it all out. He should have tied une bandana around his mouth and burned it in a trash heap downwind from civilization. He should not have eaten it. No one was there to say, "This is a thing and you'll be ok after you eat it because it is not, as your nose would try to convince you, poison." Being the first person to eat bleu cheese (or gorgonzola, if you're fancy) is very much a "roll the dice" situation.

Lucky for fans of buffalo wings, then, that the dice were rolled and people across the world decided to pretend that bleu cheese was food and not garbage.

Of course, this is not to say that bleu cheese is the only thing that eating garbage has given us.

Pickled Stuff

I try not to be too quick to discount the intelligence of people from olden times. They built pyramids and boats and castles and all kinds of other crap I don't know how to do. Clearly they pushed the bounds of the technology they had at the time. I'm typing lazily researched words about food on a machine that's ten times suited for the task. I'm hardly pushing any boundaries here. With that in mind I think it's not too much of a stretch for someone to have noticed that this vinegar they had on hand was great for all kinds of shit and was actually kind of handy at preserving food too.

I realize now that someone had to forge ahead with turned wine (vinegar being derived from "sour wine" [vin acre]) but that's more than I'm really going to be able to write about.

So they've got this jar of vinegar and these vegetables (cucumbers, cabbage) and some spices and salt and they figure if they throw it all into a pot they're ready to go with some edible vegetables during the winter when everything's dead. That makes sense. January rolls around, they pull the cucumbers out of the brine and have this "Oh shit!" moment when they realize what a tasty snack they just created. I have to assume that the next step was inventing hamburgers and hot dogs to have something to use the pickles on.

But that only covers one kind of pickles and leaves out a whole swath of delicious, preserved stinking crap. Someone had to try it without vinegar; just salt. Once again, I'll tip my hat to their likely knowledge that salt's fine for preserving meats and whatnot. So maybe it was out of necessity. They had too much cabbage and they just used all their vinegar on the pickles and they're just trying not to starve. Boom. Brine, cabbage, and fermentation. Fast forward to winter (again) and it smells like a raccoon certainly crawled into their root cellar and died there, possibly many times over. The cabbage they've been steeping with a bunch of other spicy stuff in Asia (kim chi) or basically unadorned in Germany (sauerkraut) has turned. It smells a lot like something awful and indistinct but wrong in a very visceral, evolutionary way. Once again, no one showed up and told them that in spite of what their nose and eyes were telling them, everything was okay. I can't speak to kim chi; it looks delicious I've just never tried it, but I can say that eating sauerkraut had to have been an alternative to starving to death. That sharpness of fermentation really strikes the nose in a way that lets you know something went wrong.

Sauerkraut is like one of those harlequin-bright rainforest frogs that will poison the living fuck out of you; they both tell you far in advance what you're about to get into if you proceed with your plan to eat.

It's possible, that in the process of not starving, the person who could not dispose of their brown, fermented vegetables grew to like this awful thing they had inadvertently created. And they decided that, after no one died from it, they could do it next year. On purpose! And then a name was bestowed upon it and you've created a fermented cabbage thing. Or if you were still on cucumbers you made sour pickles.

In Memoriam

To commemorate these long-dead unacknowledged food explorers I propose the following quote:

"Also brave were the people who ate this stuff that in no other context could be said to smell like people food."

Please join me in lifting a fistful of sauerkraut in their honor.

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