Eating guts

My father raised his own beef cattle, on a small scale. He’d buy one or two calves at a time, raise them to maturity, then have them slaughtered and butchered. We knew a butcher who’d take care of the whole operation – slaughtering, cutting up, grinding, wrapping – in return for a quarter of the entire animal. A small cow yields at least a couple of hundred pounds of meat (usually more), so there was plenty to go around, and our basement freezer was always full of steaks and roasts and hamburger.


Once, the butcher left a bucket on the back steps after the deed was done: liver, kidneys, oxtail, heart, et cetera. The tongue was lying on top, and there is nothing bigger or slimier-looking than a raw cow’s tongue. “The neighbors can have ’em,” my mother said. “We don’t eat guts.”


Well, times change. I discovered in adulthood that I have a taste for liver: it’s rich and interesting. Partner, who does not share my enthusiasm, refers to it as “the cow’s carburetor,” and reminds me from time to time that it’s just a big meaty filter. That may well be. It’s still pretty tasty.


A British friend in Morocco prepared kidneys for me more than once, and they’re pretty savory too, though (after all) they’re just filters too. I love the flavor of tongue, but the texture is a little gelatinous. (There used to be a restaurant in Tunis that did tongue in aspic as an appetizer; it was very pleasant, and I never had to worry about sharing it with anyone, once I explained what it was.) Oxtail’s good, though gluey. Heart has a nice flavor, but I can’t help noticing all those little veins. In Tunisia, I often ordered an egg-and-hot-peppers dish called ojja; I never really asked what was in it, so it wasn’t until much later that I realized brains are a main ingredient.



And then there are all the other organs.


Once, in a restaurant in the Tunis medina, I was having lunch with my friend Ahmed, who was moaning as usual about his job, his love life, etc. He ordered fish, I ordered kamounia. Kamounia is a stew usually incorporating liver, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, etc.


But it doesn’t have to be liver.


The waiter brought our dishes to the table. Ahmed kept talking while dissecting his fish (which was, as always, served whole). I glanced down at my plate and saw – well, a large whitish sphere.


Now what organ could that be?


Ahmed didn’t notice. He just kept talking and sawing away at his fish. I thought about it for a long time. I’d always wondered what the organ in question tasted like.


So what the hell? I ate it.



Flavor: nothing special. Texture: a little spongy.


Just in case you were wondering.





Sunday blog: Pee-wee Herman and Andy Samberg do shots!

Here is a SNL Digital Short for anyone who likes any of the following:

  • Pee-wee Herman;

  • Andy Samberg;

  • Anderson Cooper;

  • Doing shots.


Tunisia has been going through interesting times lately. I lived and worked there for a couple of years back in the 1980s, and I still keep in touch with some of the Tunisians I knew and worked with. They’re all okay so far; they’re posting on a daily basis on Facebook, and I wish my Arabic were better, because the videos and news stories are pretty interesting. I wish them, and all Tunisians, a prosperous and happy future.


I was there during the last few years of the presidency of Habib Bourguiba, the original President of the Tunisian Republic, le Combattant supreme. He was then in his eighties and very frail, but the country was stable and open (lots of coming and going to Europe; decent relations with most of the rest of the Arab world, with the exception of Libya – but in those days, no one got along with Libya; a broad and very effective educational system, which emphasized secondary education). It was, as we said in our office communications, “the crossroads of the Arab world.”



I lived in the old city, about two blocks from the Casbah. We were within hollering distance of two of the most famous and most beautiful of Tunis’s mosques, the Zeitouna and the Youssef Dey. Both had real muezzins who intoned the call to prayer five times a day (most mosques use recordings), but the muezzins in those two mosques managed it so they never faced one another as they circled their parapets. Sometimes we’d go up to our rooftop at sunset to listen to the muezzins and watch the lights come on all over the city.



I shared the medina apartment with a number of different people, all women. The elderly landlord was baffled by this, but refused to admit it. Naturally he deferred to me as the head of the household. All of my female housemates were referred to, politely, as “Madame.”


There was a good restaurant not far from the Zeitouna mosque, on one of the roofed streets in the Medina. During Ramadan (when you can’t eat while the sun is in the sky), we’d get a table around fifteen minutes before sundown and order harira, the thick wholesome traditional Ramadan soup. They’d serve it about five minutes before sundown. We (and all of the other diners in the restaurant) would toy with our spoons. Finally, faintly, we could hear the muezzin begin the sunset call from the Zeitouna mosque. After a minute or so, a little boy stationed down at the end of the street would frantically wave his arms, signalling to us that the call was completed, and we’d pick up our spoons and begin to eat.



My apartment had a very small balcony facing north. From there, we could see the summer thunderstorms lining up over the Mediterranean. They never came inland, but we saw the lightning flickering from the clouds at night.



One day in winter, there was a little sleet mixed in with the rain, and one of my Tunisian officemates turned to me as we watched the weather from the office window and asked: “Is this what snow is like?”



Toward the end of my time there, two of my friends drove me to an undisclosed destination. It turned out to be the very tip of Cap Blanc, the northernmost point of Africa, overlooking the Mediterranean. We watched the sun go down from there.



It was very beautiful.



Here’s hoping for a peaceful and happy outcome to the Jasmine Revolution.




The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus

For a while in the 1940s, British cinema was really spectacular. Four movies are my particular favorites: “Black Narcissus,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” and “The Red Shoes.”


All were directed and written by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. All are in beautiful Technicolor, or some mutant version of Technicolor that’s even more vivid than the real thing. All four are full of contrasts: sincerity and cynicism, religion and worldliness, life and death. All four accommodate these contrasts with ease and grace and humor. All four feature fascinating actors and actresses: Deborah Kerr, Moira Shearer, Roger Livesey, David Niven, Anton Walbrook.


Powell loved extreme close-ups and theatrical gestures and bright primary colors. And Pressburger, a Hungarian who spoke better English than most native speakers (a regular Joseph Conrad type), wrote beautiful dialogue.


My favorite is “Black Narcissus,” I think. It’s based on a Rumer Godden novel about a group of Anglican nuns who set up a convent in northern India near the Himalayas. It’s too much for them. They fail spectacularly, against a background of spectacular scenery.


My friend Pat prefers “The Red Shoes.” She saw it when she was a kid – but let her tell it: “I was maybe eight or nine years old. The theater was several blocks away on a very busy street – 55th Street in Chicago – and I went to the movies every Saturday afternoon for a double feature. In those days one could sit through the showings as many times as the movie was shown and I loved the Red Shoes so much I waited through the second feature until Shoes came on again. My mother wasn’t one for franticness, but she was pretty worried when I didn’t show for dinner. She didn’t scold much though, I think she thought it was clever of me to be so entranced. After that I had to have a coloring book of ballet dancers and I remembered that the ballerina in the movie had white makeup on her eyelids and black dots in the corners of her eyes. So, naturally, all the dancers in my coloring book had to have that too.”


When’s the last time a movie made you feel like that?



In the words of Libby Gelman-Waxner: this is what movies are all about.



My life in the drug trade

I read recently that people are using bath salts as a drug. No joke. Some bath salts apparently contain a potent chemical which gives you a methamphetamine-type jolt. It apparently also gives you hallucinations, intense cravings for the chemical itself (some bath-salts benders go on for days and days), and violent self-destructive impulses.


I don’t mean to make light of this. It’s just that I can’t help wondering: Who in the world thought of using bath salts to get high?


Then again, I suppose anything that looks like powder gets snorted sooner or later, and anything that looks smokable gets smoked. Remember nutmeg? Remember banana peels? (I have a vague recollection of a woman in a Cheech & Chong movie snorting Ajax Cleanser.)


Apparently you can get high on salvia too. Salvia! It grows in front of the local grocery store!


I grew up in a very rural area. There was a lot of open space, a lot of forested area. Once, while rambling down through the field near the edge of our property, I found a neat little marijuana garden that had evidently been planted by some sneaky hippie; he’d cleared off maybe two square feet of pasture in a secluded corner, tilled the soil very carefully, and planted maybe half a dozen very cute little pot plants. I uprooted them and brought them up to the house, and my mother and I marvelled over them for a while. We debated smoking them, but decided against it. Finally we threw them in the kitchen stove and burned them. We were stupid enough to fret for a day or two that the police would somehow detect the smoke and come get us.


We had some pharmaceutical adventures when I was overseas, too. While I was living in Morocco, a visiting American friend came bursting through my door with a full-sized grocery bag of freshly-picked marijuana. “Five bucks!” he wheezed. “The guy in the market sold it all to me for five bucks!” He spent the rest of the day sitting at my kitchen table, humming to himself, sorting seeds, stems, and leaves. I’ve never seen a happier boy. And once a friend brought back some “hashish” from Spain. It looked like a lump of wood putty to me. We tried to smoke it, but it wouldn’t light. Finally we chopped it up and put it in spaghetti sauce and had it for dinner. We all got violently ill afterward.


I’m pretty sure it was wood putty.


Enough reminiscing. Time for my bath.




Jumping Jack LaLanne


Dead at 96: Jack LaLanne.


I remember watching elfin Jack do squat-thrusts on TV, way back in the early 1960s.  He usually wore a bizarre little loose-sleeved smock with a plunging neckline and a shiny belt-buckle (see photo above). He’d been a bodybuilder in the 1940s and 1950s, but by the time he hit TV, he bore little resemblance to today’s fitness models; he looked more like a happy cabdriver or a friendly mailman.


But, like Tigger, he was very bouncy.


Also, like Tigger, it was very difficult to dislike him.


Jack’s days as alpha fitness guru ended in the late 1960s, but he refused to go away.  He became a former fitness guru.  He hawked Roman Meal Bread.  Then he pitched juicers for a long time, when he wasn’t towing cabin cruisers around Long Beach Harbor.  But he was always good old Jack LaLanne, with his wife Elaine (just say it aloud: Elaine LaLanne!) and their dog Happy, all grinning into the camera, having a wonderful time.


I used to have an autographed copy of one of Jack’s exercise books.  I gave it to my friend Apollonia, who gave it to her sister, a longtime LaLanne admirer.  (As my friend Sylvia says: you should pass things along.  It encourages others to do the same.  It’s a reminder that life is fleeting, and that possessions are nice to hold onto for a while, but you will need to relinquish them sooner or later, one way or another.  Better to give them away willingly, to someone who will enjoy them.)


Jack was asked the secret of his longevity.  He answered: “I can’t afford to die.  It would ruin my image.”




Paula Deen: full of love and lard

I receive emails from the Food Network from time to time. Today’s email led with a PAULA DEEN RECIPE: FRIED MAC AND CHEESE.


A less appetizing photo you cannot imagine. It looks like a slightly burnt pound cake with a flat mealy crust. And I’m pretty sure they put a filter on the camera to keep the grease from sparkling in the light.


Please don’t get me wrong. I’m all for carbohydrates and fats. My grandma used to eat bread with lard on it, so it’s in my genes. And I’ve been known to double the amount of butter and cheese in a ho-hum recipe, just for kicks.


But Paula is – well, “over the top” doesn’t even describe it. It’s stunt cookery. How can we make this recipe even gooier than it already is?


She is also, hm, lazy. New York Magazine was kind enough to highlight her recent online recipe for English Peas. Be sure to read the users’ reviews too.


Memorable moments from her show:


  • In one episode, four shirtless guys carried a coffin-sized slab of butter on a palanquin through the audience and up onto the set. I expected Paula to do the Dance of the Seven Veils in front of it.

  • In another episode, she mixed peanut butter, honey, and sugar into a thick paste, scooped up handfuls of the mixture, rolled them in more powdered sugar (no cooking necessary!) and then ate one like an apple, while informing us that her grade-school lunch lady used to make something just like this.

  • In yet another episode, she posed the question: How can you make a rich recipe like bread pudding even richer? Why, by replacing the bread with Krispy Kreme Donuts, silly!



What next, Paula? Crisco Fritters with Georgia Butter Sauce and Mars Bar stuffing?


Come to think of it, that’d be some mighty good eatin’!




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