Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Chew first, think later

When sampling foods which challenge your notions of edibility, it is best not to tarry before the plate. Smelling, scrutinizing, asking questions, and thinking in general may impress your host but will lower the probability you will actually eat the food, by allowing time for that reactive part of your brain, which is completely impervious to the powers of reason, etiquette, and nostalgia, to resolutely lower its leaden foot and forbid you from continuing. Likewise, when ordering such foods off a menu, it is best not to over-translate, obsess over wines and sides, or surveil other tables. 

The degree to which you will enjoy such foods at least to some degree will depend on your ability to dissociate from your preconceived notions, past experiences of texture and flavor, and tendency to think in analogy. All the better if you can will complete ignorance. 

Italy is not generally known for its challenging comestibles, but, from my perspective, it has its share. This is mostly because, despite well-intentioned efforts, I have not yet been able to accept the idea of internal organs as food. Boar meat, yes, baby horse, yes, cured fat even, yes. Brains, no. Livers and kidneys, no. Come on, they used to do something. 

This stance makes all the more interesting, then, my enthusiasm for trying that Florentine speciality called trippa. I felt curiously open to it from the beginning, initially perhaps because the term gracefully obscures its primary functionality as part of a living creature. And, since our tripe exchange went something like –
"Tripe, isn't that...?" 
"Yes, it is." 
"Oh, okay."
– I was just a short brain pause and a deep breath away from ordering the tripe ravioli I spied on the menu at a local tripperia outside Florence a few weeks ago. I was rewarded by a smile of recognition from the server and by the brief, satisfying sensation that I was having an authentic experience.

I will say for it that, unlike many other questionably edible foods, it actually started out tastily enough. It was only with the arrival of another, whole tripe dish at the table that the idea of the tripe became clear, the texture of the tripe sauce became evident, the flavor registered (stomach entering stomach, chewy/cartilage-y, and smokily cutaneous, respectively, if you care to know) and my eating slowed. Though I finished it all, in the end I can't say I've been won over to internal organs. But I can say that I ate tripe in the same restaurant as John Malkovich.

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