Edit 10/24/11: I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. But I thought about this book with almost every comment Jamie made during “This Little Piggy” (see last post), so it’s time has come.
Ever since the days when I believed my little pink stuffed bunny with polka dot ears could keep away the vampires in my closet, I have been something of a keeper of totems. Throughout my life there have always been “security” objects from the obvious and typical like my ‘blanky’ to the subtle and seemingly logical like my absurdly overpopulated key ring.
I am not particularly superstitious or religious, but I am actually grateful that I can gain comfort and strength from seeing an object that reminds me of my goals and rejuvenates my determination. I was just surprised this time when it was a cookbook.
That might seem absurd given the topic of this blog, but I was expecting something more along the lines of a food tool. For example, I am tremendously soothed by the sight of my exquisitely seasoned cast-iron skillets; or the smooth, cool weight of my chef’s knife. In fact, as an homage to the men and the moments and the mixology that took my hand and led me to this (primrose?) path, I had mentally elected a Boston shaker as the talisman of my food career. But I still have not purchased one of those because I fell in love with a cookbook.
Somehow, a ‘vintage’ tome, extolling the benefits of taboo meats and offal has become the symbol of all that is important to me about creating my own farm to table life. When I am frustrated I open it at random and read recipes for locust soup and horse jerky to calm my nerves. I spent days practicing the pronunciation of Pannequets aux laitances (fish sperm crepes) because I thought the marriage of soft roes, bechamel and enchilada technique was sheer genius. Ladies and gentleman, if you have not yet made the acquaintance of Unmentionable Cuisine by Calvin Schwabe, you are missing out on one of the most important food books in modern history.
Pre-dating the nose to tail ideal (I love you Fergus!), this book is chitin to fur and everything in between. Calvin campaigns for not only the judicious use of every part of a beast, but the use of every beast (except humans. And God bless him, I’d be willing to bet there would have been a chapter on cannibalism if a) he had actually ever tried human meat and b) the publisher would let him get away with it). I am not going to sit here and try to convince you that his recipes sound delicious. I really have no desire to increase my insect intake, and snake is not my go-to protein source anymore than beef lung is. But Calvin’s main points are beautiful and even more true and important today then they were in –check it– 1979.
- Food taboos are socio-cultural and psychological. More importantly, they are not nutritionally or even palate-based. And no, I’m not going to be the one who tries to get the ophidiophobe to eat “snake marinated and cooked with rice” (p.260). I respect these mental blocks. I have plenty of them. But understanding that your brain is holding your tongue hostage is the first step to taking some important food risks.
- We’re going to run out of food. Schwabe doesn’t say that exactly, but all the aloof intellectual statements about deterioration of the environment and how inefficient it is to raise meat the way we do, particularly when we do not utilize all of it amounts to the same thing. We are once again seeing famine in large areas of the world, while developed nations throw away food that is sitting in a uselessly engorged food pipeline and spoiling. One day many more of us may need to eat parts or meats we did not think ‘fit for consumption.’
- Some of those other parts (or other beasts) are more nutritionally valuable than those we savor. Beef heart boasts more protein than steak with less fat. Pork stomach has more protein than ham and one-third the fat. Rabbit, is increasing in popularity among meat producers in Massachusetts. The public does not seem to be embracing it quite as quickly but for the carnivorous waist-watcher 50% more protein than steak with only 20% of the fat content makes rabbit a flavorful and functional alternative.
Calvin Schwabe also puts recipes from all over the world on equal footing, respecting the food practices (and innovation) of myriad cultures. This book screams unity, sustainability and conscious eating in one clever text. I admire that feat and I am inspired by it.
Two parting shots. Unmentionable Cuisine is still in print. Thirty-two years later it’s relevance is only increasing and I am glad that it is easily available. High priest and priestess status in the food industry did not start with Rosie Daley, Rachel Ray and Bobby Flay. There is a lineage that I probably barely know the half of but delight in respecting. So it is notable that MFK Fisher wrote a review of Unmentionable Cuisine for The New York Review of Books!
Get your own copy. Put it where you can see it. Let it guide you. And when my place opens up please come in for some soft roes in bechamel. You’ll love it. Nothing tastes bad in bechamel.