It’s a Delicacy by Matt Williams: The Gross Foods We Eat and Why

by admin on June 27, 2010

Another excellent article by my guest writer Matt Williams….

When you think of expensive delicacies, what comes to mind?  Most people would invariably say something like lobster, caviar, sushi or foie gras; foods that are challenging to eat and not always accessible to the human palate.  It is often taken for granted that across the globe, every culture has its own version of these foods, things that are appreciated only by the discerning few who have acquired a taste for them.   It is also taken for granted that these foods are only for those who can afford them, and are therefore a symbol of class and social standing.

But would it surprise you to know that all of these foods began as the poor man’s food?  That’s right, raw fish, fish eggs, goose liver, and bottom feeding crustacean all began as food enjoyed (perhaps enjoyed is too strong a word) by those who couldn’t afford cooked fish, fat birds or plump animals to put on their dinner table.   They were the staples of peasants, fishermen and herders who were forced to sell their wares to make ends “meat” and could only eat what was left over.   This included the organs of their animals, their unfertilized offspring, or things that other people simply didn’t want to eat.

But in time, as our collective knowledge of the world expanded and the globe became a smaller place (thanks to exploration), things began to change.  The wealthy and affluent of society began to demand new and more complex foods to snack on.  Many of these came from overseas, the results of trade, colonization or conquest; but a good deal also came from their own backyards.  Having grown tired of things that tasted good and filled their bellies, they began to turn to foods that were a challenge in and of themselves.

Take lobster for example.  At the time North America was first being colonized by Europeans, lobsters were abundant, often washing up on shore to form piles up to two feet high.  Since they were so plentiful and easy to harvest, lobsters were a frequent meal for poor families near the coast.  Fishermen also subsisted on them because they were plentiful and not sought after since they were bottom feeders.  It wasn’t until the 19th century that restaurants began serving lobster to wealthy patrons who had quickly acquired a taste for them.  This affinity for the crustacean soon had a devastating effect on the population, causing prices to rise substantially.  Hence why they are so expensive today!

Haggis is another good example.  Generally assumed to be Scottish in origin, haggis is a dish reserved for adventurous eaters.  Containing sheep’s ‘pluck’ (heart, liver and lungs), minced with onion, oats, spices, and traditionally cooked in the animal’s own stomach, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that haggis was a food eaten only by those who were for forced to!  Although its origin is shrouded in mystery, it is generally assumed that herders prepared haggis from what was left over from their herds once all of their meat had been handed over to the aristocrats to whom they owed service.  It has since come to be a symbol of Scottish heritage and is served in pubs and eateries, especially on Robbie Burns Day.

Foie gras has a long and complicated history as well.  Though it traces its origins to ancient Egypt, where geese were forced fed to enlarge their livers, the practice of eating foie gras waned after the fall of Rome.  It remained in effect only amongst a small segment of the European population – the Jews.  Under Kosher law, Jews were forbidden to cook with animal lard.  And while Mediterranean Jews were able to rely on olive oil and Asian Jews on sesame, European Jews had neither available to them until the 19th century and after.  Poultry fat, that obtained by overfeeding geese so that their livers would be enlarged (and well suited for cooking) was thus employed.  During the High Middle Ages, as gentiles gained a taste for goose liver, they were forced to travel to Jewish ghettos in their towns to seek it out.  By the beginning of the 17th century, the practice had become much more widespread, with foie gras being appreciated by nobles and wealthy merchants all over Europe.

Let us also consider sushi.  In ancient times, sushi was the food of choice amongst fishermen and commoners in South-East Asia.  Originally, the practice of making sushi involved placing raw fish in with cooked rice, vinegar or salt to keep it preserved.  This was done mainly for the sake of ensuring there was food to eat during the winter months when tsunamis made fishing impossible, and heavy rains made wood fuel difficult to procure, and hence too expensive.  Since that time, sushi came to be the delicacy of choice for the aristocracy of Japan, especially during the Shogun period.  But rather than eating their fish preserved with vinegar and salt, aristocrats enjoyed it fresh and raw on patties of rice with seaweed and ginger.  This custom was considered a mark of high class and was practiced by the nobility alone by the time Admiral Perry sailed to Japan.  With the opening of Japan to the world in the 19th century, it has expanded to become a delicacy that is enjoyed worldwide.

Much the same can be said of sheep’s eyes, caviar, frogs legs, truffles, calves’ brain, or escargot.  All began as staple foods for the poor since they were nutritious, easily procured and not exactly sought after.   They were, in effect, the stuff no one else would eat.  But in time, some more than others (and earlier too) these foodstuffs became expensive or rare treats, served only in high-class establishments to discerning clientele.  As legendary chef Elzar put it: “Hey, that’s what rich people eat, the garbage parts of food.”

But why the change?  Perhaps this represented an act of rebellion on behalf of the wealthy towards their privilege, the rich doing a little slumming by putting things in their mouths no other rich person would.  Or, it could have been an act of appropriation, the wealthy laying claim to something that was uniquely “common” since they had grown tired of lording their ample diets over the lower classes.  Or it could have been a necessary move by the wealthy to ensure that their tastes remained distinct.  As pasteurization, refrigeration and improved transportation greatly enhanced the diet of people everywhere, the wealthy must have felt that their dietary world was being invaded.  Thus, they relocated, to lower ground!

Today, the world of cuisine is a challenging and diverse place, presenting many opportunities for enjoyment and disgust.  For those who live in a metropolitan environment and can afford it, just about anything can be ordered and eaten.  And those who do so can always defend their actions by claiming they are adventurous, or just by saying “it’s a delicacy.”

Want to see It’s a Delicacy Part II?

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