We were at a fancy ryokan resort in the mountains near Nagano, Japan, when the waiter arrived with the restaurant's signature dish. He flashed a slightly awkward smile as he set the big platter down before my wife and me and our three young boys.
"Basashi," he said, with a grand gesture.
"Basashi!" we all repeated with gusto. It sounded delectable! So we gamely tucked in. It appeared to be some sort of meat. It tasted good, but it glistened in the light, and its consistency was slightly strange. For a split second I thought of the movie Soylent Green.
"Basashi, you rike?" the waiter asked.
"Hai," I said, "but what is it?"
"Horsu," he said. "It is raw horsu meatu."
Slathered with enough wasabi, the cold, bloody horse mush went down just fine. Butit was only the first course in a meal that included jellyfish tentacles, still-squirming river fish, squid, pregnant snail, and fried locust. (Mmmm, crunchy!) And our boysages 2, 4, and 7 at the timeate all of it. Ranging over the planet, we've been able to dangle before their minds the concept that taste is relative, that what we think is "normal" isn't. Star fruit in Costa Rica, poi cakes and a whole hog baked in the ground on Maui, escargots and beef tartare burgers in Paristhese and other uncommon ingestions made big splashes on their imaginations. But it's not just the weird and striking discoveries; it's the grace notes. At the butcher shops in County Clare, Ireland, the farmer's name, address, and phone number was right there on the tray. That raising and butchering animals could be proud and personal professions, not some anonymous faraway industry, was paradigm-shifting for my boys.
A few months after the basashi, we were in a restaurant on Sado Island, off the mainisland of Japan. The waiter lit Bunsen burners beneath five moist abalones on the half shell. Soon there was a crackling sound, and I realized the large mollusks were not only fresh but alive: They jerked spasmodically at being cooked in their shells. After a few minutes of torture, my abalone rose up in one final death shudder and then fell, flaccidand ready to eat. The boys found this spectacle mildly distressing, but they got over it. The stuff was delicious.