Strange Foods, Stranger Times
After being forced to stomach snake-blood cocktails and rooster-head soup, one afflicted traveler discovers that revenge is a dish best served by Norwegians
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I looked down at the quivering, white, gelatinous globules on my plate and then glanced over to the table where the Chinese were sitting. There were three of them, two men and a woman, a scientist and two scientific technicians: bone workers on their first full day in Livingston, Montana. They were in my hometown to help disassemble a display of Chinese dinosaurs at the Natural History Exhibit Hall here, and I had run into them at the Seattle airport the previous day. They had just flown in direct from Beijing.
The only one of these distinguished visitors who spoke English asked me to call him Brian, which, he said, sounded a bit like his actual name but was easier for Americans to pronounce. And now Brian and the other two Chinese folks found themselves sitting at a long table in the basement of the local Lutheran church staring at heaping plates of lutefisk, a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner.
Lutefisk, a fishlike substance, seems at first glance a revolting jellied putrescence. Consumption is a matter of some courage. I find it necessary to sit before the dish and center myself, breathing deeply and consciously, staring at the plate as I would at a meditation mandala. Steam rises like an offering, like the soul's longing for oneness. Lutefisk, I propose to myself, is consciousness made tangible, in the form of fish, and that when I eat it, I partake of the Universal. Thus fortified, spiritually and morally—and with my courage on the rise—I finally allow my eyes to refocus on the plate before me and see lutefisk for what it truly is: a revolting jellied putrescence.
Traditionally, in the ranching and farming communities of the West and Midwest, lutefisk dinners are served in Lutheran churches during the winter, just before Christmas. These are fund-raising events, and it is said that some eat lutefisk to show their devotion to Lutheran doctrine, rather in the manner of medieval saints flogging themselves bloody with whips. The Norwegian word lutefisk means “fish washed in lye” and refers to an ancient manufacturing process that involved drying fish and soaking it in lye. Lutefisk, a staple on long voyages, fueled the Viking rampages through Europe. This is because any person forced to eat lutefisk two nights in a row is certain to become a savage warrior.
Lutefisk won’t actually kill you, though there is a rumor that, in the tiny rural town of Wilsall, about 50 miles from where I live, lye-soaked scraps of lutefisk were left out in back of the church—the fish is sometimes boiled in tents outside, so that the odor doesn’t stink up the building for the rest of the year—and that cows from a nearby field got through the fence, ate the fish, and died.
I recently called the distributor of the lutefisk used there and in many other communities throughout America. The Olsen Fish Company of Minneapolis sells about half a million pounds of lutefisk a year. A representative of the firm assured me that the dried fish is “luted” not in lye, but in caustic soda (sodium hydroxide), a kind of bleach used in laundry products as well as in the manufacture of explosives. Caustic soda is said to “revive” the dried fish and plump it back up, though I suspect its main virtue is that it breaks down fats to form soaps. Which would explain why lutefisk is a sort of jellied fish.
The Olsen Fish Company buys its dried cod direct from Norway, lutes it, then soaks it in water a couple of times. When the consumer receives a shipment it is free of toxicity and ready to boil and eat. So the rumor of the cows dying from eating lye is entirely false. They died from eating lutefisk.
I’m kidding. Lutefisk is something you kid about. Anyway, I eat it and enjoy it precisely twice a year: once at the Lutheran church in Livingston, and once at the Lutheran church in Wilsall, where you have to climb over piles of dead cows to get in the door. I’m kidding.
In Livingston, I watched the Chinese as they considered the quivering fish on their plates. We had gotten there late, which is to say, somewhere around 6:30 p.m. Latecomers don't get large gelatinous portions of fish, but only small quivering bits the size of marbles, which are difficult to manipulate with a fork. It is, in the words of the late poet Richard Brautigan, like trying to load mercury with a pitchfork.
The Chinese hadn’t yet tried a bite. They spoke urgently among themselves.
I could sympathize with the Chinese, but there was another emotion tugging at me. These fine visitors, I thought, were in for what I can only describe as a culinary comeuppance. Please understand: As a travel writer, I’m usually the guest sitting at the table, staring at the food before me and wondering: Are they making fun of me here?
In northern Australia, I was served baked turtle lung, which tastes a great deal worse than it sounds. In the Peruvian Andes, I wondered what to do with the rooster’s head floating in the soup, and whether I was really supposed to eat the little stringy portions of guinea pig I’d been proudly served. My hosts in Irian Jaya treated me to a plate full of fried sago beetle grubs, corpse-white wormy-looking little guys about the size of my index finger from the second knuckle up. They were pretty good and tasted rather like creamy snail.
Western travelers often discuss various grotesque foods they’ve consumed either out of politeness or curiosity. In fact, two of my favorite recent books chronicle bizarre gustatory adventures. Man Eating Bugs, by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio (with a foreword by Tim Cahill), concerns itself with the consumption of insects from Uganda and Indonesia to Australia and Cambodia. Menzel has sampled sago grubs in Irian Jaya and describes them—erroneously, in my opinion—as tasting “bacony.” Peter and I get together to argue this point about once a year.
The just-published Strange Foods, by Jerry Hopkins (a man who has eaten with local folks on six continents), features descriptions and pictures of pig-ear cartilage in garlic sauce, worm meal shakes, and five penis wine. Hopkins’s thesis? “What is repulsive in one part of the world, in another is simply lunch.”
Or dinner, in the case of lutefisk. Perhaps the Chinese were wondering if the meal was an elaborate joke. The tables, I thought smugly, have turned. Consider, for instance, my last dinner in China.
I had arrived in Beijing carrying a pair of rifles: one .30-06, and one .22. They were for my Mongolian guides; I had a two-day layover in Beijing before the flight to Ulan Bator. Carrying rifles out of the United States, into Canada, through Beijing, and into Mongolia was a nightmare of bureaucratic paperwork. They were expecting me at the Beijing airport, where I walked down a long corridor with armed guards in front of me and behind me.
We stopped at a large room, with two couches, where a Chinese official in a Western suit asked me if I would like tea. The proper papers were signed, the guns were put into a locked safe, and I was given a receipt. Then we all drank tea, with nothing much to say to one another. I didn’t want to tell them that the airline had lost one of my bags, the heavy one, containing several thousand rounds of ammunition for the rifles.
We began talking about food, and the man in the suit said that while I was in China I absolutely had to have a traditional snake dinner. It was a man’s dinner, for real men, and as such was manly in a vigorous masculine manner, etc. I gathered snake was one of those foods thought to put lead in the old pencil. Chinese men, I was led to understand, dined on snake in large groups, all of them becoming more virile and potent with each bite. In America, the same process is associated with beer. Which, as I discovered, was not too far off the point.
I was traveling with an American named Michael Abbot, and we had to make do with a two-man reptile feed. The restaurant in our hotel, I was informed, was famous for its snake. The dining room was elegant: There were indoor ponds and bridges and fountains. When the waitress arrived at our table, I pointed to the English menu: snake.
She said something not in my 20-word Mandarin vocabulary, but eventually I understood that I was to get up and discuss my dinner choice with a small man standing off in one corner. The corner, I saw, was stacked floor-to-ceiling with glass fish tanks containing all manner of sea life. There were also chicken-wire cages in which various terrestrial animals waited to be chosen, rather like puppies in a pet shop window.
The man took me to the snake cage. There were 15 or 20 of them in there, all twisted up together like a ball of yarn, and I understood I was to pick one out for my dinner. I have little experience in the matter of choosing a tasty snake and simply pointed at the biggest one, a creature a little over six feet long and about as big around as the business end of a baseball bat. The man opened the top of the cage, reached in, and grabbed the snake behind the head. Then he stood there speaking rapidly in an apologetic tone while the snake hung loosely in his hand, its tail twitching and curling on the floor.
The snake, it turned out, was not venomous, and hence was less effective in generating virility. The man was terribly sorry, but it would be a week before any restaurants in Beijing could stock poisonous snake. This was by decree of the government.
What was the reason for the rule? The snake man gestured for me to look around the restaurant so I could see the reason for myself.
The dining room was packed with women: women from Africa and Latin America, women in the traditional dress of Saudi Arabia, Polynesia, and Thailand. A United Nations conference on women was in progress in Beijing, and the government didn’t want any international incidents, such as a foreign woman being killed by a venomous snake in a restaurant. Also, it might be better if the men these women encountered weren't feeling excessively, well, manly.
So I was going to get to eat a harmless snake, which would probably only increase my potency a teensy little bit. This was well and good, since I would be dining in a room full of strange women, none of whom had expressed the slightest wish to share my company, or anything else I had to offer.
I returned to my seat as the man dragged the snake back toward the kitchen. Almost immediately, it seemed, the waitress arrived with two small clear glass pitchers. One pitcher contained a colorless alcoholic beverage. I didn’t quite catch the name—Maotai, or something like that. I have since been told that the generic name is bai jiu, meaning, literally, “white alcohol.” The other pitcher was filled with the snake’s blood.
The waitress set two shot glasses on the table. She dropped a small slimy nugget of snake—the gallbladder—into the pitcher of blood. Then she began poking at the nugget with what looked like a sharp metal chopstick. It slithered around and around on the bottom of the pitcher, but she finally nailed it, and something green—the bile?—began coloring the blood. She stirred the mixture, but the green gall, which didn’t emulsify well, swirled slowly around the pitcher in various viscous amoeboid shapes, rather like a Lava lamp.
That, apparently, was what it was supposed to look like, because the waitress nodded, as if at a job well done, and poured the shot glasses pretty well full with white alcohol, topped off with a dollop of Lava lamp snake’s blood. Using gestures, she urged us to drink a toast to the coming dinner.
Bai Jiu is powerful stuff—90 percent alcohol, or so it seemed—and it was best to just throw it down in a single gulp and get the whole thing over with. Except that the waitress filled the glasses right back up and disappeared into the kitchen. Back she came with the first course: batter-fried snake skin. We were encouraged to drink a toast to the snake skin. And another toast to the empty platter. A toast to the next course, which was stir-fried snake meat and vegetables. A toast to that empty platter. A toast to the courses to come, none of which I can remember, except to say that every part of the reptile was served in one way or another, and it was necessary to toast every last bit of it, down to the eyeballs.
“Snake,” I thought, rather blearily, “the dinner of alcoholics.”
Michael and I paid our bill and bounced from wall to wall down the long hallway to our room. There, sitting on my bed, was the outsize duffel the airline had lost—several thousand rounds of ammunition that could, I imagined, earn me a lot of disagreeable jail time. This realization was not a comfort. I lay on the bed, worrying drunkenly about all that ammo, until the snake informed me that it wanted out, and right now.
That was my last dinner in China. Now, back home in Montana, I was watching the Chinese deal with the jellied mess on their plates, and as they began to eat, an unworthy thought came to mind, an evil feeling of culinary schadenfreude: Lutefisk is the revenge of the reptile.
Alas, it was soon clear that they liked it. Or two of the three visitors did. Brian didn’t go back for seconds, and he told me later the fish wasn't “to my taste.” He was polite about it, as good travelers are in foreign countries, and we laughed about the lutefisk, me perhaps more than Brian. I was pretty sure he didn't have a gun.