When I was in the third grade, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and given a 2% chance of survival. As you can imagine, she was in the hospital for some time. My dad travelled extensively for business and so my sister and I were basically at the mercy of hordes of visiting relatives. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, second cousins--you name it--everybody got a turn.
It was a pretty rotten time, and I hardly remember anything about that year, actually. But I do remember the week when my Wild Uncle Johnny was in charge of us. Uncle Johnny (my mom's older brother) was a glamorous dude. He was a world traveller, linguist, art collector, genius and unabashed gourmand.
The week he took care of us, Uncle Johnny had just come off a trip to Europe, and he declared it "International Food Week" at our house. Every day my sister and I hustled home from school, anxious to see God-Knows-What Uncle Johnny was whipping up in the kitchen. We did our homework at the kitchen table, watching him saute, braise and fricassee and in turn, he regaled us with stories of the exotic lands he'd seen. It was way better than the Travel Channel, believe me. He also introduced us to some pretty interesting food.
Under his tutelage, we tried vichyssoise (cold potato leek soup...delicious, by the way), steak tartare (my sister barfed for hours after that meal), real Texas tamales, oysters Rockefeller and spaghetti carbonara, to name a few. That blue-eyed rascal mesmerized us, that's all I can figure, because getting a third grader to happily sample cold soup and raw beef and shellfish with spinach on it is no easy task.
On the third day of his visit, I opened the refrigerator and almost peed myself. There, on the top shelf of the refrigerator, loomed a gigantic glass jar of--what the Hell was that floating in the jar, anyways?
"Pickled pig's feet," he replied nonchalantly, reaching into the refrigerator for a beer. "Absolutely delicious, mark my words. You'll love it."
The rest of the afternoon, I kept sneaking back into the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door and gawking at that enormous jar. I was so small I had to crane my neck back to even see it properly and even then, I couldn't believe what I was looking at. Pig feet. Cut off. Floating in brine. It was then I realized: there is some wrong-ass food in the world.
I can't remember if I tried the pickled pig's feet. My guess is probably not. I can't ask Wild Uncle Johnny about it because he died last year. And now that I'm older and have seen more of the world (and the supermarket), I realize that just about every country has some item of wrong-ass food in it.
Haggis. Admit it, that is wrong-ass food, you Scottish freaks. Lutefisk. Hello? Norwegians? Don't you know that lye kills people? And you're soaking your fish in it? Head cheese. You Brits are crazy motherf*#kers, you know that, right?
And don't get me started on Asia. Asia is an entire Continent of wrong-ass food. Asians put stuff in their mouths that I wouldn't look at in a zoo. Balut (duck fetus, boiled, served in the shell). Sea slugs. Bull Penis. Fried spiders, crickets, grasshoppers, you name it.
Even places famous for their good food have wrong-ass food. France? Sweetbreads and calf brains. Italy? Cibreo (cock's combs...you know, that spongy wattle-y stuff on a rooster? Yeah, that.) Spain? Bull testicles.
Wrong-ass food is on my mind today because hubby and I leave for Greece in a few days. I am beyond excited to see, smell, touch and taste a place I thought I'd only ever see in my dreams. I am also compulsive as Hell because I've read three guidebooks and I still don't think I know enough. But I do know enough to have written on the inside cover of each guidebook: Dana, whatever you do, do NOT eat patsa or podi.
Patsa, that clever dog of a dish, sounds a hella lotta like pas-ta but it ain't, I tell ya. What menudo is to Mexico, Patsa is to Greece. And I don't care how quickly it's supposed to cure a hangover--I am not eating lamb innard soup.
I'm almost tempted to order Podi just for shits and grins. In Greek, the word podi means "foot." And what you get, if the guidebooks can be trusted, is a glutinous bowl of soup with a cow's foot floating in it. Now that is a tempting photo opportunity. Still, I think I will pass. Podi's got wrong-ass written all over it.
And if you think I've forgotten the good old U.S.A., you are wrong. I am an Equal Opportunity Crap-Slinger. Yes, my darling America, you too have plenty of wrong-ass food. Shall we start with, oh, I don't know......meat loaf?
***A Note to Uncle Johnny: Okay, you know I'm an agnostic and so you probably, if I think about it, can NOT hear this or see this right now, but here goes. You know that week you were here? That was one of the most memorable weeks of my life. All that cooking and CRAZY food and those nutty stories that probably had an ounce of truth in them? They swept me away. And now that I'm an adult, I understand exactly what you were doing. Thank.You.