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  • June 26th, 2020

ANYONE FOR SECONDS?

By Joel M. Vance

 

It is 1958 and a popular movie on the screens of drive-in movies all over America is “The Blob”, starring Steve McQueen.  A young couple is  frantically driving all around  a small town trying to convince people that a gelatinous mass, possibly of alien origin, is threatening to engulf the town. Nobody believes them of course; otherwise you wouldn’t have a cheesy movie to enthrall a less than enthusiastic audience.

 

For the younger folks, a drive in was an outdoor theater where dating couples could park their car in the dark of night and eat popcorn and drink Pepsi-Cola.

 

In Mid-America, where I rarely had enough money for a drive in ticket, not to mention that I didn’t have a car, the idea of a humongous mound of quivering gelatin was as alien as the supposed origin of the blob. It wasn’t until 40 years or more later when I sat down at a table in the basement of a Lutheran Church in northern Minnesota and beheld my first helping of lutefisk that I understood the terror of those folks in that fictional small town in the 1958 movie. Imagine if you will, a helping of lutefisk large enough to swallow a small town when, for a thinking person, a helping of lutefisk small enough to fill a spoon is impossible for that thinking person to swallow.

 

I have written about lutefisk before ranking it as the number one food that I never again want to see on my plate. Nothing has changed since the last time I profaned lutefisk in print. Those who practice lutefisk are of extreme northern heritage and some of them also practice taking sauna after which they beat themselves with a birch switch. The first requisite for a far northern inhabitant is the desire and ability to live there. Sauna flagellation and eating lutefisk comes later on. The same people will crouch over a hole in a foot of ice, facing the teeth of a 40 mile an hour wind right off the polar ice cap, drinking an ice cold beer, and calling it fun, you betcha.

 

Let us pause for a moment to examine the reasons lips that touch lutefisk shall never touch mine. First of all many if not most of the folks who gleefully plunge face first into a heap of lutefisk are Lutherans. I was baptized Methodist where white bread and processed cheese are considered gourmet delights. Beyond the religious aspect is the process by which a quiet, unassuming codfish becomes a gelatinous, quivering entity that almost certainly inspired the Steve McQueen movie.

 

Scandinavians who sailed across the ocean blue had no way of preserving food and there were no McDonald’s en route offering McFish sandwiches. Some demonic explorer came up with a way to preserve codfish in such a way that, while no rational person would eat one, at least the dead fish became something that technically was edible if your definition of edible was an incredibly loose one.

 

The bottom line in lutefisk preparation is that the fish involved is soaked in a lye solution. Lye is a component of toilet bowl cleansers. Enough said. If one good thing comes from lutefisk it is that it has given comedians material for countless Ole and Lena jokes: “Ole and Lena went to a lawyer to see about getting a divorce. “How old are you folks?, asked the lawyer. Vell I’m 96 and Lena is 92, said Ole. How come you are getting a divorce now? asked the lawyer. Ve vanted to vait until all the kids vas dead.”

 

Moving right along to the number two spot on foods I will never eat again is something that happened many years ago in Las Vegas, Nevada, where what happens at least in the case of what I offered to eat stays there, quite possibly in the porcelain throne in my room. I was at a board meeting of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and we had a dinner at one of the posh hotels where the waiter was dressed far better than I was. He circulated among us with a tray of appetizers and it was semi-dark in the room, so much so, that I took a couple of the objects without realizing what they were.

 

Most of my fellow outdoor writers declined l’escargot, but there I was stuck with two humongous bare naked snails. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I popped one of the things in my mouth and instantly remembered a time when I stepped out of the house in the dark only to tromp on a garden slug, crushing it beneath my foot and some sort of yellow slime oozed between my toes. The rest of the incident is hazy, buried among those memories that the human mind represses because they are too awful to contemplate. I remember that much garlic was involved in l’escargot and I can state that I have never been bothered by a vampire since that time. I dimly remember that I deposited the French delicacy in a potted plant and want to say that greenery instantly withered and died but I’m probably making that up.

 

Andrew Zimmern, host of the popular “Bizarre Foods” show on television thrives on eating exotic and often (to me) really disgusting food items.  He probably would’ve been in gourmet heaven when offered garden slugs as prelude to a really disgusting meal—for all I know, might have eaten the potted plant too. While I am not against experimenting with food that some people consider inedible, garden slugs and fish Jell-O are not on my list of preferred goodies.

 

While Mr. Zimmern may consider insects plucked from the garden a part of his dinner menu, fried grasshoppers are not going to appear on my dinner plate. Actually, garden slugs which look like escargot that’s been evicted from its shell technically are not insects—they are mollusks, kin to clams and while I ardently scarf down clam chowder, you are not going to catch me confronting a bowl of garden slug chowder. Clams resemble their fellow mollusks, the oysters and my concept of a blissful afterlife is a platter of oysters on the half shell, spiced by horseradish and a generous glass either of a crisp chilled white wine or, if I am in my big spender mode, a glass of champagne.

 

Some of my food aversions are not dictated by the appearance of the food, but of the origin. Years ago I was returning from a trip to St. Louis which, in itself, is enough to upset my stomach, but I was hungry and in a fit of desperation and a temporary loss of my power to reason, I actually pulled into a McDonald’s and ordered a big Mac. Shortly after I got home, my stomach felt as if I had swallowed a 10 pound sack of garden slugs and I spent the rest of the evening worshiping at the porcelain throne. I have not since darkened the door of a McDonald’s….. And you can throw in Wendy’s, Burger King, and all those other fast food Taj Mahals.

 

Likewise, add in the Olive Garden where I have eaten twice. It may be a coincidence, like being struck by lightning more than once, but both times I went home and shortly delivered my rigatoni a la barf to the bathroom receptacle in an attempt to hurl it all the way back to Italy.

 

In one instance my list of things I’ll never eat again is not a matter of disgust, but of sentiment. Over the years, we have had temporary custody of two raccoons. They were mere little kids when someone took them from the wild.  Conservation agents confiscated them and needed someone to nurture them until they were large enough to release to the wild where they belonged. One of the two became a playmate of a kitten the same size as it was and the two tussled and played young animal games endlessly, amusing both to them and to us.

 

But the coon quickly outgrew the kitten and it was not long until the little raccoon began to explore farther and farther and one day didn’t come back. It was where it had belonged from the beginning, back in its natural, wild world. But Bimbo the Clown, as we named him, was a different story. Bimbo gave every indication from the beginning that he would be perfectly happy to remain a member of the family forever. It couldn’t be—raccoons are wild animals and as lovable and charming as Bimbo was as a youngster, when he matured, he could (or we would) run the risk of him becoming wild and savage. So we took him to the middle of the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge and I lured him down to the edge of a swamp, waited until he got interested in piddling in the water with his agile front paws, and then raced back to the car and sped away. My last sight in the rearview mirror was of him standing in the middle-of-the-road on his hind legs looking after us.

 

A few years later I was at a wild game dinner and one of the items on the menu was barbecued raccoon. I took a small portion and a single bite. It was pretty good but immediately my mind was flooded with memories of Bimbo staring uncomprehending as his family abandoned him and raccoon cooked in any fashion immediately sprang to the top of foods that I never will eat again. The serving on my dinner plate might as well have been one of my bird dogs.

 

So, I will leave the exotic dishes to Andrew Zimmern. Let him relish the sautéed eyeballs and deep-fried intestines of critters that creep and crawl. When Covid 19 is a distant memory and the restaurants are open, let us repair there and order oysters on the half shell and toast culinary freedom with flagons of champagne. Until then, here is a bit of food wisdom to carry you through until dinner time.  A blind rabbit and a blind garden slug bump into each other in the forest. The slug touches the bunny and says “you’re soft and fuzzy. You must be a rabbit.” The bunny touches the slug and says “you are cold and slimy. You must be a politician.”

 

Okay, it has nothing to do with food but it made me laugh.

 

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