I had a terrible time trying to read Dana Goodyear’s new book. Page after page, I was fighting the urge to pull my eyes away, but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. She’s a wonderfully engaging writer and a first-rate reporter. Was it the food? Anything That Moves is a chronicle of what she calls “extreme foodie-ism”—today’s culinary quest for the forbidden, the unexplored, the off-menu, and the occasionally toxic. The very first chapter, which charts the lurid gastronomic exploits of the Los Angeles food writer Jonathan Gold, invites us to chow down vicariously on bull penis, pig uterus, “small intestine full of undigested cow’s milk,” and the “twitching” tentacles of an octopus. Later on in the book come fried stinkbug, venison-heart tartare, and sushi made with “a rose-haired tarantula bought from a pet store.”
None of it made me hungry, that’s for sure, but I didn’t mind picturing the stuff on a plate. What was putting me off, I finally realized, wasn’t the food but the whole concept of eating that emerged in the book. I kept waiting for the people I met in each chapter to manifest something I could recognize as appetite; all I encountered was high-spirited defiance. Where was the rest of life?
Eating is an activity rooted in practically every dimension of our lives—physical, social, moral, psychological, emotional, intellectual, economic, geographical. There’s almost nothing it doesn’t touch. So it drove me crazy to be plunged into a food world where eating chiefly revolves around the pleasure of feeling rebellious. Frog fallopian tubes, for instance, which Goodyear discovers atop a kind of coconut-and-mango parfait in a Chinese dessert shop, undoubtedly make sense in their own tradition. Fed to a group of American thrill-seekers in the San Gabriel Valley, they just spell decadence. At least to me.
Goodyear is much more open-minded. She makes an amiable Columbus here, recording her impressions of a peculiar new world full of insect-loving chefs, raw-milk militants, eager devotees of animal innards, and semisecret marijuana dinner parties. Secrecy turns out to be an important feature of this movement, especially if the secret is adroitly publicized online, like underground restaurants in hideaway apartments—no health inspectors, no anti–foie gras laws, no hesitation about serving the occasional ingredient banned by the FDA as potentially poisonous. Goodyear attended an underground dinner where the chef prepared a batch of special fiddlehead ferns he had obtained from another state. “They’re poisonous when they open up,” he told Goodyear. “The toxin gets released.” She decided to taste one. After all, she reflected, “eating is an act of trust.”
Goodyear traces the adventure-cuisine movement back to the 1950s and the early years of packaged “specialty foods,” a category that originally included everything from French mustard to canned Bengal-tiger meat. Products like these were well beyond the bounds of most home cooking, yet many eventually found their way into the American pantry—not the tiger meat, thanks to the Endangered Species Conservation Act, but certainly the imported mustard, the marinated artichoke hearts, the smoked oysters. More recently we’ve seen raw fish make its way across the gastronomic border from icky to unremarkable. According to this view of American culinary history—kind of a Turner thesis for extreme foodies—bugs and innards simply represent the next frontier in a grand quest to expand the nation’s menu.
Maybe, but I suspect there’s a more pertinent backstory to this phenomenon, one that centers less on food than on gender. I’m thinking of the chefs, the butchers, the foragers, and many of the other stealth operatives who swagger through Goodyear’s book: they’re guys. Women do turn up, but they’re much more likely to be support staff or dinner guests. Extreme foodie-ism looks to me like the latest version of a compulsively masculine mentality that began edging its way into food writing nearly a century ago and has been lurching through various media ever since.
“There’s a Man in the Kitchen!” exclaimed a 1949 article in The American Home, pretty well summing up the phenomenon. Sometimes the prototypical male cook starring in this literature has been a professional chef, sometimes a sophisticated amateur, but invariably he plunges into the kitchen, hurls ingredients together, never looks at a recipe, wouldn’t dream of measuring anything, and comes up with a brilliant meal he has invented on the spot. Nowadays we see him on television as an Iron Chef or an expletive-spewing restaurateur. In the blogosphere, he goes out hunting for his lunch, slays it, and posts the pictures.
It’s particularly important for this garish male figure, surrounded as he is by pots and pans, to plant himself firmly outside the conventions of housewifely cooking. In the ’50s, that meant he disdained casseroles, level measurements, and perky salads. Today it’s more of a challenge: he has to get past two of the most progressive culinary movements of the 20th century, since they were launched by women and dedicated to transforming the domestic table.
First, of course, we had Julia Child encouraging the home cooks in her vast television audience to revel in fresh ingredients and take the time to work with loving care regardless of whether they were making pâté de canard en croûte or a ham sandwich. What’s more, all of her teaching was aimed at putting good food at the social, cultural, and moral center of American life—a genuinely radical message as the 1960s began. Then came the revolution inspired by hippies, environmentalists, and, most famously, Alice Waters, with “fresh and local” on its banner. Small farms began their resurgence, and for the first time in decades it became possible to taste delicious fruits and vegetables without growing them yourself.
So where does this leave the wild and free male cook? He’s got to distance himself from a food world that’s in better shape today than it has been in decades, awash in or at least paying homage to great-tasting ingredients and convivial meals at home.
Cue the bugs and testicles. Extreme foodies have created a universe all their own, with no relation whatsoever to ordinary kitchen life. It’s as though DC Comics has taken over Cook’s Illustrated, with a frat party thrown in. Mom is entirely out of the picture. In fact, the very concept of feeding people—her raison d’être at the stove—is beside the point. These cooks are busy combating the slimy texture or the wriggling legs of the main course, not dreaming up a theme for a 5-year-old’s birthday cake. Even the physical surroundings are para-domestic. The swashbuckling chefs at the forefront of the movement seem to do a lot of work at night, in borrowed kitchens, occasionally with guards posted at the door. Call it cooking, if you must. I call it running away from home.
If Goodyear was ever tempted to step back and dismiss any of this activity as the culinary equivalent of gathering at Stonehenge to look for druids, there’s no sign of such doubts. She takes these cooks and eaters at their word: they represent “a new American food culture” forging its way toward the mainstream. “In ten years, marijuana will be the new oregano,” a chef tells her confidently. Other devotees of the new grocery cart are fond of pointing out that people all over the world eat insects, an excellent source of protein. What makes more sense, swatting them away or redefining them as dinner?
The mainstream, however, seems awfully removed from a lot of what’s going on in this movement. Unlike Julia’s coq au vin and Alice’s baby lettuces, the preparations based chiefly on taboo-flaunting cannot easily rely on gustatory appeal, at least judging from Goodyear’s comments. And remember, she’s open-minded. Apparently the chefs go to a huge amount of trouble to disguise textures and add distractions (“tempura-fried crickets with sunchoke-carrot purée and blood-orange vinaigrette”), and they are uniformly pleased with the results. Even so, Goodyear gives them mixed reviews. “Rich and nutty with a light medicinal taste” … “awful, slippery, gummy” … “it reeked of a urinal.” She did like the ant larvae, but had significant trouble swallowing a duck embryo.
It’s true that we’ve had food revolutions that bypassed the taste of the food—otherwise we wouldn’t be eating microwavable pizza—but they don’t constitute a very encouraging precedent. Clearly what’s most alluring about this grisly cuisine is the irresistible taste of transgression. That’s a flavor, however, with a short shelf life. Someday the devotees clamoring to get into a nose-to-tail dinner featuring cow hearts and pig brains are bound to find out that Betty Crocker, that icon of transgressive cuisine, was way ahead of them. Not only did she make what she called “variety meats,” she didn’t even bother disguising them. Adventure eating? Try gently simmered brains, plain, on spaghetti (Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, 1950, page 280).