Pilgrim's ProgressLike many fans of good food and better food writing, I'm a mindless zombie, dancing to the tune Anthony Bourdain calls. Reading Kitchen Confidential for the first time a few years back crystallized for me all the reasons why, despite the fact I love food and cooking, I could never be a chef. It comes down to patience, discipline and craft, qualities I had in the wrong proportion to make it in the kitchen, never mind the fact I'm too old to start a twenty-year culinary apprenticeship at this point in my life. Bottom line, I don't have it in me to ensure that the pasta sauce I make tonight tastes like the one I made last week, tastes like the one I'll be making three weeks from now. In my own kitchen, cooking for The Lovely Wife, The Kid or The In-Laws, that's fine. Professionally, that's shoddy workmanship, and Bourdain presented this idea in a way that allowed me to say, "Yes, I get it now. Moving on," thereby ensuring my slavish devotion to every morsel of received wisdom he dishes out.
So when Bourdain devoted an episode of his Food Network show A Cook's Tour to the London scene, and especially to Fergus Henderson and St. John restaurant, I was hooked. Since then, it has been my mission in life to make my own pilgrimage to St. John and experience the gastric and sensory glories to be found in "nose to tail eating." When Jessa offered me first crack at Hendrson’s The Whole Beast, I realized this was the next best thing to being there. Absent the surprise largesse of Rich Uncle Pennybags or Jessa offering me the use of the Bookslut corporate jet for the weekend, the next best thing will have to suffice for the time being.
I can’t quite explain why St. John holds such an allure. Perhaps it's Bourdain's lyrical descriptions of the St. John bill of fare. Perhaps it's the enthusiasm, pleasure and pure love with which Henderson writes about his chosen medium, the neglected parts of the animal. Maybe I'm simply responding to the idea that to cook with these ingredients at this level takes profound respect for the food and the customer. This isn't to suggest that such dedication isn't the goal of all fine dining, but given all the ways in which immediate gratification, quick (although not necessarily quality) service, and quantity over quality are seen as cultural norms, anyone who demonstrates a respect for craft is a person to admire and to seek out.
It’s also the idea of trying something new. It’s the idea, shamelessly cribbed from Bourdain, that eating should be an adventure. I know a dozen places to get a well-cooked steak. I’ve eaten sushi that’s blown my mind, and plenty that was merely all right. I ate one of the best Italian meals of my life in Edinburgh, of all places. Jamaican food in Greensboro, NC? Done it. Pork buns and coffee in Seattle’s Pike Place Market? Check. Sucked back a nauseating fraction of my body weight in queso during a weekend in Houston? Guilty as charged. Do I know where to get the best burger in Boston? Bet your ass I do. Are there no worlds left to conquer? Hell, no.
Onion Soup and Bone Marrow Toast. Grilled Marinated Calf’s Heart. Sorrel, Chicory and Crispy Ear Salad. Duck Hearts on Toast. Bacon Knuckle and Pickled Cabbage. Tripe and Onions. Lamb Shank’s Eben’s Way. Pheasant and Pig’s Trotter Pie with Suet Crust. Rabbit Wrapped in Fennel and Bacon. St. John’s signature Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad. These are a few of the things I envision becoming my favorite things, my HDL Cholesterol be damned.
And yet two things move me to fear:
1) Much as I'm entranced by the chance to experience the dining equivalent of bungee jumping, I must confess to a residual squeamishness when it comes to the (admittedly brief) chapter of the book Henderson devotes to lamb's brains. Intellectually, I want to believe it when he avers that Lamb's Brain Terrine "is a thing of beauty," but the part of me that's still a product of a meatloaf, pot roast and baked chicken childhood is hard pressed to get completely behind a dish that "beautifully exposes a cross section of the brain, caught in a meaty square." By the same token, I was known to power down the blood sausage during my childhood -- largely by dint of the fact my grandmother didn't place a lot of emphasis on the blood part of the equation -- so I’m game to work my way up to the brain course. Even if I've got a ways to go before I'll be ready to sample the terrine, but I feel confident I could tuck into a hearty plate of St. John's Deep Fried Lamb's Brains, on the theory that deep-frying can make anything palatable.
2) I don’t trust myself to walk into the market, talk up my butcher for a calf’s heart, and assemble the dish. My sense is that St. John cuisine has to be experienced before it can be attempted. There’s something strange and unsettling about this deification of organs and offal, this bizarre synthesis of peasant food and haute cuisine. We’re conditioned to think of the parts of the animal that are Henderson’s bread and butter as unpleasant, and even worse, requires thought and effort to prepare. We all know 101 ways to cook a boneless, skinless chicken breast, but we can’t really look to our George Foreman Grill when it comes time to braise an oxtail or cook up a mess of lamb’s brains. It takes the mind of a chef -- or the sensibility that largely went out of style with my grandparent’s generation -- to see the possibilities in these overlooked cuts and parts. Not to rant against convenience or modernity, but hearts and ears are by and large given short shrift in our shrink-wrapped, boneless, skinless, family-sized convenience pack marketplaces. If seeing is believing, then tasting is the proof of the blood pudding, and without some empirical baseline, I wouldn’t know where to begin. All the more reason for me to get to London, and soon.
Then I look back through the book, and the phrase Crispy Pig’s Tails starts rolling around in my head. Crispy Pig’s Tails. It puts me in a receptive state of mind, the kind I imagine demagogues find so necessary to converting their marks. Crispy Pig’s Tails. I experience a yearning for transcendence, the kind religions are born out of. Crispy Pig’s Tails. My heart beats a little faster. My salivary glands achieve a level of torrential overproduction as I contemplate the cracklingly crisp skin encasing and containing a meltingly tender marriage of soft, yielding shreds of meat and semi-liquid, buttery rich fat. Crispy Pig’s Tails. Such stuff as dreams are made of.
The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson