Praise the Balls and Pass the Penis: Members Only Dining

April 6, 2009 · 1 comment

As a food professional, I know the clear indicators of a souring economy, and how they manifest in our day-to-day eating. Qualitatively questionable cuts of meat get bigger and cheaper; restaurants turn on the twofer spigot and drop their corkage fees; fast food establishments increase the girth of everything they serve out of their corn syrup-laden troughs; repurposing becomes the order of the day (note to self: do not eat seafood salad at a restaurant on a Sunday); peasant food, or cucina povera, is elevated to magnificence by people who would never have been caught eating it previously; and the private parts of beasts both great and small take on a whole new je ne sais quoi.

I must admit that I’m not a gigantic lover of the Food Network; I worship Alton Brown and Cat Cora like they’re the second coming, but mostly, I’m not a particular fan of mindless food chatter in the same way that I’m just not a great lover of Top 40 radio. So, most Monday nights find me curled up in front of the television with the partner and the dog, watching my beloved Anthony Bourdain succumb to absinthe, a public ear-cleaning and massage in Chengdu’s Renmin Park, and finding himself stuck, dangerously, in Beirut at the start of an aerial bombardment of the city. And so it was pretty natural for me, upon seeing an episode of Bourdain tooling around my home town of New York with a visibly jolly fellow named Andrew Zimmern, to start to watch Zimmern’s show. Because anyone who is okay in Bourdain’s book is okay in mine. 

This was pre-penis, mind you.
For the first few seasons, I felt that Zimmern was sort of, well, trying to shock his viewers by eating the unthinkable; insects (alive and dead), whale blubber–you name it, Zimmern ate it. And lots of times, we honestly just couldn’t watch. But after a while, I began to realize: Andrew Zimmern is the quintessential follower of food-as-culture. And by that I don’t mean upscale, vertical food, Per Se-type culture; I mean the down-and-dirty, have-no-sheckels, eat absolutely everything, tip-to-tail, throw-nothing-away-type culture that is the very definition of poor man’s feasting and culinary frugality, and to which so many of us are now (thankfully) returning. It sings of being grateful for what’s on the plate–that you have it at all, that you’ve taken the time to develop a delicious way to prepare and serve it. For that, I have nothing but the highest appreciation. 
And so a few weeks back, when I turned on Zimmern’s show just as he was shouldering up to a large plate of penis at a restaurant in China that serves nothing but the member (making the place members only) I watched with rapt attention. In the name of honest, frugal, snoot-to-tail eating, would I do it? Perhaps. I mean, why is it so shocking? Because the penis is associated with bodily functions and power and lasciviousness and He who smote the great and evil king and took his woman as his own, dragging her back to his man-cave? We’re talking about ox penis here, gentlemen, so uncross your legs please. It’s not always about you
I’ve eaten haggis. I’ve eaten black pudding. I regularly snip the tuchas off a roasting chicken when my partner isn’t looking because it’s a delicious little morsel; my grandmother used to add chicken feet to her soup; as a four-year-old, I was once presented with an entire boiled calves brain on a small Meissen platter at her Brooklyn apartment moments before she asked me if I wanted some Bosco in my milk. It was no big deal. 
Except, it was. It is. Because in our culture, we value and prize the recognizable in our food, which is why to a kid it’s such a “cool” thing that you can order a hamburger at a McDonald’s in Dayton and have it taste exactly the same as the one in your hometown of Pocatello. Penis is recognizable, of course, but when most of us think of it as something to serve to a party of eight, we think more along the lines of Ron Jeremy than we do an Asian braise. That’s the problem in a nutshell. So to speak. 
If penis was something that the average Jewish bubbie served for shabbos, would I have eaten it? Probably. It’s all in the familiar, the inexpensive, the prized, the delicious. Would I try it now? Yes. 
The week after I watched Andrew Zimmern’s penis episode, he was off in Chile, eating balls. There must have been something trend-worthy here, because shortly thereafter, the New York Times ran an article about the 18th Annual International Comstock Mountain Oyster Fry in Virginia City, Nevada. Of course, this is less of a big deal because American cowboys have been feasting on Rocky Mountain oysters for years, and have long considered them a (mostly) free delicacy. Even Richard Olney, being Richard Olney, once called them “frivolity fritters.” 
But in truth, there’s nothing frivolous about them: Andrew Zimmern, one of the greatest poor man’s feasters and culinary anthropologists I know, has taught me something plain and simple amidst the shocking and surprising. It’s all food, and it all needs to be respected, especially when the cupboards are bare. 

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