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The Ghoulish Gourmet


Organs, insects, and wiggling mollusks - the foods that creep people out

What people won’t put in their mouths.

Television food shows are all the rage. Reality series have taken the culinary world by storm. Flipping through the channels, a foodie can find shows featuring cake-making and Southern food frying.

But as human nature would have it, the majority of viewers enjoy watching shows featuring the deadliest, most dangerous, and oddly distinct foods the world has to offer.

Cue the crickets, blowfish, and tarantulas. Now we’re cooking.

Much like music and fashion, food can serve as a cultural marker that sets countries and people apart. What is considered haute cuisine in some parts of the world offends both the taste buds and olfactory senses of others.

Asian countries seem to have the most interesting palate. Considered delicacies, tuna eye balls, raw octopus, and horseshoe crab turn up on some the most elite menus in Japan and China.

Stinkbugs and grasshoppers are a treat in Indonesia, and Cambodians enjoy ingesting tarantulas.

Veal sweetbreads
Grilled frog's legs

One of the most deadly of dishes is the blowfish, also known as pufferfish. This scary entrée contains a poison called tetrodotoxin, which is more potent than cyanide, and if not prepared correctly, the dish will kill its consumer.

Sometimes it’s not the name or risk in eating an entrée. It’s the smell.

The durian, know as “the king of fruits,” is found in Southeast Asia and a few other tropical locales. In addition to its odd appearance, its odor offends most foodies with a smell that is often described as a combination of gym socks, rotten eggs, and gasoline. Plug your nose and enjoy!

While the world may offer some tasty and tricky treats, the menus here in Buffalo offer their own versions of the unusual.

Chris Scrivano, previously the chef brigade at L’Escalier at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, and currently a catering chef at Oliver’s, shares many frightening tales of foods he has been brave enough to swallow.

Scrivano’s earliest memory of a food he’d rather forget is tripe.

While tripe is defined most strictly as the stomach tissue or lining of a cow, it can also be prepared from the belly of a pig or a sheep. And while tripe may not be terribly strange, Scrivano feared it as a child.

“Growing up as a kid, I was made to eat tripe,” he says. “It is an acquired taste.”

Incidentally, although Scrivano won’t be stopping by, tripe is proudly featured on the menu of Ilio DiPaolo’s (3785 South Park).

Perhaps this force-feeding is what pushed him to open his mouth to other oddities.

Cow tongue sandwich, anyone?

Prepared like any good sandwich, with a healthy dose of lettuce and tomato, Scrivano compares cow tongue to corned beef.

He can find no adequate comparison to describe pig brains, however. “It has its own flavor profile,” he says. Sliced and seared like foie gras, the brains are a rarity. “I have never had is since or even seen it before.”

The famed Buffalo chef Mike Andrzejewski has prepared both of those unique treats, but unfortunately, for those looking for a taste, cow tongue and pig brains are dishes of days gone by.

Not to worry, plenty of strange foods are still a point of focus on today’s local menus.

Organs tend to be a source of both protein and interest to those who enjoy the finer foods. Foie gras and sweetbreads are among the most common uncommon foods.

Foie gras is simply goose liver, but it can be prepared in the most complicated ways. And while there are plenty of restaurants featuring this rich dish, Chef Paul Jenkins of Tempo restaurant (581 Delaware Avenue) is serving up a spooky surprise on this week’s menu: an appetizer of seared Hudson Valley foie gras accompanied by braised beef short ribs, savory “French toast,” and spiced pineapple chutney.

Sweetbreads are a little more difficult to find in these parts. Defined as the thymus glands or pancreas organs of calf or lamb, they are often run as specials on area menus but rarely seen on a regular basis. Tempo occasionally features a fried sweetbread salad with Italian mille fiori honey vinaigrette.

Escargot was a hit in the late 1980s as it began to show up here in Buffalo, and those somewhat slimy snails can still be found at a few of Buffalo’s French eateries. The Rue Franklin (341 Franklin Street) serves up a sauté of snails with a white bean mousseline and shitake mushrooms.

If mushrooms aren’t appetizing, try Tabree’s (423 Elmwood Avenue) version of escargot, with Pernod cream, puff pastry, squash, and leeks. Just down the road, Bistro Europa (484 Elmwood) is said to have served braised local sunflowers, and Wasabi (752 Elmwood) occasionally will slice live scallops that still wiggle while in the mouth.

Not to be forgotten in this litany of distinctly different and unique treats are frog legs. Another throwback dish, frog legs are making a come back. The limbs are usually prepared deep-fried. According to Scrivano, they taste like chicken. Most recently seen on the special card at the 31 Club (31 North Johnson Park), they pop (or hop up) at other area eateries on occasion.

Bugs, brains, and glands aside, many of what are considered ordinary foods can be more dangerous than one may think.

Scrivano warns of the danger of hot peppers. Both habanero and scotch bonnet peppers, the most commercially offered hot peppers, have been know to cause their consumers to hallucinate.

“Eating these peppers is where you start to play with fire, and things can get dangerous,” he says.

Mushrooms are another source of concern. Dozens of mushrooms contain a variety of toxins in various levels. The mushroom aptly named the death cap contains seven separate toxins, which ensure a nasty demise.

If allergies or high cholesterol exist in a diner, almost any food can be scary. Consider Sea Bar’s (475 Ellicott Street) entrée titled “Bourdain’s Last Meal.” Comprising crispy pork belly, foie gras torchon, and bone marrow, this rich dish may cause a palpitation or two.

Buffalo offers a plethora of unique regional and international dishes for the adventurous diner, so this Halloween, forgo the candy and enjoy some interesting organs instead.

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