Deconstructing the Demonizing of Disgusting Dinners

The best article I ever wrote, according to OC Weeklyoverlord Will Swaim, was "Goat Spine and More!" (Aug. 1, 2003). The food review profiled El Rincón del Oso, a bustling Tijuana restaurant at which the overwhelming draw is a moist-pink, nerve-ridden goat spine delicacy known as peinecillo, housing between its rough rows of vertebrae the most sumptuous meat outside of veal.

"Goat Spine and More!" is a fine piece, I agree—I especially enjoy the line declaring the restaurant's gorditas as so fanciful they "would motivate three-quarters of Santa Ana to repatriate." I know in my gut, however, that Señor Swaim appreciates the critique not for its lyrical flow but because he's a culinary imperialist.

Swaim tells me that his fascination with the El Rincón study stems from the "repulsive" nature of the restaurant's featured entrée, the revulsion he feels in even considering consuming goat spine, and the admiration he holds for me because I ate the peinecillo in one sitting without choking. God bless the man—hell, God bless anyone who writes my checks—but his wrinkled face, convulsing head and fluttering gesticulation whenever discussing the goat spine disappoint me. In expressing so forcefully his repugnance for spine-chewing, Swaim displays a disturbing noshing notion embedded in the American psyche—the judging of what passes as "proper" cuisine and what classifies as edible shit.

Citizens of this country have held a fascination with foreign cooking almost from the time the Plymouth Rock murderers devoured turkey and maize that first hardy winter. But the American obsession with discovering new meals doesn't originate from a genuine appreciation for the various cuisines of the world. American consumers instead enjoy practicing a form of empire-building ethos by labeling certain parts of an ethnic group's cuisine haute and others barbaric. And when this isn't enough, they'll use a culture's favorite foods as slurs.

Examples overflow. Mexicans continue to be called "beaners" for their affection toward the legumes. Many people can't understand the Vietnamese fascination for fermented fish sauce and so complain about a vaguely Vietnamese "smell." Lefties everywhere long ago found Middle Eastern hummus and tabbouleh safe for progressive parties, but recoil at the concept of serving lamb brains like the ones spread chilled over bread loaves at Victory Bakery in Anaheim's Little Gaza district.

Disparaging a culture's dining traditions is nothing new, of course, or even exclusively Ugly American. "For many," wrote Stewart Lee Allen in his engaging 2002 study In the Devil's Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food, "[food taboos] are crucial in defining themselves in relationship both to God and to their fellow humans, and fundamentally shape the societies in which they live. . . . They tell us quite a lot about the nature of pleasure and can turn the daily meal into a meditation on humanity's relationship to the delicious and the revolting, the sacred and the profane."

What is uniquely American, however, and what Swaim embodies every time he mutters the word "peinecillo": a fascination with watching others eat alien cuisine. Consider Fear Factor, the popular NBC program on which obnoxious host Joe Rogan bribes a cross-section of society into performing outlandish stunts for the promise of fame and money. Unsurprisingly, most of Fear Factor's stunts involve eating foreign foods.

The Fear Factor producers freely admit that the platters they force upon unwitting contestants are prized in other parts of the world. But who cares about the traditions of other countries—just look at what they eat! Isn't it—and, by association, the country and its citizens—vile?

"Believe it or not, in certain parts of the world, it's a custom to eat soft-boiled eggs containing partially developed duck embryos," reads a typical Fear Factor website description of a show stunt. "Filipinos call them 'balut.' [Editor's note: you can find them at Ellen's Pinoy Grille in La Palma.] Here at Fear Factor, we simply call them gross."

Fear Factor satiates the Ugly American stomach by categorizing the ethnic eating life as extraterrestrial even in this post-1965 world of open borders and multiethnic suburbia. "For the uninitiated, a trip to one of these [immigrant produce stores] can be a strange experience," continued the same Fear Factorscreed. "The meat counter is packed with a dizzying array of animal guts. Even the candy aisle is filled with weird stuff like Banh Men, which are chalky, larvae-shaped coconut cookies that taste, well, horrible. Let's just say we left Little [Saigon] with a bunch of balut eggs and a couple of ideas for some future stunts."

There's nothing politically correct in stating all meals are created equal and that to deem a dish disgusting is engaging in discrimination—it's a culinary truth. Culture is a powerful determinant in the formation of the sense of taste, and relying on one's society to be the ultimate arbitrator of what is tasty or gross cheats the palate of marvels. Fear Factorunwittingly depicts how the American aversion to anything that isn't wrapped in foil is little more than thinly sauced prejudice.

Furthermore, almost none of the things the Fear Factorfolks force contestants to swallow even classify as strange anymore—even Orange County restaurants hawk them with the commonality of tacos. The crickets grimaced at by Fear Factor yuppies? You'll find them studded within the salty cheese in a chapulín quesadilla at the Oaxacan restaurant El Fortín in Fullerton, the cheese providing a nice counterpoint to the sour, spicy crickets. The blood sausages that nearly all contestants passed up on during one show? Try the salty blood pudding at the British Grocer, the mushy morcilla sausage at Brea's Gaucho Grill, or the spicy congealed pig's blood that constitutes the soul of the morning soup bún bò Huê at Vietnamese restaurants such as Westminster's Bún Bò Huê So 1. Brain? Found everywhere from a molten magaz masala at Noorani Halal Tandoori to the log-like brain burritos at Taquería de Anda speckled with cilantro and onions. Grilled chicken hearts, each as small as an eraser nub? Part of the rain of meat at Amazon Churrascaria in Fullerton.

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