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VOL. 44 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 13, 2020

Brains, eyeballs, gonads? Sure, but I’ll pass on spleen

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I’m not sure if it was course 19 or 20 of a recent meal at The Catbird Seat, but there it was, a seemingly innocuous square of fried matter on a plate with other parts and pieces of a fat tail sheep.

It was deliciously crispy, but the pleasure ended there. It tasted of rusty nail pulled from a bucket of toxic waste blended with meat goo. Yes, meat goo is a sophisticated food writer term. Look it up.

Across more than two decades as a food writer, plus the years of my misspent youth traveling and learning to try new and different things, I developed a willingness to hork down local delicacies while disengaging my brain and gag reflex. In other words, you don’t think about what it is, you just try to appreciate the taste and texture. From crickets and grubs to brains, eyeballs and gonads, I’ve tried them all with varying degrees of tolerance.

Which brings us back to that square on the plate. It wasn’t exactly inedible, despite my less-than-rosy description. It was simply a taste I never want to experience again. Friends, I present to you ... spleen. For those of you tracking along with a map of the body, it’s a giant lymph node that filters blood. And while many comparisons link it to the taste of liver, it is not liver and they are not friends.

The only spleen eaters I’ve ever encountered are Sicilians who enjoy a sandwich called vastedda, made with boiled cow or veal spleen and ameliorated with a mound of ricotta. I called my old friend Corrado Savarino, a native Sicilian who grew up in Brooklyn and Bensonhurst. You might remember Corrado from his baking days and his eponymous restaurant on Belcourt, Savarino’s Cucina.

I asked Savarino about vastedda and if he enjoyed it as a child.

“No,” he says quickly. “It was not my cup of tea. That’s from Palermo, from the west side,” he adds with emphasis. Savarino, sadly, had just returned from Sicily, from the “lovely east side of the island,” where he laid his father to rest. He then became understandably nostalgic.

Savarino came to America with his father and family when he was 9. He learned the baking arts and enlisted in the Army, eventually finding his way to Nashville with his wife, Maria Grazia, and their growing family. When thinking about vastedda, it triggered a series of memories about living in Brooklyn and eating at his relative’s joint, the House of Pizza on Union Street.

“It was near the docks, so all the longshoremen would walk over and eat there and at the focacceria across the street, Ferdinando’s. That’s where they would get the vastedda,” Savarino recalls. You can add that to your hip Brooklyn tour if, after reading this far, you’re itching to try it.

One of the benefits of travel is to learn how culture and place affect the eating habits of the people.

Why is it OK to eat dog in parts of Asia and not in others?

Will insects ever be an acceptable source of protein on a global scale, or will the “ick” factor keep them at more than a translucent wing’s length.

Why are pork and shrimp proscribed foods by certain faiths?

That’s more than a Ph.D.’s worth of questions and can take up volumes of conjecture. I do know that most cultures have an abiding sense of thrift, and that if you are going to eat a plant or animal, then you should find a way to use every part.

Beyond religious or philosophical arguments, I’m not sure if there are biological reasons not to eat certain foods, excluding for the poisonous, of course. However, all eyes and epidemiologists have now turned to China where some theories suggest the current corona virus COVID-19 came from eating bats.

Hmm, bats. Not much meat on dem bones.

A couple of months ago I received a video from my friend James Ramsey who enjoys trotting to points far and wide and eating everything he can find. The video was of someone moving around what is clearly a whole bat, outstretched wings and all, as it floats in broth.

“OK, I 100% ate this on more than one occasion. In retrospect, maybe not smart,” Ramsey commented.

We know we shouldn’t feed animals to themselves. There are millennia of edicts about cannibalism, or forced cannibalism like feeding ground chicken meal to chickens. Still, when the world is our oyster should everything be on the buffet?

I can’t answer that right now. The only thing that I can for certain say is damn the thrift and toss the spleen.

Jim Myers is a former restaurant critic, features columnist, hog wrangler, abattoir manager, Tennessee Squire and Kentucky Colonel. Reach him at jim@culinarity.com

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