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Food Porn Friday: Playing with your food

"Crispy on the outside...creepy on the inside."

"Crispy on the outside...creepy on the inside."

Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a particular fondness for playing with my food.  I’ve scoured my memories for the genesis of this behavior, and I think I’ve figured out where it all started: Halloween.  I remember in vivid detail the wonderful and creepy sensation of the “mystery box” game at my grade school’s haunted house, when a guide would lead us, usually blindfolded or eyes closed, through a tour of increasingly disgusting sensations. I’d stick my hand in the box and feel cold, squishy lumps of peeled grapes, and the guide would exclaim, “Those are eyeballs, eeeewwwwww!”  Spaghetti became worms, of course, corn silk would masquerade as a corpse’s hair, and a bowl filled with raisins and warm rice passed for a serving of maggots and grubs.

It was absolutely disgusting, and I absolutely couldn’t get enough of it.

Maybe it’s because I was a young boy, and young boys are so often drawn to the grotesque. But the tendency to play with my food has followed me -- and my brothers -- well into adulthood.  I still can’t seem to resist the temptation, when faced with a heaping serving of mashed potatoes, to shape them into the Devil’s Tower from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” then, quoting Richard Dreyfus’s character with all his obsessive mania, exclaim “THIS MEANS SOMETHING.” And then everyone else at the table groans and sighs, while I giggle my head off like a kid.  The same goes for creating a “breakfast face” out of a plate of bacon, hash browns and sunny side-up eggs.  I just can’t seem to help myself.  Not that I’d want to.  I love embracing my inner child. That kid knows how to have a good time, and he doesn’t care what you think about it, either.

But hands down, the most fun I’ve ever had playing with my food was a number of years ago, when my friend Kara asked me to serve as a guest chef for her small but always delightful supper club.  “It’s Halloween,” she reminded me, “so you’re going to have to come up with a kind of spooky, creepy themed menu. Think you’d want to do that?”

I don’t think I’ve ever embraced a challenge more quickly, more readily, and with more evident glee.

After thinking about the task at hand for a few weeks, I finally had my menu planned.  So, once I’d acquired all of the ingredients and a suitable Halloween costume (I was a pirate captain, complete with hat and eyepatch, whereas Kara opted for cave-woman, with an animal print dress, bone necklace and a gigantic afro wig), I headed over to Kara’s house to let the fun begin.  Here’s how it went down:

Course one: “Skeleton bones.” Perhaps the easiest way to impress someone with your refined taste and culinary skill is to roast some marrow bones. It’s a cheap, simple crowd-pleaser that has the added benefit of being decadently pleasurable. All you need to do, after sourcing your bones, is to blanche them (unless you want them bloody, of course), throw them on a greased baking sheet under a hot broiler for about 15 minutes, or until the marrow is soft enough to easily stick a skewer through, then plate with some toast points and sea salt.  Et voila, as the French say.  Scoop the marrow out with an espresso spoon or similar implement, spread on toast, and enjoy what Anthony Bourdain often refers to as “butter from God.”

Course two: “Zombie’s delight.”  From here, things escalated quickly. I wanted to be daring with my creep-tastic Halloween menu, so I decided to employ the single most interesting -- and most disgusting -- raw ingredient I’ve ever worked with. Hence, for the zombie course, we’d be having pan-fried calf’s brains, served simply with a couple of lemon wedges and a thick, garlicky aioli. For fear of you swiftly closing the lid on this essay, I won’t include the details of what it’s like to poach and clean raw brains, but sufficed to say, it is not a pleasurable experience, even if you, like me, can’t help but sing the Scarecrow’s song from The Wizard of Oz the entire time:

I could wile away the hours

Conferrin' with the flowers

Consultin' with the rain

And my head I'd be scratchin'

While my thoughts were busy hatchin'

If I only had a brain

Question is: What did the supper club guests make of my ambitious foray into the world of gray matter? About half shunned the brains entirely, and did so with a priceless expression of pure, unadulterated revulsion in the process, but I’m happy to say the other half, the intrepid ones, enjoyed the dish. “The fried exterior makes it familiar,” said one, “but it definitely has an interesting texture on the inside.  It’s creamy, like a flan, and mildly beefy. I like it!”

Course three: “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” After the bones and brains, I thought it might be wise to take a step back to more familiar ingredients, so here I had to pay homage to my favorite of the classic MGM monster movies. In this case, it was by combining black squid ink linguini and grilled baby octopus with garlic, olive oil and parmesan. I made sure the tentacles poked out of the black pasta like the Creature reaching out of the murky lagoon to snare his next victim. This one was an overwhelming hit.

Finally, there came dessert. However, I’ve never been much of a pastry chef, and, to be honest, after the skeletons and zombies and movie monster dishes, I’d started to run out of creative steam.  So Kara, god bless her, made chocolate-covered bacon with walnuts, and paired it with vanilla ice cream, which, naturally, is never a bad idea. Had I been more thoughtful, I probably would have employed blood oranges in order to get vampires into the mix, but I’ll also never say no to chocolate-covered bacon. Who in their right mind would?

At the end of the evening, our bellies full of spooky dishes and wine, and our costumes perhaps a little ruffled, we all agreed that taking chances with your Halloween menu can be oodles of fun. So don’t fear to get creepily creative in the kitchen on this All Hallow’s Eve, and embrace the chance to truly play with your food.

And maybe consider frying up some calf brains. As my parents always told me as a child, “You never know what you might like until you try it.”

Author's note: Tune into WWNO's "Louisiana Eats!" with Poppy Tooker for a radio version of this essay on Saturday, October 25th at 11 a.m., and again on Wednesday, October 29th at 1 p.m.

 


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.