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Marie Antoinette, the legendary French queen, upon learning that the peasants were starving for lack of bread, supposedly declared, “Let them eat cake.” This apocryphal statement was supposedly uttered during one of the famines that preceded the French Revolution – a revolution in which the queen lost her head to the guillotine.
The establishment media are celebrating the recovery from the Great Recession as measured in terms of the new highs of the Dow Jones, increased corporate profits, decline in the unemployment rate and the skyrocketing wealth of the 1 percent. The growing economic inequity and the fact that more and more Americans are facing increasing hardships alarms more mindful commentators. Cuts to long-term unemployment and food supports to the needy are but two examples of the new moral tyranny being imposed by the Christian right.
Amidst this restructuring of the American economy and society, a result of the globalization of capitalism, a new food culture is being promoted. For discriminating gourmands, nothing new is new enough. In an era of the celebrity chef, Food Network, Epicurious.com, Gourmet and newspaper special “Food” sections, the boundaries of taste are constantly being tempted, pushed. The world is truly their oyster.
Food, like one’s latest smartphone, has become a fashion statement. Being a foodie signifies how cool, hip, in one really is. Foodies are the tip of an iceberg consisting of some 46,000 specialty-food businesses that pull in an estimated $86 billion in revenue. They sell more then food; they cultivate a postmodern, 21st century leisure-class culinary sensibility. As the old adage reminds us: We are what we eat. With perhaps the exception of human flesh and organs, nothing living or dead is beyond the sensual pleasures of the discriminating palette.
One can only wonder when the Christian right will discover the postmodern gourmet and promote a new taste treat, feral delicacies. With the right marketing twist, one can well image the Koch brothers or one of their cronies backing a campaign promoting a menu consisting of the most daring, aesthetically innovative foods – ants, cockroaches, water bugs, feral cats, dogs, mice, rats, squirrels, raccoons and pigeons. These high-protean morsels could be enriched with locally foraged plants and vegetables, often from a nearby public park. TV cook-off contests could celebrate a new age of creativity. Moralists could launch the age of an all-American rugged primitivism.
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Over the last decade or so, an “underground supper club” movement has taken shape, first on the coasts and now spreading throughout the county. At these get-togethers, cooks, both trained and not, host legally questionable dinner parties in unofficial venues. They pride themselves on the latest haute cuisine, but pay little attention to local health codes. They gather to enjoy a very sensuous experience and often do so with total strangers.
The NY Bite Club has been cooking up exclusive dinner events for seven years. In September, Wolvesmouth, a popular Los Angeles dinner gathering, hosted events in New York. And The Guess, a Greenpoint, Brooklyn, supper club suggests the pleasures of the palette. A welcoming cocktail greets each participant, followed by a 5-course meal featuring locally sourced produce, both foods and wines. And all for less then $100.
The Undergrounds Unite, a consortium of five New York private dining salons, hosted an elaborate 12-course Thanksgiving-inspired dinner in which “more than 1,800 plates left the kitchen.” The meal featured turducken roulade with oyster-andouille stuffing; turducken is a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken and andouille is a Louisiana Cajun smoked sausage. Guests paid $125 for this clandestine get-together that lasted into the wee-hours of the night.
The five participating underground clubs are: Homeslice West, a “culinary speakeasy” with a Southern flare; Studiofeast, an invitation-only get-together featuring “emerging and undiscovered gastronomic talent”; Whisk & Ladle, an Inwood supper-club; the Ghetto Gourmet, founded in Oakland, CA, in 2004, is now a “wandering supper-club” that produced over 350 community dining events from coast to coast in 2012; and Light-Bulb Oven, a Brooklyn salon founded in 2007 promoting seasonal eatables.
If one is looking for something, gastronomically speaking, more cutting-edge, then the latest, hottest Brooklyn Smith Street or San Francisco Mission eatery simply will not due. One needs to check out the underground supper club scene. However, like hip restaurants, these underground celebrations cater to conventional food types, whether produce, fish or meats. These parties adhere to the oh-so early-21st century standards: everything must be organic, locavore-sourced, fair-trade and oh-so slow cooked.
According to the New Yorker, in 2012 there were an estimated 500 irregular gourmet gatherings taking place around the world. Their popularity seems to be only increasing.
A local New York CBS reporter recently questioned a regular illegal supper-club host and chef, Michael Patlazhan, “Do you ever worry about getting caught?” Unequivocally, he replied, “I definitely do.” Patlazhan is quite the chef, one slated for TV. To create unusual tastes, he attacks his food like any other artist’s raw material, with a blowtorch, nitrogen and a vacuum machine. “That’s the things with supper clubs, they’re in a sense illegal just because they are underground no one knows about them,” Patlazhan admits.
“So if the Health Department did come they would obviously shut it down. So there’s always a little bit of worry,” he acknowledges. To keep hidden, this cunning chef keeps the guest list exclusive through a members-only website and he changes the event’s location every time one is hosted. “It’s definitely kind of a secret and I think that’s the interesting part about it. And a lot of it is word of mouth,” Patlazhan notes.
What happens when one is looking for something still more radical, the truly cutting edge?
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Taste, like most cultural values, is socially constituted. And like most people, Americans have their own idiosyncratic dinning pleasures. Unless a radical gourmet or an immigrant fondly recalling the old world, eatables like insects, rotten fish, rodents and the placenta will not be part of one’s dinning practices. (In China, the placenta is consumed in traditional holistic medicines, such as zihéche, to treat infertility and impotence.)
When Louie Psihoyos won the 2009 Academy Award for his documentary, “The Cove,” a spotlight was focused on Japan’s dolphin hunting practices. It also opened up a worldwide discussion of the country’s specialty dinner practices. In addition to dolphin and whale, the Japanese delighted in still other sea creatures, including blowfish, cod sperm sacs, “kaiji” (fatty salmon babies) and lobster heads.
In the U.S., radical taste is expressed in different foods, especially meats. The chic Los Angeles eatery, Animal Restaurant, is noted for pig tails and pig ears. Not far away, another LA upscale eatery, Ink, offers lamb bellies and beef cheeks. Other delicacies are offered at San Francisco’s Incanto at what known as head-to-tail dinning, including shaved tripe salad, pig’s brain prosciutto and lamb’s heart. Still other discriminating dinners are chowing down on goose-intestine soup and cow’s brains and intestines.
Surprising to many in the West, over the last few years gourmands have begun to turn insects into an acceptable delicacy. Among these taste treats are cockroaches, buffalo-dung beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, scorpions and silkworms. Insects pack more protean ounce-for-ounce then beef and, unlike cows, do not destroy the ecosystem.
So what’s next? What’s left for the most radical foodie to turn into an undiscovered taste treat? When will the next super chef open a supper club with a menu consisting of the most daring, aesthetically challenging, food elements – living creatures that Americans find familiar but uneatable?
Americans accept hunting for wild game as part of their cultural heritage. Once upon a time, most America was a rural nation and shooting, cleaning and eating wild game – whether deer, pheasant, boar, turkey or other animals — was a common practice. And it still is among many rural Americans.
Is there an equivalent wild game for modern urban dwellers? It is, of course, all the things that make the “natural” creatures of city life sometimes threatening. They are the little creatures that challenge humans for survival, the armies of feral bugs and animals who also call the city home.
Can a well-funded, clever marketing campaign turn what most urban Americans find distasteful into a postmodern delicacy? Can the Kochs or one of their cronies fund the hippest eatery featuring dishes offering ants, cockroaches, water bugs, feral cats, dogs, mice, rats, squirrels and pigeons? And will each meal be enriched with locally foraged plants and vegetables, often from a nearby public park?
This is an era in which the U.S. poverty rate in increasing, when more Americans are turning to soup kitchens for food and the Congress cut back on food-stamp support. When will a Republican politician or rightwing talk-show shill declare, “Let them eat feral creatures!”?