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Extreme Cuisine
by Jerry Hopkins

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

Whenever I see the name “Anthony Bourdain” on a culinary book jacket, electro-chemical activity in my brain accelerates. I know I am in for a dose of iconoclasm couched in genuine wit. Though Bourdain only wrote the foreword to Jerry Hopkins’ Extreme Cuisine, his name serves well as an imprimatur. Bourdain admits he could not have written his Cook’s Tour without first benefiting from the Hopkins touch.

And what a touch it is. Though Hopkins examines international eating traditions that encompass mice, grubs, duck embryos and too many insects to mention, he also, and appropriately, performs his “weird food” exegesis on the yeast spreads Marmite and Vegemite, beloved in Britain and Australia, respectively. For completeness he adds sections on foods like seaweeds and cactus that may seem far from odd to many of us. If it’s even remotely “strange” Hopkins wants to sample it for real and have his readers feast on it in print.

Since my son recently married into a family from the Philippines, that country’s balut is perhaps my weird food of choice. None of the Filipinos I know seem to yearn for balut, but Hopkins assures us that the home islands do boast many devotees. The dish begins with fertilized duck or chicken eggs that are grown under incubation for sixteen to eighteen days. The normal gestation period of the bird is twenty-eight days. The gooey result is hence something more than an egg, less than a chick. The balut connoisseur may purchase the delicacy on the way to work, snip off the end of the egg, suck out the juices, add salt or a dash of vinegar, “then you just pop the little critter into your mouth and chew, little bird feet and all. Yum.”  Hopkins admits to tasting balut, at least for the sake of academic completeness, though a second experience doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Originally a quick street food, balut is now being featured in upscale Philippine restaurants baked in a crust, in olive oil with herbs, even in pâtés or soufflés. A farm in California is now exporting the embryos back to the Philippines. Who knew?

Michael Freeman’s superbly styled photos—yes, there is one showing the embryonic detail of a partially shelled balut—lend credibility to this ambitious book. You can feast your eyes on 32 pages of color photos of  bird’s nest dumplings, mealworm salad in cucumber cups, scorpion and asparagus canapés, maggot fried rice (“common throughout Asia”), or, my favorite, “grilled whole baby mice, served with a Vietnamese dipping sauce of finely chopped ginger, garlic, chilis, and coriander in fish sauce with rice vinegar.” The smoked, whole monkeys from the Congo Republic are also an eye-catcher. Iguana, anyone? The totality of these fine photographs may indeed shock, but let’s remember, real people in other parts of the world eat these foods daily. Their speech and dress differ from ours as well. Does this compel us to condemn them?

Perhaps the most controversial section of Extreme Cuisine may not involve exotic animals—snakes, locusts and the like—but rather the practice of eating animals that are beloved, nay, sacred, to most Americans. Dogs and cats are indeed the first mammals Hopkins examines as possible meals. Outside of Europe and North America, both “pets” are widely enjoyed for more than an occasional snuggle. Hopkins gives a full exposition, even detailing French actress Brigitte Bardot’s relentless campaign against the practice. I suppose it’s a cultural thing. Unlike many “weird” foods Hopkins has merely tasted, he has frequently eaten dog and cat in China and Vietnam. He gives us recipes: “Stir-Fried Dog with Coconut Milk,” “Sweet & Sour Dog,” “Cat Ragout.” I don’t have plans to dine on either of these furry critters, but I must remark that if a doggy or kitty gets hungry enough, it could readily opt for me as dinner.

The Europeans may share our rejection of dog or cat, but they (and the Japanese) readily savor horse meat, much of it produced in the U.S. and Canada. The French like it chopped raw in a tartare. Aren’t they reputed to know a thing or two about cuisine? The American songwriter Cole Porter agreed. “The French eat horses;” he said, “We ride them. The French have the right idea.” Porter, of course, was crippled in a riding accident. Whether the animal was merely trying to exact revenge on our species is up to question. What is beyond question, Hopkins insists, is that we should come to respect what he terms “regional individuality.” He does not suggest eating anything and everything as he (and Bourdain) are wont to do. He does suggest at least knowing about, and respecting, food-ways that may on first glance seem “foreign.” With this perspective, I can only wonder how the far-away gourmet views our own American taste for—Velveeta? Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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