I’m an adventurous eater, but when I go out, I usually stay within a fairly limited range of dishes from the handful of restaurants that I patronize on a regular basis. (Admittedly, this includes the entire phalanx of French bistro fare, from frog’s legs to escargot, as well as the head-to-tail tapas of Rich Reeve at Elephant, which I wrote about in our May issue.) At home, I’m much the same but even more so: I try and cook seasonally appropriate dishes, quickly and simply. My assumption, based on purely anecdotal evidence, is that most of us are like this. We have a few go-to preparations in our repertoire, and we cleave fairly closely to them or variations of them.
What we eat is many things—life-sustaining nutrient intake dressed up as ritual; status symbol; exercise in nostalgia; principal way most of us come into contact with the life-cycle of the planet; and the celebration of our dominion, as a species, over the planet. But it’s also a choice we make every day, multiple times a day, about what we put into our bodies. Not surprisingly, we want to ingest food that is familiar to us, not some off-putting assemblage of ingredients that looks/smells/tastes outside of the range of what we have defined as suitable eats. We want to be comforted. We want comfort food.
Ask 10 people what their notion of comfort is, however, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. Steak and potatoes for one, grilled cheese and tomato soup for another, and quinoa and seitan for someone else. Our collective sense of what is exotic is in an evolutionary process as well. The past few decades have witnessed the proliferation of ethnic eateries (think Greek and Jamaican as well as Chinese and Italian) and inventive chefs working in the Hudson Valley. According to John Novi, when he opened the Depuy Canal House in High Falls in 1969, his was the only restaurant in the region serving duck that wasn’t in the classical continental l’orange style; instead, Novi made his own confit and also served the sliced duck breast, a bold move at the time. (Duck, sans the l’orange, is now de rigueur in the untold—but not all undistinguished—restaurants billing themselves as New American, the current epitome of high-end comfort food.) Even the august Depuy Canal House is furthering the trend toward greater culinary diversity, with a gourmet pizza shop and sushi bar in its cellar. And to his credit, Novi is still generating interesting ideas that turn comfort food on its head—he recently created a five-course meal around sweetbreads. Sweetbreads being, of course, the thymus gland of lamb, cows, or pigs.
In June, I set out to find fare like Novi’s sweetbreads, dishes that challenged me to eat outside my normal limits, food that pushed me outside of my comfort zone and into unfamiliar culinary territory. I hesitate to use the word exotic to describe what I was looking for, as the word is freighted with subjectivity. A recent restaurant review in a local newspaper, for instance, described a local Indian restaurant as a “solid choice for exotic fare.” But for me, who has been eating Indian food on a regular basis for 15 years, samosas are to egg rolls as lo mein is to linguine. Indian food is no more exotic than pizza, it’s just what’s for dinner. What I was looking for was farther afield than sushi, jambalaya, or escargot. Call it “un-comfort” food, the preparations 180 degrees from what I would normally eat. It started with head cheese tacos and ended with venison kielbasa topped with kim chee. Along the way I was delighted, full to bursting at many points, and never once disgusted.
HEAD TO HEAD
Living in Kingston, I eat at El Danzante quite a bit. El Danzante is an unprepossessing Mexican place on upper Broadway, with glass-topped tables and a bizarre grotto bar framed in stucco, that serves equal numbers of Mexican immigrants and gringos. I usually play it safe there, ordering either fried pork chops or a chorizo chimichanga, perhaps with a side of guacamole. The chimichangas are crisp, the chorizo is spicy, the guacamole is not whipped into a mousse—it’s solid and chunky. The chef at El Danzante isn’t aiming to win a James Beard award, but the food is filling and comforting.
For the un-comfort food project, I ordered a couple of tacos that I had studiously avoided previously. The first was cabeza de puerco—head cheese, or boiled head of pig with herbs and spices; the second was lengua al vapor—steamed beef tongue. They were served on soft double corn tortillas with onions and cilantro. Curiously, both tasted quite similar, the tiny shards of meat contained in each overpowered by the other ingredients and the tortillas. Not at all the shock to the taste buds I was expecting, just slightly chewier in texture than shredded beef or pork. The tacos were perfectly fine, but not interesting enough to keep me from ordering chimichangas and pork chops next time at El Danzante.