Adventures in Extreme Eating: An Interview With Dana Goodyear

Photo:erin_can_spell/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Dana Goodyear's new book, "Anything That Moves," follows her adventures in the relatively new world of extreme "foodie" culture: the chefs and restaurants in America that specialize in culturally abnormal, occasionally illegal foods. Things like crickets, foie gras, offal, and balut, a fertilized duck egg that's served with feathers, beak and all.

I chatted with Goodyear about where this new breed of chef comes from, the machismo aspects of the culture, and why L.A. is at the epicenter of the movement.

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In your book, balut was the most challenging food you've tried to eat. But has there been anything tougher to keep down?

Dana Goodyear: There were actually things I couldn't bring myself to eat, so I think that probably counts. There's another kind of egg, a "century egg," which is preserved and fermented, so it's a kind of controlled spoilage. But it really looks just like regular spoilage. It's hard to imagine eating something that's actually spoiled. We do it all the time with some of our dairy products and we don't think twice about it, but to me this was really difficult. It didn't look appealing. It has an amber-colored outer ring, and then shades of putrid green inside, and I actually couldn't ... I really, really tried because I felt it was important for me to prove myself in front of the people I was with. But it was impossible for me to get in my mouth, so I tried to fake it a little, and hide it, and move it around the styrofoam container it was served in.

So where does this new type of extreme food culture come from?

Dana: What's happening right now is that Americans' sense of what is edible is really expanding. It's probably a limited movement in some ways, in terms of people who can go out and afford to spend all of this money on food, but it is influencing how the mainstream thinks about food. And that's why it's important. It's not just a movement of very rarified, privileged people.

I believe what's behind it is a rejection of the 20th century American way of eating, which was so reliant on monoculture crops, whether those were the kinds of plants we were eating that the industrialized food system encouraged people to focus on, or the kinds of animals and the cuts of animals. There's a concern that that is not a sustainable way to move forward. And there's also, I think, a very practicable dimension, and that's that the way we have been eating for about a hundred ways has not been working on a personal health level, or a planetary health level. And there's a psychological dimension, which has to do with anxiety about America's place in the world. In the last several years, which was also the period of this flourishing extreme food movement, we've seen America's institutions begin to falter, and people start to embrace the kind of survival eating. I don't think that's necessarily conscious, but it is there.

Is there a "dare" thing going on?

Dana: I think there is. What accounts for that, I think, is that some of these foods being presented as delicacies are unfamiliar to a lot of American diners in their flavor, in their texture, in the description of what is this thing. So there's things to overcome, and I think that encourages a kind of bravado. "Okay, I could do it. And I'm not only going to eat one balut, I'm going to eat 19 balut." Someone did that recently in a balut-eating contest, if you can imagine. So I think the energy to overcome the cultural taboo over certain foods and textures requires a kind of bracing yourself.

A lot of it seems like an episode of "Fear Factor" or "Jackass," with people having to psych themselves out.

Dana: But it's moving away from "Fear Factor" and towards "Top Chef." These are foods that are going from being simply shocking to getting this new context of delicacy, as something you should learn to appreciate. The question of how that will move to influence the mainstream is open, but there are examples of foods that have gone from being really exotic, really strange and unappealing -- such as sushi -- to being available in every grocery store in America.

Do you think that insect-eating is becoming more normalized too?

Dana: Insects are a really interesting example, because they're becoming more common and have been presented as edible by a lot of people who are well-respected in the food world. So, there's a great deal of momentum for insects that makes them an ideal candidate to be adopted in the mainstream. There are a couple of problems with this, though. One is that the psychological resistance is pretty strong. Unlike sushi, which was a raw form of something Americans already ate, most Americans have been taught since they were small children not to go anywhere near insects. There is a pretty deep anxiety about insects. I do think that could be overcome eventually. The other problem is there isn't an established production line for insects, because we haven't considered them as food in this country.

But there are other so-called extreme proteins that might be more viable in the near term for mainstream adoption. Organ meats are a good example, because we have enough experience with them. I know a lot of Americans whose grandparents cooked with organ meats. People have some sense memory of it. It's not always a positive one, but they have it. And also we have the pipeline for organ meats. We're already using those animals for other things, and the idea you could harvest those parts that people have specifically looked down upon as food, and use them as food, I think it's a little easier to imagine that happening more quickly.

Dana Goodyear (c) Gertrude & Mabel

Insects and organ meats, and horse and whale and other meats I write about in the book, it seems that while there are different reasons for explaining why we don't eat those animals in this country, at root the taboo has to do with the fact that they are the foods of desperation. They're things that Americans only eat when they have no other options. So, it's very interesting to me that elites in this country are starting to choose goods of desperation and re-categorize them as delicacies.

It's a classist thing why we're not eating horses then?

Dana: I don't it's quite up there at the top of people's minds. Horses have been eaten in this country, but only when there weren't other options. And there are other reasons now layered on top of why we don't eat horses. Like, horses are our pets and we don't eat our pets, horse slaughter is inherently inhumane in various ways, and there's another layer on top that, and the reasons keep getting added and added on top of that. Now, horses that people are eating aren't being raised for food, so they have all kinds of problems associated with them. These are valid reasons, I'm not disparaging those reasons or denying them. But underneath it, the reason people don't want to eat them, is that it connotes desperation.

I'm going through a thing right now of not eating pig, and that literally has to do with seeing YouTube videos of cute pigs. It's something as arbitrary as that.

Dana: While the basis on which people reject other animals -- that that animal is too intelligent -- people often give themselves a pass for pig, which makes no sense to me. Pigs are known to be extremely intelligent. I talked to a lot of people with great righteousness of all the animals they would never eat because those are animals are too intelligent, and then said something like "But, I know pigs are too, but I really love pork and bacon so I have to keep eating that." We make exceptions to satisfy our own pleasure all the time. Every eater is a hypocrite.

Do you think there's a connection between the extreme food culture and the overly-baconized culture?

Dana: You want to get into the sort of gendered aspects of it?


Dana: A lot of this eating has a very "male test" to it. Perhaps that has something to do with American men feeling their way towards caring about food, and having to make sure it's not a feminine interest. I have no proof of it, but I think that making it a tough thing to do makes it safe for men to be into it. And men are really into it. If you give something a competitive dimension like that, it puts it in line with other hobbies that the average American man can relate to. It's like football.

But instead of maybe focusing on the more delicate aspects of food preparation, it's just about getting more extreme, getting bigger and bigger.

Dana: And what's lost in that conversation is the contribution of so many women. I talked to a female chef a couple of years ago in the course of reporting -- I was really writing about some other chefs and they happened to be male -- and she said, "You know, when I do it, it's cozy home cooking. When guys do it, it's tough, macho butchery. Why is it that we give such different context to it when men are cooking the same kinds of things I'm cooking?" And it was legitimate. It's a good thing that more men are getting interested in food in this country, but there is an overlay of machismo that makes it comfortable for them to express that interest.

So, L.A. seems to be in the forefront of the extreme food culture. Why do you think that is?

Dana: L.A. is situated geographically between two regions of historical necessity eating, Latin America and Asia, and it's also an entry point for immigrants into the country. There are whole communities that are somewhat self-enclosed, where immigrants are shopping in grocery stores for the exact kind of food that they want, going to restaurants where they're serving the exact kind of food they want. But they can feel somewhat inaccessible, which is why someone like Jonathan Gold has been so important, because he has taken a generation of diners and pointed the way to restaurants that people might otherwise feel baffled by, and told them to just abuse Google Translate or point at something you like on the menu or at the next table. He's made accessible something that has previously not been accessible.

For the chefs, there's access to ingredients that are really hard to find in other places. Ant eggs for example, they are a little hard to get here, but they can be gotten. They cannot be gotten in New York. And the other thing that I look at in the book is the lives and glamour that comes with unofficial eating, anything that's a little off-limits or even a little illegal like an underground supper club, and L.A. is a great place for that kind of thing. There's a wild west aspect to that. Also, the chefs here have not been burdened by being in a city that's known as being an official food capital of America. I think that will change eventually because, now, the innovations of L.A. -- the pop-ups, the food trucks, the underground restaurant -- are becoming part of the American dining scene in every city.

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