Food on the Fringe
If you are looking for adventure of the gastronomic sort, just head north. There you can partake in an igunaq feast, an Inuit tradition of eating fermented walrus (and sometimes seal or whale) that has spent the last year buried in the permafrost. Or if you are feeling precociously peckish, head straight for the west coast to see if you can catch a geoduck or two before the clam uses its metre-long neck (which could be your dinner) to burrow its way deep into the sand.
Head to the fringes and you are guaranteed to find something fascinating to eat. But what about closer to home? Over the years, there have been ways to enjoy a wilder side of dining in the Ottawa area. Take Cobra Dinners. A far cry from the ritualistic killing and eating of snakes in South East Asia, these underground supper clubs brought together chefs from local restaurants to put on a multi-course dinner of exotic and taboo foods at secret venues. These were an exciting trend for foodies looking for an outré experience.
But more often than not, eating on the edge tends to have subtly blurred lines. Some foods are certainly squirm-worthy (cricket cupcake, anyone?) while others we simply shrug off as utterly, albeit oddly, commonplace (just a pinch of gold on my crème brulée, please). Food on the fringe is often a matter of navigating murky market politics, the grey zones of what is permitted and what is not, than eating the outlandish — and often times we are feasting at the boundaries without even realizing it. Cultural trends will keep those lines moving; foodways perpetually transect and diverge, leaving a mishmash of history etched onto our plates and a lingering question on our lips — what could be for supper tomorrow?
Serving horse at dinner has a long history of mixed reviews. While it has been on the menu since prehistoric times, after domestication its preferred use was in the field, where horses were more likely to be sent into battle than to the butcher. Even the tribesman of Central Asia and Germany, who were known to slaughter and eat their steeds, did so only after their use had been exhausted. Horse has been eaten at times of sacrifice, but it was more often times of suffering and starvation that led to hippophagy as a last resort. After the revolution in France, horse became the meat of choice for the 19th-century working classeswho could not afford beef or pork, and the long-time stigma was forever lifted in French society. Nowadays, it isn’t uncommon to find horse on the menu at restaurants across Québec and from time to time even in Ottawa — its meat often likened to a combination of beef and venison, served as steak, tartare and charcuterie. But for many, the thought of eating Equus is still in poor taste.
Don’t be fooled — those glittery flakes adorning your dessert or suspended in your drink are the real deal. Used in food for a millennia, gold leaf is one of earth’s most sought-after metals, pummelled into sheets. It is perhaps the most ostentatious and nutritionally useless garnish the culinary world has ever embraced. It is tasteless and wholly indigestible, meaning that highly prized and ceaselessly mined substance will simply wind up in a sewer. Originally, it had more to do with alchemy and spurious medicinal benefits, but soon became the pinnacle of hospitable performance and spectacle, migrating from India to China and throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Silver was used too, but the risk of consuming toxins was much higher due to metal’s impurities. So if you are going to eat gold, which you can buy in spice shakers in the pantry section of your average grocery, you’re better off eating your karats.
In the dystopian film Snowpiercer, those banished to the slums of the new world order are subjected to a daily intake of an unpalatable mass of dark jelly, which winds up being (spoiler alert) the puréed remains of all manner of creepy crawlies. It’s a distasteful fate that most of us would rather avoid, but the case for eating bugs (in a more gastronomically pleasing form, of course) is proving harder to resist. Highly sustainable, readily available and incredibly nutritious, billions of people around the world already consume crickets, beetles, grubs and bugs on a regular basis. Some apparently even taste good. A company in Norwood, Ont., Entomo Farms, has grown to be North America’s, if not the Western world’s, largest producer, churning out an entire line of mealworm and cricket snacks for the past three years, banking on the fact that our western palates, often slow to come around to ancient ways of eating (think sushi), will eventually re-discover a taste for bugs.
While hemp, a member of the cannabis sativa family, has been readily available in grain, seed, oil and milk form for quite some time, its psychoactive cousin still awaits its inevitable green light to enter our food supply. And once it does, marijuana edibles — everything from gummy bears to glazes for salmon — appear poised to take it by a smokeless storm. But there will be a culinary method to all this reefer madness. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have recently discovered terpenes, the 30 or so genes of the cannabis plant that affect its taste. This will allow pot breeders to grow strains that showcase particular flavour compounds, such as lemon or pine, much the way wine and beer-makers play with varietals today. In the meantime, the quasi-illicit state of edibles has kept them mostly underground, giving budding chefs plenty of time to perfect their recipes for munchies-inducing munchies.
It’s hard to resist a roadside sign for farm-fresh eggs. The colour and flavour of an egg that comes from a lovingly raised hen is unmistakable, but the laws regarding their sale are another matter. At the farm gate, selling eggs is an open market, as long as the farmer has no more than one hundred hens in his or her workforce. Beyond these thresholds of quantity and location, grading (expensive) and quota (even more expensive) dictate the terms of trade, making it trickier for farmers who want to keep their operations small. Sometimes a “hen-share” at a farmers’ market can offer a loophole; since the share is for the birds, the eggs wind up as part of the deal. On the other hand, the market for milk remains far more black and white. Anything not in the system — raw milk, milk produced without quota — must travel through back channels, a risky and heavily fined gamble for farmers and consumers alike.
Wild goose chase
While hunters and chefs alike extol the virtues of wild game, they remain out of bounds for restaurants and butcher shops. Unless processed by a government-inspected abattoir, that moose your uncle bagged last season will only wind up on your plate if there is generosity in your genealogy — wild meat may only be shared, not sold. Keeping wild game out of our industrial food complex stems from our long history of protecting our agricultural assets — nature (the enemy) often has a way of taking back the farm. Paradoxically, the critters we see running around our city parks and streets, such as squirrels and pigeons, have been eaten with gusto until quite recently. Some still are, with many hunters to the south claiming our iconic and prolific Canada goose as the “roast beef of the sky.”