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The Digressions of dr sanscravat

Stop Playing With Your Food!

When we were children, how many times did we hear that?

Playing or making jokes with food is irresistible, that's why it has been going on for as long as there have been children -- or children who inhabit the bodies of adults. Trimalchio's feast, in The Satyricon of Petronius, is a classic case (literally) of playing with food. That ridiculous meal featured an entire pig brought to the table, apparently uncooked. Trimalchio pretended to be shocked, and threatened to punish the slaves responsible for this affront to his guests. Then the carcass was slashed open, releasing a torrent of sausages and black puddings -- a culinary caricature of the pig's own viscera -- before the stunned guests.

Delicious and disgusting at the same time.

Today, merely serving a calf's head would be joke enough, but in 1795, people routinely ate such things. They ate them often enough that an Italian magician known only as "Professor Pinetti" (he had been a teacher of physics before taking to the stage) came up with this trick:

"take a frog that is alive, and put it at the farther end of the calf's head, under the tongue, which you let fall over it; taking care not to put the frog there till the calf's head is going to be served up. The heat of the tongue will make the frog croak; which sound, coming from the hollow part of the head will imitate the bellowing of a calf as if it were alive."

Of course, that's the essence of food humor -- taking food out of one context and placing it in another, preferably as far removed from good taste as possible. We're not talking about hot pepper chewing gum or candy that makes an unsuspecting person's lips and tongue turn blue. Think instead of John Belushi, in Animal House, filling his mouth with mashed potatoes -- in front of clean-cut students who are, by all that is decent, repulsed by his very existence -- then violently squeezing his cheeks "like a giant ZIT!"

Something in us loves to be shocked and repulsed. Nothing works better than nauseating spectacle of food being converted, metaphorically, into something utterly vile -- while remaining, at least technically, edible -- and then being invited to eat it.

My nephew Andrew was at the age (seven or so) when he discovered that he liked -- or claimed to like -- nothing better than to be grossed out. He even asked me to cook a human heart for him. I decided that the next time there was a big family gathering, I would test his bravado.

The Set-Up

I didn't know how, most effectively, to make a truly horrid heart -- so I settled for a brain-shaped Jell-O mold. Using peach Jell-O, rendered opaque with sweetened condensed milk, and achieving the proper gray color with the help of a few drops of green food coloring (directions came with the Jell-O mold -- but are easily found on the internet).

I've been served this dessert before, and found eating the brain to be fairly unsettling -- but not really over the top. So I slid the thing onto a white dish surrounded by a pool of blood made of sweetened raspberry puree. Rubbing a little of the bloody sauce on the surface of the brain, and letting it settle into the furrows, really did the trick.

I call the dish "Mind Melba" (in honor of Escoffier's famous Peach Melba: poached peaches, vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce).

Was it going to be enough, though? I felt that something else was needed. The internet provided a delightfully nasty recipe.

It's a kitty litterbox filled with crumbled cake and vanilla cookies, pudding, and cat droppings (softened, and realistically-shaped, Toosie Rolls -- some draped enticingly over the edge of the litterbox, most with tiny clinging bits of cookie-litter). Some of the cookie crumbs are dyed green with food coloring to suggest chips of chlorophyll-treated Tidy-Cat. (I recommend one change to the recipe: substitute chocolate pudding for the specified vanilla -- and leave it in strategically-placed lumps in the cake-crumb-litter). The very idea of feline diarrhea is disgusting enough, but serving it with a pooper-scooper greatly enhances the sought-after queasiness.

The Hook

When Andrew and his cousins arrived, I apologized for being unable to provide a human heart--explaining that the need for transplants had made them very scarce in the markets. I told them that I was happy to be able to offer another organ -- one that was hardly ever used in transplants -- then plopped the quivering cerebellum onto the table. The effect was immediate -- adults flinched and children rushed to get out of the room.

The Sting

"But wait!" I said, "I knew that some of you wouldn't be brave enough to taste a slice of brain, so I made another dessert for you." I set the litterbox before them with a flourish. Waves of revulsion splashed around the dining room. All the children froze in place -- until I reached into the litter, carefully choosing an especially long and tapered turdling, and dropped it like a goldfish into my up-turned mouth.

In an effort to maintain -- or create -- my reputation as the sort of gourmet who cares deeply about matters of the palate, I asked my wife, "What have you been feeding the cat?" Andrew -- and all the other children -- fled the scene, not to be seen again for the remainder of the evening.

It was a most satisfactory outcome.

The Aftermath

As it turns out, there was a way I could give Andrew the heart he wanted after all.

In 1992, Penn & Teller published a book called Penn & Teller's How to Play with Your Food -- a book that explains, in wonderfully revolting detail, dozens of ways to horrify and/or amuse folks at the table. Alas, the book is no longer in print -- but I was able to get a copy though one of the many websites that allows one to search for used books (this time, it was the Advanced Book Exchange).

Penn & Teller's heart recipe uses a conventional valentine-shaped pan (but the novelty companies that sell brain molds also sell heart molds). Their real contribution -- the thing that puts the required squeam in squeamishness -- is a method for having "blood" squirt out when the heart is stabbed with a knife. Nothing is quite as satisfyingly effective as the sudden appearance of unexpected bodily fluids at the table. Penn & Teller achieve their gruesome verisimilitude by sealing a plastic bag full of surrogate blood, then molding the Jell-O heart around it. One well-aimed poke of the knife and a stream of mock arterial gore streams out most gratifyingly.

A newer, and still available, book is Saxton Freymann's and Joost Elffers' Play with your Food. It's filled with tricks that can be done with food, such as funny ways to carve pumpkins and other vegetables -- but it lacks the slightly sinister, practical-joke cruelty of the Penn & Teller book (the very qualities that make it ideally suited for April Fools' Day). Now that I think on it, people know they're going to be tricked on April first -- maybe I'll just save Penn & Teller's "Salt in the Wounds of Credulous Fools" or "Linguini a la Stigmata" tricks for a moment when my victims will least expect them.

Freymann, Saxton and Joost Elffers. Play with your Food. New York: Stewart Tabori & Chang, 1997.
ISBN: 1556706308

Jillette, Penn. Penn & Teller's How to Play with Your Food. New York: Villard Books, 1992.
ISBN: 0679743111

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