Several days into the Paris leg of our honeymoon, my wife and I were treated to dinner by another young couple—vague family acquaintances—at a small but respected neighborhood bistro. Knowing we were rather adventurous, the husband ordered. The dishes that arrived were challenging little preparations of offal, salted fish and mysterious vegetables. My wife and I gamely ate, helped along by terrific wines, and by mid-meal were sure we had cemented an agreeable impression. And then an innocent little gratin arrived. Even before our host cracked the still-sizzling crust I detected the deep, barnyard aroma; when he did, out wafted the pungent rennet-like stench of sheep’s tripe. My wife (and I seem to recall his) shot back from the table; this was obviously a challenge leveled at me, perhaps as retaliation for pushing back against his rather hostile politics. He smiled as he spooned some onto my plate. So I ate, and in eating learned an advanced point of etiquette.
You must eat the offal; the insect; the desiccated meat; the very old egg. You may think you have a choice—you may believe your host who suggests it is fine to welch on the whelks. That offer is only a reaffirmation that some testing, whether intentional or not, is at hand. The correct answer is to eat. You need not scarf; just eat. One bite won’t do; two bites might; three encounters with the thing in question should satisfy even the most observant host. You must taste with enthusiasm, but not so much as to invite second helpings. But more than good acting, familiarity with the most common offenders is important.
Unless you grew up eating them, cured or fermented fish preparations are a difficult proposition. Fish sauce, botarga, canned bait fish—these things look innocent, but pack a ripe, dock-side pungency which is difficult to ignore. The trick, if it can be called that, is to remember that they are seasonings. An anchovy on its own will unpleasantly fill your nostrils, but blended into a caesar dressing registers as indistinctly savory. The same is true of botarga, which is grated as one would hard cheese, or fish sauce, which should be sparingly sprinkled.
Conversely, insects seem scary, but are innocuous. Crickets are somewhat mushroomy; ants often lemony. Larvae are bland but the texture—that of creme-filled fresh peas—can be challenging. It’s no coincidence that bugs are often deep-fried, supplanting their own texture with a more familiar sort of crisp. Seasoned while still hot from the fat, most bugs could pass as movie-theatre snacks. One caveat: I haven’t tried living insects, but I understand they tend to scamper to the back of the throat if not immediately crushed between molars. Unless there is some gustatory advantage to eating the living, I will preserve that experience for my next survival scenario.
The current vogue for offal has no doubt ruined many a date as one party pushes pig trotters on the other in some macho attempt to seem cosmopolitan. Variety meats and organs are historically budget cuts; that they are now a mark of sophistication at downtown restaurants is only the first layer of irony of contemporary dining. Consider this: with few exceptions, well-prepared offal is approachable, rich and delicious and no more challenging than sushi. When cooked for hours, feet, faces and tails yield the tenderest meats. Bone marrow is no more potent than the drippings from a roast. With the exception of those from a goat, I’ve found brains to be mild. Strangely, commonly eaten organs, like kidneys and livers, tend to be strongly flavored, and a poor experience with one of those is perhaps the source of most squeamishness. If newbies were instead broken on sweetbreads or beef tendons, I imagine chefs would have to look elsewhere to appear edgy.
Finally: hosting. I don’t think pushing challenging food on people is polite, and even less so when there is an audience. You may indeed make terrific blood sausage; forcing house guests to eat it first thing in the morning is poor form. My table often features unusual food, but for every advanced dish is something familiar. Interestingly, pickier eaters are often coaxed from their shells when just left alone. Leave pushiness to Gitanes-smoking Parisians bent on embarrassing newlyweds.