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Authors: Daniel Duane

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BOOK: How to Cook Like a Man
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Thus begins the predictable Odd Bits Sub-Phase, kicked off in my own case by a visit to a neighborhood restaurant called Incanto. Chef Chris Cosentino was specializing in cooking supergross stuff in delicious ways, so I ordered up a clear broth garnished by goose testicles and soft-shell goose eggs harvested from inside the bird's reproductive tract, a kind of Goose Fuck Soup, if you will. Then I asked to speak to the chef. I told him I was dazzled by what he was doing, and he told me that his food was not about shock value at all, nor about gross-out challenges, and that anybody who thought such foolishness was some kind of squeamish rube who didn't get it. I loved the sound of this. I loved also Cosentino's insistence that there was simply something immoral about eating only the choicest cuts from a given animal—killing all those living creatures, only to discard most of their remains.

Spooning a goose ball into my mouth, I bit until it burst and thought of a Mary Douglas book I'd read in graduate school,
Purity and Danger
. Taboo, she explains, can best be understood as a “device for protecting the distinctive categories of the universe,” protecting “local consensus on how the world is organized. It shores up wavering certainty. It reduces intellectual and social disorder.” By that reasoning, the contemporary American revulsion toward the consumption of animal organs and extremities reflected nothing but a fear of the ill defined, parts of the animal not clearly identified as food: “Ambiguous things can seem very threatening,” Douglas writes. “Taboo confronts the ambiguous and shunts it into the category of the sacred.” Offal, therefore, could be seen as a category of the profane, the filthy, but also of the sacred: we don't avoid those parts of the animal because we think they'll hurt us, or because they hold toxins, we avoid them
because they have associations that scare us. Eating the heart reminds us of killing, slaughterhouses, animal sacrifice; it tells us that we are bloody in a way that we don't want to feel bloody. It also indicates that we're poor, in a way, that we don't get the good parts of the animal, that we're so desperate for protein we're stuck with the off-fall. As a fearless cook, however, I had a duty to explore all flavors and to ignore silly taboos. I could not simply rule out entire aspects of the animal: I had to face them like St. Catherine of Siena when, furious at her own revulsion for the wounds she tended in others, she sought to purify herself by drinking a bowl of pus.

I asked Cosentino for cookbook suggestions, advice on how I might pursue deeper understanding of the organs and the extremities. One thing led to another and, on Cosentino's suggestion, I got a work gig taking me to London to cook with Fergus Henderson himself—a genuine kitchen education from the Maestro of the Odd Bits, Virtuoso of the Viscera. A couple of Ambien saw me through the red-eye to London. Three cappuccinos beat back the fog at Heathrow Airport, and a London taxi took me right to the bustling eight-hundred-year-old Smithfield Meat Market. Commuters hustled every which way, tiny cars buzzed by in a hurry, horns bleated and sirens rang, and hard-hat butchers hacked at hundreds of bloody animal carcasses. Seagulls cawed in the cold gray sky, and display cases openly offered products never allowed in the door of American supermarkets: lamb's balls and gory skinless goat heads with gawking eyes. Signs advertised “Offal Brokers” and “Tripe Dressers,” as if these were perfectly normal businesses. Delivery trucks roared off to the city's meat shops. Historical plaques proudly celebrated the good old days when locals buried plague victims right exactly here, in mass graves, and sold their unwanted wives at this very market, and
subjected religious heretics to the archaic form of horse-assisted human butchery known as drawing and quartering.

Fergus's restaurant, named St. John for the nearby Priory of the Knights of St. John, a still-active religious order that once sent Crusader monks to slaughter Muslims, sat on an unpromising street near a random pub offering “roasted ox kidney with mash and mustard sauce.” Crowds of off-duty butchers, wearing white coveralls drenched in bright red animal blood, from their graveyard shifts, smoked cigarettes and devoured eggs at sidewalk tables. A wire fence surrounded the installation site of a new Urilift, a public urinal meant to rise hydraulically from the sidewalk every night at 10 P.M., when everyone stumbled drunk from the pubs. (Apparently it would vanish again at 4 A.M., every morning.)

I'd seen pictures of the old St. John building, gray and black and white, so I recognized it immediately. But the sense of disorientation began the moment I scanned a menu pinned up outside: plain white paper, black type, and a list of unfamiliar dishes presented without explanation, as if they were just the ancient standards of some long-established culture. Pigeon & Swede; Stinking Bishop & Potatoes; Roast Middlewhite; Cockles, Bacon & Laverbread; Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad; Tripe, Carrots & Bacon; Smoked Eel, Bacon & Mash. And sure, a few less challenging foods, but even they carried this unusual style: Roast Beef, Turnips & Aioli; Salsify, Watercress & Poached Eggs; Skate & Monk's Beard. The disorientation deepened when I sought to enter and yet could not decide if I should use the unmarked door to the right or the car-sized tunnel to the left, leading toward double glass doors. Choosing the latter, I passed through a second set of double glass doors into an equally curious industrial space with non-parallel walls painted stark white, black metal stairs leading both up and down from odd corners of the room, absolutely no
art anywhere, and a chest-height metal bar, with a bartender on an elevated platform, so that I felt as if I'd shrunk to child size, straining upward to catch the bartender's attention. When I failed, I used my cell phone to call Fergus's media-relations person, with whom I'd arranged the whole trip, securing even agreement that I'd learn to cook from Fergus himself, right in the St. John kitchen.

“You say you've come to the restaurant?” she said now, as if surprised.

“As promised, right?”

“Okay.
Right
.”

“But you knew that.”

“Yep, yep. Right! Okay! So, let me see if I can find Fergus.”

Ten minutes later, he appeared at my shoulder: graying, buzzcut blond hair; round and ruddy-red face a little blank due to his Parkinson's disease. Crushingly hip black plastic eyeglasses magnified Fergus's pale blue eyes, and his blue canvas smock—over a crumpled white button-down shirt—made him look like an avantgarde midcentury sculptor. He'd had major brain surgery a few years earlier, apparently controlling his Parkinson's symptoms so that he didn't tremble like Muhammad Ali. But when it came time to express himself to me, Fergus's head and left arm snapped backward and to the left, as if grabbing at words hidden behind his left shoulder. Hurling them forward again, he spoke in a curiously old-fashioned mumble, as if he'd stepped out of
The Canterbury Tales
to ask if I'd like a “mumble-mumble.”

“Hmm?”

“Fernet mumble?”

“I'm afraid I don't …”

Fergus raised one finger and both eyebrows, like a circus performer pantomiming Not to Worry, All Shall Be Revealed. “A
miracle,” he said. With a wave of the hand, he had that towering bartender pour two shots of Fernet Branca, an 80 proof Italian herbal liqueur, jet black in the glass.

I was already in a vertiginous blur of half-comatose, half-speedy nausea, and I wondered aloud if I could really risk a cocktail just then, but Fergus said, “Cures all known ailments. Might sort you out.”

So I drank my shot and felt a kind of calm sweeping over me. Then Fergus said, “Well, any interest in seeing the kitchen?”

“Ah … well, of course. Right?”

“Righty ho. So, let's go.”

Crossing the white St. John dining room, Fergus entered the kitchen but stayed carefully out of the way of the men doing the actual cooking. In one corner of that small, busy room—a room in which I imagined Fergus and I would soon dive into chopping, cutting, and cooking together—I saw hotel pans piled with beef hearts bigger than cantaloupes. A veteran chef from another restaurant, working without pay to get his ticket punched, set each heart on a cutting board, trimmed away the hard white fat and gristle, sliced apart the heart chambers, cut off the big gaping veins and arteries, and then cut the dark red heart meat into slices thin enough for char-grilling. I paid special attention, so that I'd be a quick study when it came to be my turn; same with another outside chef, also volunteering, working through a box of lamb kidneys. One by one, I noted, he set those little red organs on the counter, cut out these weird white lobes inside—
I can do that
, I thought—and moved the kidneys to another tray, where he'd toss them with a spicy dry rub. A heavily tattooed deliveryman arrived carrying a white plastic crate with an aged side of beef that also happened to be dripping blood all over the restaurant floor and down the deliveryman's ornately decorated forearms (not
aged enough, apparently). Cursing in rage, the deliveryman wiped himself off, left the room, and returned with a crate full of skinless rabbits looking more like headless, footless greyhounds that had been killed mid-run, legs extended. Another white plastic case carried pigeons individually wrapped in plastic—little dark lumps the size of your fist.

A third cook—on the payroll, this one—chopped up what Fergus told me were “chitterlings, pigs' poop pipes,” to be fried in duck fat and served with radishes. A fourth chef, slicing a big deer's liver, paused to show us where a bullet had plowed through, leaving an ugly hole. Then Fergus cracked open the heavy door of St. John's walk-in refrigerator, and I ducked as I trailed him inside, entering a cold low-ceilinged space where packed shelves carried chickens still attached to their own heads and feet, a complete leg of a lamb, looking very much like a leg, and massive piles of marrow bones. Figuring I'd have to run in here chasing some ingredient or other, I made mental notes of the pork livers wrapped in muslin cloth just like my own at home—dried in a mixed cure of salt and sugar. I took notice of the big sheets of pig skin, too, waiting to be cut up and cooked either as cracklings or as a way to add gelatin—and thus body—to various soups, stocks, and braises. A big bucket brimmed with suckling pigs: pretty pink-skinned babies, still looking young and happy, as if they'd been napping in the sun when the power went out.

Back in the dining room, we took a table and talked for a while, and then Fergus ordered us a round of Champagne and several dishes for lunch, which I considered unnecessary, but a fine way to warm up toward our cooking sessions. The St. John dining room had begun to fill, and Fergus raised his glass and we both drank.

Then he said, “So, what brings you … to London?”

“What?”

“London. All that way, California. Anything particular? Friends? Family?”

“They didn't tell you?”

“Me?”

“I've come to write an article. About you.”

“Oh, right.”

“I hope that's okay.”

“Of course! But that's all? That's why you've come?”

“No other business.”

Fergus's eyes widened. “Right.” He fell into thought. Then he said, in a gentle and considerate way, “Well, don't fret. We'll make sure you get everything you need, and that you have a good time. What do you need, anyway?”

I mentioned that I'd hoped we might cook together. Before he answered, we both looked down at a plate of duck hearts, little brown marbles atop a soft white mound of celeriac purée. Ox heart arrived next, thin sheets of that grilled meat, with a strongly flavored salad. Yet another plate held four upright marrow bones, each about three inches tall. These were slender veal leg bones—“like a lady's ankle,” as Fergus described them, explaining that adult beef bones would look more like they'd come from rugby players. And then, at last, those chitterlings, the pig's poop pipes, “though they've been brined quite far away from all that,” Fergus insisted, as if this could put me at ease.

Fergus emptied his Champagne glass, so I did the same, noticing that it was now only 11:30
A.M.
Then the waiter set down a bottle of Burgundy and filled glasses for us both.

“Well, stab a heart,” Fergus said.

I found the marrow dish especially intoxicating—picking up a roasted bone, digging a knife into the marrow hole, scooping
out the whitish-gray muck and then spreading it on toasted bread. Coarse gray sea salt lay in a pile on the plate, and the idea was to grab a pinch, sprinkle it atop the marrow on your bread, do the same with some of that parsley, and enjoy. I tried the ox heart next, and positively loved the dense, intense muscle fiber. So I asked Fergus the difference between this and pig heart.

“Right,” he said. “Well, by nature
being
hearts, hearts are the heart of the beast … ox heart really expresses …
ox
.”

He paused, as if worried that this sounded flip, or like a game he was playing with me. “Little duck hearts express … ducks, going bubumpbubumpbumpbubump. It's an extraordinary expression of the beast they come from …”

He paused again, deep in thought. Then he finished the first glass of wine and poured another and topped off my own glass and said, “I like organs. They look like themselves.”

“Like kidneys,” I offered, thinking you'd certainly never mistake one for a rib eye.

“Kidneys,” Fergus said, visibly brightening. “There's a magical
squeak
, when you bite them … and then a …
give
.”

Fergus spoke in curious stops and starts, like an experimental jazz drummer so contrapuntal you couldn't tap your foot. He told me about spleen, too: “It's wonderful, it swells in …”

“It swells in your mouth?”

“In love. It swells in
love
, which can be seen as a good thing or a bad thing, depending …” Pause. “That's the brilliant thing about offal. You find these textures you don't find in anything else. A
squeak
…”

BOOK: How to Cook Like a Man
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