Day 135: Monkey Brains – A Truly Offal Food

originally published May 14, 2012

I thought this was a joke. Did Ms. Wiki really serve me up a helping of monkey brains for today’s topic?

Delicious. Fortunately, as this is a high-turnover project that only allows for a tiny window of research, I won’t be able to seek out and review an actual dish of monkey brains. Instead I’ll rely on the foolhardy boldness of others.

“Very delicious.” Those words allegedly came from Paul Burrell, Princess Diana’s butler. Though the veracity of this claim is up for debate, he states that he was served monkey brains on banana leaves and coconut palms during a foreign visit. He describes the texture as ‘melt in the mouth’. I’d imagine there are a number of things with a melt-in-my-mouth texture (like poop, for instance) that I have no desire to try.

Alright, maybe I’m being too quick to judge. After all, we eat foods that other cultures would find revolting, don’t we? Even my own grandparents, raised under the strict rigidity of almost-kosher Orthodox Judaism, would turn their noses at my love of bacon.

But that’s just crazy. Bacon is bacon, while brains are slimy and disgusting, right? Not to mention the risk of contracting Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and other transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. I don’t know what any of that is, but it sounds worse than the indigestion I’m already experiencing just thinking about it.

Monkey brains are not a common dish in many cultures. It seems to get tied in with either tradition or superstition. For example, the Anyang tribe

…of Cameroon have a history of feeding a monkey brain to a new tribal chief while another senior member of the group would eat the heart. Is that really any stranger than stuffing a bunch of seasoned bread inside a dead bird’s ass at Thanksgiving?

In Indonesia, monkeys have become quite scarce because their brains are so prized as a foodstuff. They believe that monkey brains will cure impotence, and since internet-bought Viagra is often a scam, I guess monkey brains seem like the more viable alternative.

If the thought of carving cuisine from a cranium doesn’t do it for you, there are plenty of alternatives in the world of offal. Offal is the broader category that refers to organ or entrail meat, as opposed to the comforting sanity of a slab of chicken breast or steak. I’m sure the irony of the name ‘offal’ will be lost on no one.

Some offal food, like liver, foie gras, and steak and kidney pie are well-known and considered a delicacy, probably by someone that you know. But some of the foods in this category I’m not even sure Fear Factor would be willing to shove down contestants’ throats.

Like faggot.

This is a traditional dish in the UK, which makes me wonder if they worry about being served a plate of cigarettes when they order it. It’s an efficient food, made from the minced combo of pig’s heart, liver and bacon. Hey, there’s bacon!

Nope, forget it. They name a food after the N-word, I’m not eating it either, even if bacon is the starring ingredient. A man has to have principles.

A British supermarket chain put out a radio spot in which they hinted at the word’s other meaning – a man is offered the food and declines, saying, “I’ve nothing against faggots, I just don’t fancy them” – and the government ordered the commercial to be banned. I guess it’s okay to name foods after derogatory slurs, just as long as you don’t draw attention to it.

That horrific burn-victim-looking slab of meat product is called kokoretsi. It’s a Balkan dish containing mostly lamb or goat intestines, often with a bit of heart, lung, or kidney thrown in for… I don’t know, flavor I guess.

Again, I’m trying to be open-minded here. Intestines are just another part of the creature, another segment of the beast that can be fried, baked, broiled or flambéed. But no – I can wrap my head around the liver, even the heart. I served my son’s friends chicken hearts once, as part of an eating challenge at his Survivor-themed birthday party (yes, I was the cool dad). But intestines? That’s the part of the lamb or goat that the lamb’s or goat’s poop has just travelled through! This will never seem right to me.

I’m going to pass on scrapple and haggis, two fairly well-known ethnic offal foods. Instead, I want to know who is eating rooster combs.

Surprisingly, this is a French thing. They’ll use the combs as part of a salpicon, a mush of foods and sauce they use to stuff canapés, croquettes and tartlets. The Italians too – they use combs in making Cibreo sauce, which is often served with tagliatelle pasta.

Perhaps more vile is the notion of eating chicken feet, which is an inexplicably popular dim sum dish. I’ve sampled this one – mostly just to say that I tried it – and it’s awful. The sauce was ginger based and quite tasty, but the meat-to-cartilage ratio was vile. Worse still was trying to gnaw that scant meat free from its tenacious cling to the bones while watching my friend chomp the entire thing off at the ankle, then pluck the bones gingerly from his mouth, one by one. For months afterward I could only eat chicken in nugget form.

Be warned – if you see sweetbreads on a menu, you will be eating something that is neither sweet nor bread. Sweetbreads are a painfully excessive euphemism for either throat-meat or pancreas-meat. In fact, if you see sweetbreads on a menu, you should either get up and leave – there’s probably an Olive Garden within a short driving distance – or just embrace your adventurous spirit and give them a shot.

The thing about these curiosity meats is that people have been eating them in various cultures for centuries. They may sound deplorable and grotesque to our sophisticated, Whopper-refined palates, but they’re food. If you’ve already sworn off vegetarianism and accepted that dead animals will be part of your gustatory repertoire, why not experience what our brethren in other nations call yummy?

But stay away from the monkey brains. That disease you could catch has a lengthy name, and that’s always a sure sign of a nasty illness. Oh, and lamb fries. Don’t order the lamb fries, even if you love lamb and you love fries.

(spoiler: they’re balls.)

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