Like any adventurous traveler, when I’m abroad, I like to eat what the locals eat. Chili-roasted grasshoppers in Oaxaca, alpaca prosciutto in Valparaiso…when in Rome, yaddah-yaddah. But I’ll never be able to erase the memory of the dog market in South Korea where big breeds were caged up waiting to be sold for soup meat. I’d heard they were killed slowly, gruesomely to increase levels of adrenaline and, therefore, flavor. But who knows for sure. Either way, I never ate the dog meat soup I saw on menus around Seoul. But, why should it have bothered me so? I eat pork – and have you ever hung out with a piglet? They’re at least as smart and adorable as puppies.
As a child, I went to summer camp on a ranch where activities included archery, canoeing and horseback riding. The horse I rode each year was a large pinto named Fred. The other kids were afraid of him because of his hulking size and stubborn temperament. But I loved that horse more than any of my camp crushes and rode him everyday. At a Paris bistro in my twenties, I was offered a bite of horse meat, which is rather common around Europe and not unheard of in my native Montreal. Somehow, that bite of firm, slightly gamey, tough-on-the-outside-and-buttery-on-the-inside meat tasted of Fred. I refused a second bite.
Speaking of my native Montreal, there were several proteins I grew up eating that I learned, when I moved to Brooklyn, were not typical kids’ fare. At a summer barbecue at my uncle’s house, for example, I went on a total moose steak bender. He’s a bow hunter, my uncle, which means that he sits in a tree for two weeks waiting for his target, then really only has the one shot. Have you ever seen a live moose? It’s enormous, like a cow on stilts with a head that’s all nose and massive antlers. Its meat can last a family of four for 18 months.
My uncle was telling us about the kill as the meat sizzled on the grill: the arrow pierced the animal’s side; it took one step, two, then peed and died. I realized at that moment that it’s probably what happens when people die, too: they pee. We ate the moose steaks bloody; any more cooking and the meat gets tough. I was insatiable that day, devouring one, two… five, six moose steaks in a row until my parents got embarrassed and told me to slow down. Puberty can be a bitch.
Another protein I grew up on was snails. Escargots in Montreal tend to be small and chewy, served drowning in melted butter and garlic and topped with a healthy grating of cheese, melted. My dad would take us out to the local brasserie where I always got the escargots as an appetizer. On a trip to South Africa some years later, I was served another chewy, garlicky critter. Caterpillars, sautéed in butter, onions and garlic are a staple in villages across the country: a protein-rich, cheap and sustainable meat source. But when a heaping platter of them is placed before you, it takes a moment to adjust.
“What, you don’t like caterpillars?” my host implored.
“No, no, it’s not that. Well, I’ve never had them.”
She looked shocked. They were everywhere: falling out of trees, inching along dirt roads. I’d stepped on three of them that day alone. I guess they can’t be that different from escargots, I said. She looked perplexed. Snails, I clarified. She was horrified.
“You eat snails??!!” It’s all about perspective.
Of course, South Africa is the place to go for exotic meat. Strong, stupid men once traveled there to hunt the big five, although I can’t imagine lion meat was anything to write home about. Remember that Italian TV chef who suggested his viewers try cat stew and was promptly axed afterwards? Feline meat just doesn’t sound appetizing. Elephant and rhino don’t, either. Buffalo can be tasty – hell, even its milk is delicious – which is probably why it came to be known as the most dangerous of the big five, causing the most hunter deaths. But you don’t have to go to Africa to eat buffalo.
The big five are now meant to be admired, not shot and mounted. But there is still plenty of bushmeat to enjoy in South Africa. I tasted zebra (a little too close to horse for my liking), springbok (a type of gazelle), kudu (African antelope) and ostrich – although, I'd been eating that last one since the ostrich burger craze of ’97. No giraffe, but that’s another one you find on menus. I even tried kudu in biltong format, the local version of jerky, and it was the best dried meat I’d ever eaten. Now there’s an exotic meat you can pack in your suitcase and take home to your mom. It’s every traveling carnivore’s ideal memento: a vacuum-sealed slice of the Serengeti.
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