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Sitting in front of a computer screen staring at an empty page is indeed a discouraging scenario for any writer. It couldn't get much worst. Believe me! Does this mean that the writer has nothing to write about... nothing to say? No, not at all, the problem is that the art of stringing words together is not as easy as it seems. First you must conceive an idea, what you're going to write about. Second, you must develop this idea into a story, and third, you must grab the attention of the reader. This is just a simple schematic way of putting it, without getting into any technical details or boring stuff.  Now if you have a topic or theme restriction, then... forget it about it, you're in deep, deep... trouble.

This said, the other night I was in that initial stage of beating my brains and trying to figure out some sort of suitable topic for the present column, when all of a sudden, it just hit me. I had the TV on, and it distracted me.  Well, let me explain, I have this terrible fixation with noises, I can't stand utter stillness, even when I go to sleep at night I need some form of noise; otherwise I can't rest or shut-eye. I guess we all have our share of idiosyncrasies.  As I was saying, the TV was on, and it was tuned to HBO that was airing that new series Shock Video 2002: America Undercover, an adult documentary that aims to depict how pervasive sex on television has become on foreign shores.

What really caught my attention about that show, it wasn't how sexually disturbed people were around the globe, nothing new there, but a couple of interleaved repulsive gastronomic scenes that, in fact, had nothing to do with sex but could upset the stomach of a crow, or accelerate the digestive process of a slow metabolism. In one of these scenes I'm alluding to, a game contestant from Netherlands, in her early twenties, had to consume a succulent three-course dinner comprised of worms, maggots, and what resembled a nice leathery pig snout. To cap it all, she had to gobble a live grasshopper for dessert. She ingested all these tasty treats in her quest to win the equivalent of five thousand US dollars. Wouldn't be something if she didn't win the prize afterwards!

I'm no bug sucker, maggot fancier, spider chomper, or any kind of entomophagist for that matter, but if I had to eat any bug whatsoever, no matter how nutritious it might be, I would be puking my guts out for a week. I prefer to have cheese microorganisms and regurgitated nectar (honey) down my esophagus.

This reminds me that Thailand natives are notorious water bugs connoisseurs. They consider these ugly looking cockroach malformations highly priced for their aroma and they use them in their cuisine. I tell you, these people would have a banquet here in Bayside, in our co-op complex, and we certainly wouldn't mind to save a buck or two in exterminator's fees. Hungry anybody... feel like having Thai today?

Later in that HBO show, there was this other scene that doesn't warrant further description. It is the grossest thing you'll ever see in your life, a young Asian peasant feasting on fresh hot steaming cow manure, I mean, literally from the source. Umm, yummy... better wash it down with some milk!

Now, let's assume for a minute, you were a contestant in NBC's Fear Factor. Would you be insane enough, or have the nerve of sampling an assortment of live creepy crawlers? Or perhaps during teatime... would you pass the jam please, I mean, cow excrement! Well, I suppose that would be up to each individual, but there are better ways of trying to impress your friends. In any case, that person would have to be either desperate for money or really dying of starvation; after all doesn't the saying go, "we are what we eat."

People cringe at the thought of eating unfamiliar foods. Let's take for instance Callos a la madrileña, the famous Madrid style beef tripe stew-soup. This dish probably would be considered odd to someone in New York while in Madrid it would be merely lunch. On the other hand, a Philadelphian who enjoys his Pepper Pot, or a Mexican that likes his Mondongo would consider Callos a la madrileña a true delicacy.

What we eat says a lot about the culture we are part of, and yes, it is true that eating habits vary from region to region and country to country, but food is food in any part of the world. Someone may strongly disagree with that statement and suggest that weird foods should be ruled out of the mix. But food, as we just said, is part of everyone's culture. Moreover, how would you properly define what is a weird food? As a child, you may eat octopus and like it, and octopus automatically becomes part of your eating habits. Then as you get older you may find out that your favorite dish, octopus, is disgusting to other people.

Walter, a co-worker of mine, can't stand corn. At lunch, if he sees a kernel in his soup he has to discard it immediately. He won't eat any corn unless it is processed. When he was growing up in Germany his mother used to feed the pigs with it. Incidentally, Walter loves Thai cuisine, talk about twists of fate. Everybody has something they hate when it comes to food. Former President Bush disliked broccoli. I love it, but I won't eat carrots or rice pudding. No way José!

One time, after a frustrated morning at fishing, I was having a cold beer with my wife at a state park restaurant. I can't recall if it was Jones Beach or Sunken Meadow, anyway, sitting by the deck, at one of the tables there were three young Oriental kids, one girl and two boys, and they were eating something they brought and had inside a brown paper bag. From the distance it looked like chicken wings. Whatever it was, from their face expressions, it had to be delicious. When it was time for us to leave we had to pass by their table. As we got closer we noticed that in fact they were fried chicken feet. How the heck they could eat that stuff, I thought. Then I recalled that my grandmother used to make the best chicken soup and her secret ingredient were a couple of chicken feet that she would carefully remove and discard from the pot, just before serving. The chicken feet helped to thicken the broth and dramatically improved its flavor. 

When I go to a Chinese buffet restaurant I usually like to experiment. I never read the tray labels. Whatever looks appetizing I pick and try. Then if I liked something in particular I go back and check what I ate. This is a way of tasting new strange foods. But like Wooden Allen said once: "I want my food dead, not wounded, not sick... dead." 

Published on January 11, 2002