Call it naïveté, but when I started writing about wine in 1978, I had no idea that I'd also be totally immersed in the world of food. Wine was intimidating enough.
Getting a handle on California wine seemed like a full plate at the time, and I took every opportunity to learn more about European wines. Luckily wine was simpler then than it is now, and I had many great mentors who introduced me to the classics. But I was totally unprepared for the culinary adventures, eccentric chefs and exotic entrées that I would encounter in the years to come.
I grew up in a family where both my mom and dad cooked almost every meal. They were raised during the Depression, and we seldom dined out. My dad was the better cook of the two, and he made dishes that could be best described as middle European—a mix of Alsatian, German and Slavic, with a distinct Californian twist. We ate everything from pork chops, sauerkraut and dumplings to tacos.
In college, my exposure to different cuisines led to my first taste of sea turtle and rattlesnake. One year my brother, Tom, while in law school, experimented with homegrown snails that we turned into escargot. We were the only ones to eat them at his dinner party (brothers sticking together).
At the time, the thought of eating eel made me squeamish, and I never took a liking to lamprey in Bordeaux. I don’t think I had sushi or sashimi until I was in my 30s, but my kids had by the time they were eight or nine.
In Australia, I feasted on kangaroo for the first time, and at the Hitching Post in Buellton, Calif., Frank Ostini introduced me to ostrich.
I may even have tried Rocky Mountain oysters, although I think I may have suppressed that memory.
Last year, at the California Wine Experience, Charlie Trotter introduced me to an entrée that included veal heart, chicken gizzards and crayfish jelly.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a couple of other gustatory enlightenments. The other day, Tim Mondavi and I were amused by the menu at Julia’s Kitchen and an item called butternut squash strip loin. We weren't sure what to make of that and also wondered what shaved lamb chopper might be (it's a cheese).
On Saturday night at Ame—Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani’s fabulous new restaurant in San Francisco's St. Regis Hotel—I had my first taste of ghost shrimp. I knew I would have to try it as soon as Lissa told me it was on the menu. I tried to imagine how Hiro would prepare this entrée, since I’m not new to ghost shrimp. It’s just that I’m used to using them as bait to catch sturgeon. And I looked forward to seeing them on a plate instead of on a fishhook.
I’m sure your dining experiences have introduced you to some strange things you never thought you’d eat. Dare share?