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Wine's Easy Compared to Exotic Cuisine

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 24, 2007 12:31pm ET

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?

James Rego
Redding, Ca., Shasta County —  January 24, 2007 2:31pm ET
In the early seventies, a good freind who owned a fine french restaurant in the bay area, invited me to sit down for an appetizer and some wine; he did have a fine wine list at his restaurant. In short order, a bottle of Heitz 1968 Martha's arrived along with an order of escargot! I recognized that the wine was extroadinary but I had previously vowed never to eat "snails". Well, I ate the escargot and it too was extroadinary. Even though I enjoyed them, I have never eaten them since; by the way, the wine was excellent.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  January 24, 2007 2:54pm ET
In Japan, we were taken to a traditional dinner by our Japanese hosts. One of the courses included something that looked like a large, fuzzy caterpillar. I and the American sitting across from me left it for last, but we finally decided to eat it simultaneously. We did, and it was delicious, but I still have no idea what it was although, whatever it was, was cooked tempura-style.
Jean O Hirata
January 24, 2007 3:42pm ET
Enjoy your columns immensely but you need to get out more. Howsabout swallow bird nest spit soup, steamed jellyfish, fermented soybeans or raw sea cucumber in grated turnip (tastes just like raw octopus but crunchy)? Go for it!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 24, 2007 3:58pm ET
As I was hacking up the Dungeness crab for the crab dinner you attended last week, Jim, I offered one of the outer shells to a friend who had never tried "crab butter." It's the custard-like brown goo left in the shell. It looks like nothing on earth you would want to eat, but it's sweet and rich and delicious. A treat for the crab hacker, much like the coral or tomalley inside a lobster's shell.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 24, 2007 4:45pm ET
Harv, I imagine you've had enough weird food & wine experiences to fill a book!
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  January 24, 2007 6:18pm ET
Fruit bat soup in Micronesia--a local delicacy. Definitely not for everyone, between the musky smell and the face of the spread-winged bat staring up at you, fangs bared, from the broth.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 24, 2007 7:54pm ET
Dana, you and Jean should post your recipes so we can all try your entrees. How do you catch the bats? Or are they imported? Do tell.
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  January 24, 2007 8:22pm ET
Jim, Apparently fruit bats are now listed as a threatened species and it's illegal to hunt them. (I was there quite a while ago.) But if you really want to know, basically the bat was boiled with ginger, onions and sea salt.
La Quinta, CA —  January 24, 2007 9:47pm ET
I had lunch with Peter Huwiler, CEO of Merryvale Winery, a couple of weeks ago at a sushi place next to my shop. I love sushi and sashimi, but Peter ordered this Sea Urchin wrapped in seaweed with rice and a raw quail egg on top. It definately was one of the weirdest things I have never heard of eating!! All in all, it wasn't that bad, but I don't think I will be ordering it on a regular basis! Dustin.
Ola Vedin
Uppsala, Sweden —  January 25, 2007 5:29am ET
On a wine trip to Champagne I ended up having gelatinized pig's feet at a michelin star restaurant in Epernay. It was served with a vintage Gosset. Yes, it was quite odd and didn't really do it for me but nevertheless I must say that it did work well with the wine. Another slightly wierd dish I've had is the now classic anchovie-topped foie gras at WD-50 in NYC. Wasn't too impressed with that and I don't consider myself to be a conservative when it comes to food. Not much else either for that matter. Thanks for the blog Laube!
Robert Taylor
New York, NY —  January 25, 2007 10:25am ET
Hi Jim.

As far as "exotic" cuisine goes, I think the annual Explorer's Club dinner in New York has to be at the pinnacle. I attended with Eric Arnold a year or two ago and the walk-around tasting before the dinner and speeches featured everything from tempura tarantula (highly recommended) to bovine penis (what's the opposite of highly recommended?). There were maggot-stuffed mushrooms, mealworm sushi and Madagascar cockroaches (as well as a delicious whole-roasted goat, complete with head; a whole-roasted feral hog - one so large that Eric initially mistook it for a small dinosaur; enormous roasted Hawaiian moonfish; rattlesnake; alligator; kangaroo... you get the picture).

There was a palpable sense of relief in the room when the main course came out and turned out to be boring old filet mignon with a risotto muffin. However, a rumor that the muffin contained a fried roach at its center had everyone at my table taking very careful bites...

Eric wrote a great column on matching each dish with wines. (http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Features/0,1197,3227,00.html)

Hope I haven't ruined anyone's lunch!Rob
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 25, 2007 11:32am ET
Thanks Rob, and Eric. Missed that story but it looks like you and Eric are in first place for the strangest food follies. I'll be having soda crackers and iced tea for lunch...
John Wilen
Texas —  January 28, 2007 7:11pm ET
Scariest thing I've ever eaten? Has to be steak outside Texas.... :^)
Mr Donald E Howells
January 29, 2007 5:36pm ET
Jim, straw hats in Normal Heights were particularly appealing with Brew 102...
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 29, 2007 5:49pm ET
Not bad, Don Diego. The turtle I referred to came on one of our first trip to San Quintin, and goodness, all the huge lobsters that were hauled out of the sea from there, barbecued, served with scrambled eggs and also fed to the dogs!

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