Discovering Culinary Extremes
An author, prolific poet, teacher and staff writer for The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear is one of the most authoritative voices in food journalism today. In her new book, Anything That Moves, Goodyear explores the remaking of America’s modern food culture, following intrepid eaters and chefs to the margins of the culinary world. Below, Goodyear talks about eating “Mexican caviar” (ant larvae and pupae), how the gourmet business was built on exotic foods like tinned elephant meat, and what makes a modern day “foodie.”
AndrewZimmern.com: What inspired you to write a book about America’s changing food culture?
Dana Goodyear: The book began with the observation that dining out in America was beginning to be a challenging, thrilling, and sometimes nerve-wracking experience—a confrontation with the limits of edibility. I wanted to understand what this said about the culture at large, and what it might mean for the way we could be eating in the near future.
AZ.com: What’s the story behind the title, Anything That Moves?
DG: I noticed, reporting this book, that food-minded people now use the phrase admiringly, to compliment the uninhibited appetites of others like them, or as a badge of honor to describe their own eating habits. I was struck by that: not long ago, to say someone would eat anything that moves was an insult, and usually carried with it an undercurrent of xenophobia. That shift in meaning speaks to the status that deeply resourceful eating is beginning to acquire in our country.
AZ.com: What are some of the most shocking discoveries you made while researching and writing this book?
DG: I was fascinated to learn that the American gourmet business, a post-war phenomenon created largely by European refugees, was built on titillating foods like barbecued baby bees and tinned elephant meat. (Other exotic novelties from the early days included Hawaiian Punch and marinated artichokes.) As recently as the 1970s, Safeway stocked Bengal tiger meat, and the food department at Macy’s sold smoked whale.
AZ.com: Any foods you were poised to hate but ended up loving?
DG: I was fully prepared to find the eggy substance known as “Mexican caviar” or escamoles—the larvae and pupae of a particular ant species—unappetizing. In fact, escamoles are mild, vaguely sweet, and they burst like little corn kernels when you bite into them.
AZ.com: Were there any food leaders or chefs who really changed your way of thinking about culinary extremes?
DG: Three people heavily influenced my thinking. The first was Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic who exalts small traditional strip-mall restaurants and encourages culinary adventurism. He believes in eating low on the food chain, deep into the animal. The second was Laurent Quenioux, a classically trained French chef who is outrageously experimental. He turned me on to Mexican caviar, rooster testicles (he calls them white kidneys), and the gastronomic possibilities of cooking with deer tendons and marijuana leaves. It’s all fair game, as far as he’s concerned. The third person is Craig Thornton, a phenomenal young chef who runs an underground restaurant called Wolvesmouth out of his loft. He represents the new generation of American chef—fanatically D.I.Y., obsessive about sourcing (he handpicks many of the vegetables he serves), unbound by the regulations that official restaurants must operate by. He flirts with danger and disgust in pursuit of the sublime, and sometimes encourages diners to eat meat with their hands.
AZ.com: Did you come to any conclusions about what makes a “foodie” in this day and age in the U.S.? Why do you think some are so averse to that title?
DG: A foodie is someone who takes eating personally; for him or her, food is an identity, a cause, an obsession, and a source of meaning. Foodies are diverse and often disagree with one another—competitiveness is a common trait—but they share an attitude. They are righteous about food, and I understand why. Foodies are radically enlarging Americans’ sense of what is edible, at a time when we desperately need some alternatives. And they are having fun doing it.
The word “foodie” is kind of needling. It doesn’t have a good mouthfeel, so to speak. On the one hand, it sounds self-congratulatory; on the other hand, infantile. But, as I say in the book, I think it’s the right word. It’s American, democratic, and implies the eagerness of the people it describes.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
DG: Five different kinds of honey; a “brunette” from Short Cake bakery (a blondie made with pine nuts and rosemary); golden beets from Whole Foods; baby kale from the farmers market; baking chocolate that I use as a study aid. My freezer is the weird zone: a questionable spider I trapped and have yet to identify; the last of the breast milk for my daughter—left from when I went to Chicago to eat at Next (the Hunt)—some Peeps ice cream my friend Sammy made for me last Easter. It came with an intact Peep on top; that’s long gone.
Dana Goodyear is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She teaches at the University of Southern California and is co-founder and co-president of Figment, a youth-oriented mobile platform for reading and writing fiction.