[10 December 2013]
There are three ways to view Dana Goodyear’s Anything That Moves: the first is an amusing romp through Los Angeles’s extreme foodie culture; the second, an anthropological exploration of deliberately marginal eating habits; the third, the culinary equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.
Goodyear, a staff writer for the New Yorker, set herself the task of exploring foodie culture at the fringes. The resulting work pushes past Bourdanian blood and guts to items challenging commonly held ideas of edibility: bugs, ant larvae, “hornless goat” (i.e., dog), and in one case, a tailless whip scorpion. Throughout Anything That Moves, Goodyear maintains a steadfast, cheerful neutrality, willingly eating nearly everything placed before her.
Anything That Moves is, as mentioned, set largely in Los Angeles. This is a departure from most American food writing, which is centered in New York City. It’s a refreshing change: as LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold notes, eating in New York City is centered around high-end restaurants, accessible only to the wealthiest eaters.
Goodyear begins Anything That Moves by eating out with Gold in what had to be an eating endurance contest. The pair traveled to several establishments, culminating in a Korean restaurant where they ate live octopus. Gold doused the tentacles with oil to stop their climbing up his chopsticks.
Gold is a seminal figure in the foodie world. The first person to win a Pulitzer for food writing, he has no formal journalism training. Disinterested in high-end dining, Gold has made his career eating the ethnic foods of Los Angeles and writing about them, hunting down the unassuming places in strip malls many Americans drive past. He has earned a devoted following, becoming a print and social media superstar.
For many years Gold published a feature called “99 Essential Restaurants”. Many Los Angeles denizens followed this slavishly. One man who suffers from Crohn’s disease visited several listed establishments before landing on the operating table, where a portion of his digestive tract was removed. Here is a married couple, speaking with Goodyear about Gold’s reviews:
“We listen to Jonathan Gold over all things.” (wife)
“I get angry if I have something that isn’t delicious. I get depressed.” (husband)
Ironically, Gold’s brother, Mark, runs Heal the Bay, a marine conservation organization aimed at cleaning up Santa Monica Bay. Mark is appalled by Jonathan’s lack of ecological stewardship. Mark represents a minority in Anything That Moves: those concerned with sustainable sourcing and consumption. While Mark hasn’t eaten swordfish in 25 years, Jonathan heedlessly consumes whatever arrives on his plate.
Chef Paul Bartolotta, of Bartolotta at Wynn, in Las Vegas, is “perhaps the most extreme example” of negligent consumption:
“He has no patience with concerns about sustainability.
“There’s nothing local—our water comes from somewhere else, our electricity comes from somewhere else..” Fisherman have sent him texts in the middle of the night from their boats in the Adriatic…holding fresh-caught specimens and messages like “want this fish?”
Fringe foodstuffs are often at odds with the United States Border Patrol, the Food and Drug Administration, and United States Department of Agriculture. Extreme eaters often relish these clashes as much they do the food itself. In a chapter titled “Grub”, Goodyear confronts both the limits of what we’ll eat—here, bugs—and their availability.
Much of what people think “acceptable” food is cultural. Consider grasshoppers: in Oaxaca, Mexico, a plate of grasshoppers roasted with chile, lime, and garlic is a feast. The same people view shrimp with revulsion. Yet the reverse is true just a few hundred miles north.
Goodyear meets Laurent Quenioux, a French-born chef whose pursuit of new flavors often has him skirting the law, a position he appears to enjoy. The pair embark on an illegal border run to procure escamoles, a rare immature ant egg found only in Hidalgo, Mexico. Long considered a delicacy, escamoles are vulnerable to poachers. They are now impossible to get in the United States without smuggling, as Quenioux does, cash exchanged for an icy bag of ant larvae. His goal? To bring diners new tastes and textures.
To achieve this end, Quenioux prepares escamoles served on nasturtium leaves. Later, he’ll create a “weed dinner” at a wealthy woman’s home, high in the San Fernando Valley hills, serve diners raw rabbit, and shop for ingredients at a Chinese apothecary.
Extreme eating has little to do with vegetables: how weird can you get with a leek? This sends Goodyear into the world of nose-to-tail meat eating: “More than any other kinds of foods (sic), meat forces a confrontation with our animal natures.”
The people Goodyear meets—nearly all men—aren’t interested in steaks. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, of the restaurant Animal, make a curry of 30 duck hearts. When Goodyear visits, pig heads are brining in the fridge. Dotolo recounts recently breaking down an entire, illicitly procured lamb. He wants Goodyear to know he opened the skull with an axe. He informs her other chefs would have used a bandsaw.
Further north, at San Francisco’s Incanto, Chef Chris Consentino makes “brainaise” and sandwiches of pig ears. Head-to-tail dinners feature items like “raw venison heart on brioche made with pig skin… espresso brewed with pig’s blood… One of the dishes he was proudest of involved asparagus (a diuretic) lamb kidney (a filter), and a bright lemon yellow vinaigrette…”
Goodyear visits Rawsome, the members-only collective selling raw milk, unpasteurized eggs, and raw meat. The collective made news headlines when the owner was arrested in 2011. Debates over the health and safety merits of raw milk rage unabated, but ardent consumers swear by the health benefits. In this, raw foodists are quite different from foodie adventurists: one group seeks health while the other is seeking thrills. The two share only extremist viewpoints, and even those differ.
There are visits to high-end Las Vegas food purveyors, a look at the history of gourmet foods, and, at the book’s end, a bust of a Santa Monica sushi restaurant that will leave all but the most hardhearted horrified.
Reading Anything That Moves reminded me of a passage in Fuschia Dunlop memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating In China. Dunlop moves to China, where she learns Chinese, attends Chinese cooking school, and eats her way across the country. Her career as a Chinese cookbook writer and food consultant blossoms. Yet she is increasingly horrified by her gluttonous consumption of animals, many endangered.
She is also frightened by China’s horrific pollution and dangerously contaminated food supply. At the height of her crisis of faith, thinking her career may be over, she visits Yangzhou, China. The cooking of Yangzhou is clean and simple. Cooks are notoriously selective about ingredient selection and preparation. They call it “eating skillfully.” Dunlop’s faith, both in Chinese cooking and in herself, is restored.
There will be readers who zip through Anything That Moves, finding it an enjoyable read. And it can be read on that level, as a foodie entertainment. I confess, it disturbed me. I have no problem with people trying new foods or revisiting old ones. What troubles me is eating out of context. The people Goodyear chronicles regard eating as the culinary equivalent of diving into the mosh pit. Most (not all) don’t care where the food came from, who ate it, or why. Nor do they seem to care if they truly enjoy it.Balut (unhatched duckling eaten by cracking the shell and sucking the bird down, feathers and all) is not a gustatory experience, it’s scoring tickets to the underground electronica show. Whether or not you truly like it doesn’t factor. What matters is telling your friends you ate it.
Few extreme eaters appear to connect their ventures to the bleaker realities—that the exotica they boast of is food of the poor. The bugs they run across the Mexican border are the food of a protein-starved people (notice the lack of cows in Mexico). Quinoa, the hip “superfood” we’re all paying so much for at upscale markets, has made this staple grain unaffordable to Andean Peruvians who subsisted on it for centuries. The escamoles we’re smuggling out of Hidalgo mean less for the people living there, who can’t dash to the corner market for a steak.
The Jonathan Gold fan who gets “angry and depressed” each time he doesn’t get a delicious meal has lost fundamental contact with reality. And this is what bothered me most: Anything That Moves isn’t just about places you can eat the illicit, the illegal, or the just plain weird. It’s about a subgroup of people who are so devoted the pursuit, preparation, and consumption of unusual food that they have become oblivious worldly concerns.
Anything That Moves will certainly force you to reconsider your ideas about food, be they conservative, middling, or as wildly adventurous as the folks chronicled here. You will also re-think your ideas of consumption, sustainable or not, the meaning of gluttony, where the lines are drawn. The American relationship to food is an increasingly incendiary topic. Read Anything That Moves, then draw your own conclusions.