We all like to scare ourselves silly at Halloween. But usually, the goose bumps are a reaction to a frightening event we see or hear, not something dished up on a dinner plate.
Here I am, though, in the awful position of trying offal at Teutonia Mannerchor in Pittsburgh’s North Side.
An auxillary member, I’ve eaten the German club’s food many times at special events and lunches, and count its homemade spaetzel and schnitzel among the city’s best ethnic dishes. But on this particular afternoon, I’m staring down a dish offered on the bar’s board menu that’s grossed me out for years: a blood tongue sandwich.
“You gotta love a food that tastes you back,” my editor had kidded me when I told him, in a shaky voice, I was going to swallow my fear and try it.
Thankfully, the freckled lunch meat that arrived on my table, nestled between two pieces of rye, wasn’t wearing taste buds. Slicing it ultra-thin, though, couldn’t disguise the fact the cured pork tongue from Usinger’s in Milwaukee was dotted with small white chunks of . . . something. (Diced smoked ham fat with the beef blood, I later discovered.) Like many darker lunch meats, it also smelled slightly earthy.
“You kind of have to grow up with it,” conceded my waitress, Alice Weinbrenner, when she set the sandwich ($4.75, including potato chips) in front of me. It’s popular with the mostly older men’s and women’s choirs who practice at the club Wednesday evenings.
And if you didn’t? I suggest washing it down with a squirt of yellow mustard or a pint of Spaten. Or in my case, both.
Obviously, a sense of adventure can determine what gives one diner the creeps and another a hearty appetite. Also at play are cultural traditions and religious beliefs, along with what foodstuffs are available for the taking. Disgusted by the deluge of stink bugs this year? Roasted, the shield-shaped bugs end up in tacos in Mexico (they’re rich in vitamin B2). They also make a nice pate, according to Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, who includes a recipe for such in “Creepy Crawly Cuisine.”
Insects might be a regular part of the diet for many cultures in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But no way I’m eating a creepy-crawly that smells like rotten sneakers. Nor could I bring myself to try the watermelon- and banana-flavored bug suckers ($2.25 to $4.25) found on the counter at Reyna’s Mexican grocery in the Strip District (the delicious choices include scorpion, ant and cricket). With a lot of cajoling from videographer Steve Mellon, however, I managed to force a BBQ Larvet into my mouth, along with a salt-n-vinegar Crick-ette (each $3.50). And then promptly spit them out.
Fried to an almost powdery crisp, neither the mealworms (the larvae of a grain-eating beetle) nor the crickets held much taste other than salt. The texture, though, isn’t for the squeamish. Though the larvet quickly dissolved, it still was a worm. And I ended up with tiny, icky cricket legs stuck in my teeth.
I had better luck at Jerome Bettis’ Grille 36, where Chef Marc Seeberger is testing the limits on taste with a “soon to be famous” deep-fried cheeseburger ($9.99) You don’t have to be a health nut to be scared of this sandwich, which is chilled for two days before being dipped — pickles, secret sauce and roll included — in a tempura batter and then fried for 31/2 minutes.
Calories and fat?
“Too many,” admitted Chef Seeberger, laughing.
I have to admit it, though, my one bite was delicious: imagine if a beignet and a burger had a baby. Considering the havoc it’s sure to wreak on your arteries, though, this is definitely a dish for sharing.
Conversely, you can keep all to yourself the Polish duck blood soup, or czarnina, at the landmark Bloomfield Bridge Tavern in Bloomfield ($4.95).
Talk about your acquired tastes: Gamey and slightly sour, the broth — made with sauerkraut juice and prunes — turns from clear to a purplish-black when you give it a stir. (The dish derives its name from the Polish word for black, czarny.) And stir you do, because the soup’s homemade kluski noodles look so darn delicious. Alas, they do little to soften the taste of duck blood — three quackers’ worth per batch.
I’m not alone in thinking it takes an adventurous soul to slurp this stuff up; when I meet him outside the tavern in the parking lot, owner Steve Frankowski warns me it’s the only item on the menu he doesn’t recommend to non-Polish eaters like me. (Old-timers have loved it ever since his father, Stanley, put it on the menu 25 years ago next month.) And the recipe comes from his Aunt Barbara on his father’s side!
That said, enough customers are fans that the tavern sells out of the soup every time his brother Karl cooks up a pot.
Having grown up with sweeter versions served at home, some diners stir a teaspoon or two of sugar into the bowl. But not Mr. Frankowski.
“We’re traditionalists here,” he said.