As you may recall, I am an aggressively adventurous eater. I do not have a yuck factor. I am that guy who will ignore the English-language menu at an ethnic restaurant and order my meal by pointing at the people at the next table if they happen to be eating something that tantalizingly resembles, say, snouts in lymph sauce. And that is why I got so excited recently to discover a grocery store in Springfield, Va., named LA Mart, which specializes in items that to many people might seem highly unconventional. They sell pig uteruses, for example. LA Mart might as well be called Gene’s Place. This is how I happened to find myself in possession of an entire flash-frozen lamb’s head. Five bucks, cash.
Now I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that it makes no sense to eat an intact lamb’s head, and you would be right. Sure, you could pop out the succulent eyeballs and probably access the tender tongue with needle-nose pliers, but how would you penetrate the skull to gain access to the buttery brain, not to mention the squishy sinuses?
Which is why I took the frozen head to my friend Billy the butcher at Eastern Market, and he sawed it into three pieces. Baked for an hour and a half, the head was terrific.
For those few of you who may still be reading, there’s so much more to this story! The following week I went back to LA Mart, and really went to town. I got two more lamb’s heads — they come in semi-opaque plastic bags so shoppers aren’t forced to look at those giant, sad, accusing eyes. But I also got plenty of other stuff, such as a cow’s stomach — the third one, which is said to be the tastiest — and tripe, and “pork bung,” which gives all appearances of being exactly what it sounds like.
The next weekend came, and I went back to see Billy, head in hand, as it were.
I should describe my relationship with the butchers at Eastern Market. It is one of mutual admiration: They really know their meats, and — I don’t want to toot my own horn here — but I, too, am something of a meat sophisticate. The butchers and I first bonded when I asked one of them why their chops were trimmed so lean, inasmuch as fat is what gives meat its taste. He hung his head sheepishly, then blinked and appeared to come out of a trance, like when the Wicked Witch melted and the flying monkeys were released from their spell. The butcher explained that, gastronomically, most Americans are children, absurdly scared by their food, and that the butchers had no choice but to cater to them. Then he disappeared into the back and returned furtively like a dope peddler, carrying well-marbled meat, presumably from his personal stash.
So, anyway, I handed my lamb’s-head-in-a bag to Billy and left for the ATM. When I got back, Billy was looking a little … uncomfortable. He had something to say to me but didn’t seem to know how to quite articulate it, like a good friend having to deliver bad news. Finally:
“So, these are chicken feet.”
“Yeah, I looked at it and thought maybe it was two heads fused together but then I dropped it on the floor, and it split apart, and, um …”
He held something up. Yep, a chicken foot.
I don’t know if I can ever recover my dignity with Billy or the others. I don’t much mind that there was a teensy labeling problem at LA Mart; stuff like that happens. Plus, the feet look meaty and fresh, and I will happily make chicken soup from them. LA Mart is still my favorite grocery.
But I confess I have yet to eat the pork bung. I’m looking at it right now and feeling a little unease. It’s not that it’s pork bung. But what if it tests me? What if it turns out to be something … worse?