Sunday, July 30, 2006

Eating. blood.

In the mid-90's, I spent a summer volunteering on a political campaign as an intern. I answered phones and transferred calls (occasionally misdirecting calls or, even better, accidentally hanging up on irate Republicans), licked envelopes (thousands of them), created spreadsheets of people who had contributed to the campaign, and just ran around trying to be helpful (or at least look like I was trying). Never mind that at sixteen I was not old enough to vote, nor did I have any interest in politics. Most of the people on the campaign were young (by young I mean in their 20's or 30's, which of course to me seemed absolutely ancient), or experienced (code for extremely ancient, forty or so), and there was a tremendous amount of energy in the air, excitement and expectation, the feeling that we were part of something important. The campaign headquarters were in Seattle's First Hill neighborhood, just off the freeway. For lunch I'd bring something from home, or head next door to Taco del Mar. Or I would go to the Polish delicatessen a few blocks up Madison. It was there I discovered something incredible - a sandwich of cold blood-and-tongue sausage, sliced thin, piled high on dark bread, succulent and savory with that indescribable tang of...blood. Turkey and ham seemed so ordinary after that. I took a sadistic pleasure in describing my lunch to people and watching them turn green.

When I was growing up and we often went out to Chinese restaurants of varying quality, my parents would sometimes order a dish that involved cubes of blood custard, among other things, floating in a hot broth. They had the texture of soft tofu, but they squeaked between the teeth and left a faintly metallic taste on the tongue. It gave me some primal, animal feeling to eat something made of blood. (Pig's blood). Like eating the source of life itself. (The only experience that might be more intense is when you take some marrow from a cracked, roasted bone and spread it on a slice of toasted bread, but I will tell that story another time). In my house, tongue was something bought at an Asian supermarket, looking all too apparently, loathsomely in its plastic-wrapped state like what it must look like when attached to a live animal. Unlike, perhaps, a steak, or ground hamburger, far removed from its original appearance. It would be red-braised in soy sauce and spices, cooled, and sliced thin when cold. Somehow the flavor was more intense, the meat more tender than any other cut of meat. That blood-and-tongue sausage from that tiny Polish deli brought together those two foods from my childhood in an entirely new way, the flavors mingling, sharpened by a smear of mustard, the earthy taste of pumpernickel bread. But then I discovered something else.

Years ago at the Harvest Vine I had a dish of pan-roasted blood sausage; it was my second visit there and as two young college students my friend and I had ordered carefully. (Such a polite word, when I mean that we ordered as little as possible. At the Harvest Vine it is easy to get carried away). The food there arrives on a pristine white plate, a still life, almost too perfect to disturb with a knife and fork. A single grilled sardine adorned with one minimalist, curving twist of a lemon slice. Bright green spinach, sautéed and molded into an abbreviated cone. The blood sausage arrived, two or three slices, black with blood and crisp on both sides, and it came with little cakes of mashed potatoes, but oh, what mashed potatoes they were. They were creamy and shot through with bits of scallions, and they had been fried on one side so that a crust formed, echoing the texture of the accompanying sausage. (They had been presented fried-side down, so the sudden crunch was an unexpected, delightful surprise). Both were immediately addictive, and had I had the budget for it, I would have ordered more.

That memory stayed with me for a long time, and I thought of it again when I ordered a dinner of blood sausage, bacon, and eggs in the basement restaurant of our hotel-parador in Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, one of the most luxurious in the group. It was everything I thought it would be, and more, the sausage hot and crusty, the blood almost black; the bacon was thickly sliced and shattered when I bore down on it with my knife, and the yolks oozed a bright yellow-orange as I speared it with a fork. When I went to the Harvest Vine again last week, for the first time since the year it opened, I failed to order the blood sausage, and I have regretted it since. I suppose I will have to go back soon, particularly since I have just re-read Jeffrey Steingarten's essay on boudin noir, and I feel an overwhelming craving for blood all over again, that vampiric lust, that unbearable longing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think I will stick to ketchup... on everything!