I don't talk a lot about my day job on this blog, but in an effort to better illustrate today's post, I'll make an exception. I do a wide range of public affairs and media work for my clients, and sometimes they need me to arrange briefings and press events on Capitol Hill.
Not long ago, I did a press event on the Senate side that attracted the interest of a fairly well-known lobbyist who is more well-known for his smell-it-from-50-feet-away-I'm-not-even-kidding bad breath than he is for his work. I've seen people scurry around corners and duck into offices when they see him coming, because it's just so offensive.
At this event, I had the distinct pleasure of working with some well-known members of the Senate leadership. One in particular is a high-ranking Democrat from the midwest who is "on our side" with respect to my client's position on an issue, so I've gotten the chance to get to know him and his staff, and have nothing but the utmost respect for all of them. My respect for this Senator grew by leaps and bounds when I saw him exit this particular event, only to be greeted by the holy-crap-is-that-an-open-sewer-oh-my-bad-it's-your-breath lobbyist. The Senator's well-honed political veneer cracked before my very eyes as he literally recoiled from this man's breath, his eyes blinking furiously as he said, "Whoa" not quite as under-his-breath as I think he'd intended.
The lobbyist had no clue and kept on talking, and later turned down a politely offered piece of gum, oblivious to the olfactory havoc he wrought.
I'm sure you've all encountered that kind of smell before. One that nearly renders you unconscious, melts your eyelashes off, and leaves a black fog of death in its aftermath -- the memory of which stays with you far longer than you'd ever hoped.
And that, my friends, is what cooked tripe is like.
If this blog has proven anything, it's that I'm not a culinary wuss. In fact, even before starting this project, I'd have to say that I was a pretty adventurous eater. Growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country means you're exposed to all sorts of pickled animal parts at an early age. And, thanks to a former employer that essentially paid for me to travel the world over the course of two years, I've been able to try a wide variety of foods I otherwise never would've known about.
I've eaten nearly every animal part imaginable, and for that matter, nearly every animal imaginable (including the time I was in Egypt and the waiter offered us "dinosaur" when he meant to say "iguana" -- one of the funnier translations I've ever encountered). And, what I wasn't able to eat or enjoy before, I've been able to have a new appreciation for thanks to The French Laundry Cookbook -- oysters, tongue, foie gras... the list goes on.
But tripe? I've never tried it before, even though I've seen it in the store and on the menu at my favorite El Salvadoran restaurant. My mother tells me that my grandparents used to eat tripe, but that's one memory I don't have. I either never witnessed it, or it was so awful that I repressed it so heavily and just can't recall it.
So, I decided to make tripe and see what happened. Perhaps it would trigger an amazing, homey memory of sitting at my grandparents' kitchen table. Or, it would make me want to burn down my house to get rid of the smell.
Gee, is that foreshadowing or what?
For those of you who have a copy of The French Laundry Cookbook, please turn to page 209 and follow along. The first thing I did was buy the tripe at the supermarket (notice what else I bought as an incentive to get through this dish?):
I brought the tripe home and cleaned it thoroughly as the book directed, because when I read the line "When it has been well cleaned, it will have very little odor," I expect it to be true. Ahem. Could that be more foreshadowing? Why, I just don't know.
I cleaned that tripe, scraped off all the excess membrane, rinsed and scraped it again and again, and really made sure it was clean as a whistle and had absolutely no odor.
This is honeycomb tripe, which is the reticulum -- or, second chamber of the alimentary canal (digestive tract) of the cow.
Next, I prepared the vegetables to cook with the tripe: carrots, onions, pasley, turnip:
I also thawed some veal stock, which I would then mix with white wine and pour over the layered tripe and vegetables:
I brought this to a simmer on the stovetop, then covered it and put it in a 275-degree oven for 6 hours.
During Hour One, there wasn't much of a smell. Hour Two, same thing. Hour Three and Hour Four, I noticed a meaty, almost Beef-a-Roni smell. Not too bad, really. By Hour Five, the scent had intensified, and another twenty minutes past Hour Five, something happened. The scent shifted in a split second and I was nearly knocked to the ground when I opened the oven door.
You know when you walk into a nursing home for the first time, and there's a distinct, rather unpleasant smell? Or, when you drive past a sewage treatment plant or paper mill? Or the airplane bathroom on a Southwest Airlines flight? Or a hospital's burn unit?
Those are all preferable smells compared to cooked tripe.
I drained the tripe, saving the liquid to make a sauce (why, I'm not sure. I know it's what the book suggested, but choking back my own vomit was difficult enough at this point -- why the hell did I want to make sauce?). I also called my friends and told them they didn't have to come over to try this. I wasn't so sure I was going to eat it myself. People, this smell was worse than morning breath and dirty hair after you've have the flu for three days and haven't brushed your teeth or showered at all.
I strained the liquid into another saucepan, reduced it, added some cream, a little mustard, and some salt and pepper, as the book suggested. By this time, my corneas had evaporated from the stench and my eyebrows started to fall out.
I then cut a small piece of tripe and put it in a bowl with some of the sauce. I also brought along a little liquid chaser, in case I needed it after tasting the tripe.
This? Was disgusting. Absolutely, positively the worst thing I have ever eaten in my life.
And I was surprised and really bummed. In some part of my twisted little mind, I really did have high expectations for this dish. I kind of wanted it to be excellent, so that I could amaze, astonish, and horrify my friends by ordering tripe when we went out. I wanted to be The Girl Who Is Not Afraid To Order Tripe And In Fact It Makes Her Even Cooler And All The More Sexy Because She Enjoys It. Alas, it was not meant to be.
I left my kitchen, cookbook in hand, and sat outside on the front porch to re-read the instructions to make sure I hadn't missed a crucial step. I hadn't. It was then that I saw the final sentence that wrapped up the instructions for the dish: "It's terrific."
It made me wonder how long it took Michael Ruhlman and Thomas Keller to come up with that sentence, because surely, it has to be some sort of inside joke or secret chef-to-chef code for a dish that is really awful but meant to be tried only in some sort of freakish dare. I imagine their exchange might have gone a little something like this:
Michael: So, we've described how to cook tripe, and we've included your story about the importance of cooking offal. Would you like to add something here at the end that describes what tripe tastes like?
Thomas: Yeah, sure. But in case someone, someday decides they want to cook every recipe in this book and maybe write about it, let's not deter them in any way, so how about we say, "It's absolutely fantastic!"
Thomas: Yes, Michael?
Michael: Fantastic. Really?
Thomas: Um, how about, "it doesn't suck... oh no wait, IT DOES!"?
Michael: Or, "hope you've got your fumigator on speed dial"?
Thomas: Oh, I know! What if we say "it's good" and you draw a picture of me doing air quotes around the word "good"?
Michael: *giggle*snort* Or, we could say it tastes like a word that rhymes with something else. Like "schmass"?
Thomas: Wait, wait, wait. I got it. Let's say it tastes terrific. After all, Michael, you went to the CIA; you've been inducted into the Secret Chef Jargon That Pranks Home Cooks Club -- you remember what "terrific" means, right?
Michael: Oh yes. Ha ha. But the regular reader won't know that now will they? We are so smart. This will most certainly encourage a potential home cook perhaps from the Washington, DC region to try this dish in like, I dunno, ten years or so, because she thinks it will be really great. Maybe we should tell her to pick up a donut when she buys the tripe.
Thomas: No need for that. She can make her own. Unless she sucks at that, too, which is a distinct possibility. Well done, Ruhlman. Well done. Terrific it is.
Thanks a lot, guys. Thanks a lot.
Up Next: "Head to Toe" Part One -- Pig's Feet
Who cares? You're not going to make this. I won't allow it.
Music to Cook By: I refuse to sully any artist's name, discography, or reputation by associating them with this post. Oh, except for Celine Dion. Go ahead and listen to her and eat some tripe. I'm not sure which experience will be worse.
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