It began, as these things so often do, with antelope steak.
One fine autumn morning a couple of years ago in Washington, D.C., I was lazing around the house reading O. Henry stories. The rough-and-ready characters in an especially well-crafted tale, “Hostages to Momus,” find themselves deep in a serious discussion about what constitutes a proper breakfast and the best city in which to get one:
“Now, if we was in Muskogee at the St. Lucifer House, I’d show you some breakfast grub. Antelope steaks and fried liver to begin on, and venison cutlets with chili con carne and pineapple fritters, and then some sardines and mixed pickles; and top it off with a can of yellow clings and a bottle of beer. You won’t find a layout like that on the bill of affairs of any of your Eastern restauraws.” [sic]
Why are there no antelope steaks at my supermarket?, I wondered. An innocent beginning to an obsession.
Bird watchers keep a life list of every species they have ever spotted. My life list is of species I have consumed. Both hobbies have the same root: It’s the impulse of a born collector who doesn’t like to have stuff lying around. All that remains is the memory of a flavor, wrapped—as taste memories always are—in the sights, sounds, and smells of the meal, the company, and the conversation.
Since that fateful day, I’ve nibbled on caribou filet, alligator jambalaya, elk medallions, yak dumplings, buffalo burgers, crocodile stir fry, ostrich burgers, emu jerky, and kangaroo loin. These memorable meals have all been interspersed with the merely interesting—frogs, ducks, rabbits, turtles, and deer—and the downright domesticated—cow, pig, and lamb.
I’ve had more than my fair share of eel, as well. Most of it was barbequed at sushi bars, though once I tried ordering it in a dim Russian restaurant in Boston. (They were fresh out of eel that night. Go figure.)
But there’s something different about adventurous seafood eating. It has a different tone, a different timbre to it than eating the flanks of beasts recently on the hoof or paw. It’s more of an effete stunt, less of a primitive exercise in carnivorousness.
A few fish allow meat-level bragging rights. I would like to offer honorary membership in the exotic meats sisterhood to former Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth-Hage, who once held an Endangered Salmon Bake as a fundraiser in her Idaho district. A woman after my own heart, surely.
The New York Times recently ran a trend article about how women have started ordering steaks on dates. The new conventional wisdom is that “ordering a salad displays an unappealing mousiness.” Needless to say, I could destroy these pathetic petit filet eaters—and even their slightly more impressive rib-eye snarfing sisters—with a single swipe of my grease-covered hand.
As luxury goods become staples, and the rare becomes common, thanks to fast transit, wealth, and free time in America, the quest for unique experiences and attendant bragging rights becomes more and more rarified. And bragging rights are certainly central to my exotic meat eating campaign.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s an exercise in enjoying the most notable fruits of globalization. I can have anything I want to eat, anywhere, anytime, with just a bit of effort. A keystroke on my Mac sends a man out to drag a crocodile from its watery wallow, conk it on the head, and send me a filet from its tail, just so that I can have a novel dinner. Such power was once reserved only for the very rich and very powerful. Now, anyone with a strong stomach and a collector’s instincts can have what Louis XIV and his ilk enjoyed exclusively while their subjects ate plain bread day after day.
My first real exotic meat encounter was at 2941, a fancy joint in Falls Church, overlooking a lake and an office park. I’d heard tell of kangaroo on the menu, and headed over to investigate. I was crestfallen to discover upon arrival that there was nary a kangaroo loin on the premises. Fortunately, caribou was on offer, and my dining companions and I contented ourselves with flavorful, lean slivers of venison-like flesh.
Once you get started down the exotic meat path, it is hard to stop—opportunities crop up everywhere. I once happened upon a country fair in Virginia. It was one of those places where prizes are given to fat pigs and large melons. But this one featured a revolutionary variant on that theme: Emu was being touted as the Next Big Thing—low-fat, low-cholesterol red meat from birds. Someone had turned them into an especially bold jerky. Many of the farmers in the area were switching to emu, the healthy, efficient red meat of the future, according to a veritable avalanche of emu-related promotional materials on display in barns and at farm stands.