Steamed Lamb’s Brain

15 Jun 2007

Once furious at my mother for not having any idea who the latest Hollywood stars were or who was on the hit parade, I now am equally ignorant about popular culture despite being a university professor and regularly surrounded by young people. I respect and even admire this generation, but one thing about many young parents that I cannot abide is their distinction between food that is appropriate for adults and what they think children ought to eat. Perhaps many in my generation also fed their children special foods and I never noticed but, in my Armenian American immigrant and refugee family, as soon as we had a full set of teeth, we ate what our parents ate.

My childhood food memories are full of such delicacies as chee kufta, the Armenian version of steak tartare, made with ground lamb and bulgur; artichokes braised in olive oil and lemon juice; and fresh tomato salad with onions and hot peppers – the hotter the better. I also learned to love oysters on the half shell when I was very young. Before I started attending school, one of my most exciting memories was meeting my uncle Alex for lunch. We always went to the same restaurant and I always ordered the same thing: oysters to start and spaghetti. I also always added extra horseradish. I was not satisfied until I felt the heat coming through my nose and bringing tears to my eyes.

Before I entered elementary school, loving the food my family ate was unproblematic. My only playmates were cousins whose diet was similar to mine, though there were some differences between the cuisines of the Turkish Armenian and the Persian Armenian sides of the family. At New York’s P.S. 189, most of my friends were also children of immigrants. Like me, most of them spoke another language at home, and the Greeks also ate food much like ours. But even with these similarities, I learned to be careful with what I told my new playmates about what we ate after one of them called my family and me barbarians for eating raw meat. I learned years later that my mother only served this treat on the rare times when my father was not home for dinner. Chee kufta is Turkish Armenian delicacy, which my father, a Persian Armenian, thought was barbaric.

One thing I knew never to tell anyone outside the family about was my absolute love of steamed lamb brains. Not everyday fare, we had brains on special occasions. They were served whole – looking just like what they were – sprinkled amply with lemon juice and chopped Italian parsley. Reaching puberty in the 1950s, I was pulled by the urge to assimilate and would argue endlessly with my mother about wanting us to act more like Americans, even eating some of ‘their’ food. To her horror I wanted Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup from a box, but I never considered giving up Armenian food, not even brains.

When I had my own children, I expected them to try all the food we ate. By the time my daughter was about four years old, I had to prepare two artichokes when I was serving them as an appetizer for company dinners, one for the adults and the other for Leah. She would usually be in the kitchen while I made the sauce, anxiously watching me beat pats of butter into the reduced lemon juice until the mixture turned thick and light yellow. As soon as I put them down on the coffee table, Leah was like a piranha, going at the artichoke more adroitly and certainly faster than the adults, pulling off a leaf, dipping it into the sauce, scraping the delectable flesh into her little mouth, and starting again. Along with artichokes Leah’s favorite foods at that age were marinated mushrooms and herring in cream sauce. She did not eat brains because I never cooked them. Since leaving New York City, I have lived far from markets that sell brains.

I do, however, use my eating of brains to convey cultural construction of food, and by extension other aspects of life, in the 300-student ‘Introduction to Women’s Studies’ class I have taught for many years. After a discussion about the cultural constructions of gender and how it intersects with class, race, and sexuality, and a section on US women’s history, I address topics that are centrally important in women’s lives such as: work, family, violence, media images, resistance and sexuality.

This last topic is not one I feel comfortable discussing, even in small settings, but it is a topic I cannot avoid. It is vitally important for students to recognize that sexuality is socially constructed. I know my feelings about sex – even my inability to comfortably discuss it – are a result of growing up female in a family of Armenian immigrants in the 1950s. Preparing for the lecture the first time, daunted by the prospect of the 300 students looking at me while I was talking about sexuality, I began to think about something like sex that was easier to talk about, and I immediately thought about eating. Both appetites with a biological component, food and sex are also both shaped by their cultures. One of my favorite foods is not considered edible by most people I know, just as sexual practices that are favored in one place may be taboo in another.

So I begin my discussion of sexuality by making the connections between these two appetites, and by way of illustration, I tell them about one of my favorite childhood foods. I pause and say, ‘I loved steamed lamb brains, sliced and eaten on a cracker with parsley and lemon: in fact, I still love them’. Immediately, the room is full of expressions of disgust, a reaction also evident on their faces. I definitely have their attention, and when they calm down from the specter of eating the inedible, they are prepared to consider that eating and sexuality are neither merely biological nor the same across time and space. In this society, sexuality is constructed by culture, especially by sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism.

Playing on students’ food ethnocentrism proved to be a useful pedagogical tool, but I wonder how many of these students’ parents limited their food choices as young children. Would I have loved lamb brains, oysters, chee kufta, okra, and a host of other wonderful foods had my parents waited until I was ‘old enough’ to eat them? What is the age of reason for food? Why do we assume that children will only like what someone decided is ‘children’s food?’ What is so good about the food children now eat? They might be much healthier if they ate steamed lamb brains, oysters on the half shell (don’t forget the horseradish and tabasco), or tomato salad with parsley, onions and hot peppers.

Maybe childhood obesity would not be the major health problem it is, and maybe children and even their parents might have a little more respect for difference if their diets were not so compartmentalized.

Taken from Slow 58

Arlene Voski Avakian is professor and director of Women’s Studies at the University of Massachusetts.

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