I peeped through the steam into the hotpot, past the pork liver, the silken noodles, the crunchy greens. A cube of jelly-like, coagulated blood glistened in the broth. Enthralled at the prospect of a new experience, I popped the dark, slick dice into my mouth.
The prospect of consuming ethnically alien foods can be intimidating. The discomfort we feel when presented with a fried cockroach, or a sheep’s brain, is merely an irrational product of enculturation: we know these foods won’t harm us, and yet many of us still let their “weirdness” prevent us from enjoying them. Overcoming such reservations can be challenging, even downright scary, and certainly more daunting for some than for others.
Since joining Slow Food six years ago, I’ve developed an understanding of how tasting new foods can be a real and tangible education. The Slow ethos embraces experiencing and understanding other cultures through food. It’s about learning how and why traditional products are made, and giving them a go even if they seem scary. It’s certainly the tastiest form of cultural immersion, and it’s truly rewarding.
While Slow Food taught me how enlightening new foods can be, it was backpacking that really got me hooked. Ambling aimlessly around Asia gave me the chance to experience flavors that were a world away from my Irish roots. Some dishes were simple, others were a challenge, and I became addicted to the rush of the strange and unknown: like freefalling into a canyon on the world’s biggest swing, swallowing a whole snake’s heart floating in a shot-glass of blood makes for fantastic story-telling material.
For backpackers, stories are currency. They brag, and the wilder the tale the better, whether it’s a skydive in New Zealand or a deep-fried tarantula in your mouth. There’s a certain glory attached to being the most reckless. For extreme eaters, the same boasting rights apply. (Oh yeah, baby. I ate that.)
While the stories that we tell at UNISG may not be about bragging, having and sharing powerful food experiences can make university life just as intense. This is a food-centric microcosm; the people who flock to Pollenzo are those with an insatiable hunger for new experiences. In a sense, we’re all backpackers here: the campus is a flame attracting foodies like hungry moths, a campfire around which we hunch, temporarily, to tell stories of headcheese and hearts. We share, we brag, we trade tales of bravery in the face of chicken feet . . . and we encourage each other to try new things. The university is a unique opportunity to get your tastebuds on a myriad of exciting foods, representing cultures very different from your own. From donkey milk to frozen honeybee larvae, from fat raw clams to seaweed ice cream, we’ve had some wonderful surprises.
It’s not long before we move on down the road (this year whipped past me so quickly I could practically feel the breeze) but we’re all the better for it: more educated, more involved, more hooked on the simple joy of food than ever before.
And just so you know, coagulated blood tastes meaty, but with the texture of tofu. And it’s delicious.
Jocelyn Doyle is a master’s student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences.
Find out more about the UNISG at www.unisg.it