Spring2007

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On Something I Ate

Lost Tract of Time (2:44AM, 24 March, 2007)

By Mike Bingaman

ILately, I have been requesting and ingesting the most adventurous items on the menu whenever I dine out. I’m currently suffering for it. These orders are a part of a larger plot to invert at least some of the many forms of personal discomfort that I find, and specifically, to overturn the inherent lack of surprise found in the semi-industrial foods that I usually consume. The idea is to doubt the familiar. The mantra is ‘fear of the known’. And Degutazione Trippe just sounded so appetizing.

“Trippe—is that like tripe?”

“I think so. If you want it you should get it.” Enablers. Of course, I ordered it.

I received a good deal of positive reinforcement from the other members of the dinner party (celebrating a double birthday) for the exploratory nature of my order. As a rough sketch of my willingness to try new things and to cross any boundary for the sake of its existence (magari to prove its nonexistence) my request seemed to be functioning as I had intended. Perhaps it was just near-strangers making conversation. Less discussed was the strange (and rather idiotic) competition of who could order the most pungent option on the menu. That’s the sort of thing that actual friends mention:

“You’re ordering lard? Oh yeah- well, I’m ordering stomach!”

“If you think about it, old chum, you’re only ordering that because you’re acting out what you’ve seen on television about what it means to travel. A menu item like that is not the path to happiness. Rick Steves doesn’t actually eat what he shoots for the show; he’s got a George Foreman and a sack of cheeseburgers in that giant fuckin’ backpack. It’s just another example of the vaudeville with which your life is impossibly intertwined—as a performer and an entertainer, as a critic of all of the substandard performances around you, and finally as an everlasting audience member viewing your own performance as the spectacle of your life unfolds.

Good wine makes for good times. Good, fresh, bread dipped in good, fresh, olive oil and just scraped (and yes, GOOD and FRESH) Parmesan. Groin (chuckle) vaulted ceilings. Candles. Italy. Academics. Etc.

The following wisdom has been imparted unto me, and I impart it unto you: if you know how to make it at home, DON’T PAY SOMEONE ELSE TO MAKE IT FOR YOU. For myself, this would include cheese sandwiches, grilled cheese, most cheeseburgers, ham & cheese, scrambled eggs, Campbell’s soups, frozen pizza, pre-prepared items that require 3-4 minutes in the microwave on HIGH, spinach, BLTs, ABCs and BBDs. Yes, that is a comprehensive list of the meals I can make for myself. Yes, I will die before 60. That’s why I’ve retired at 25.

And thus, my decision to order items that I not only cannot make at home (a wide field, to be sure), but also the delicacies which would be difficult to order anywhere at all. Overstuffed goose liver (illegal in Chicago), meat of an animal whose label can’t be translated by present company, other raw meats, snails, fish eggs, frog legs and especially the stomachs of ambiguous larger, dumber animals than myself all fall into this category. Call me cruel and heartless, but I have to believe that they treat their geese better here when they’re burying them up to their necks and overstuffing them with feed in order to enlarge their delectable livers than they do back home. Fois Grois is really just too delicious to ban, anyway: now I can say that with such extreme levels of haughtiness that no other snob can hope to compete, hopefully while twirling a glass of vino, twisting my moustache and smoking a long cigarette at an art opening or something. Don’t those bureaucrats have anything better to do, I mean really…

Anyway, this plan has backfired tonight, because I am running to the bathroom every time my intestines get another deposit of intestine. They have a mind of their own down there, and apparently my intestines are not cannibals.

Back to the dinner, though: after about 105-115 minutes of pleasant chattery, the food begins to arrive. Apparently, in Florence it is considered rude not to begin to eat immediately (this is true) and they bring out the food slowly on purpose for the entertainment of watching American women (at least the ones who make some attempt to learn a custom or two) nibble uncomfortably while their food gets cold (this is not true). With a few exceptions, Americans here are invaders and colonizers and gigantic dumb babies who shit out money and break things (company excluded, myself included). I understand the desire to study here—there is a lot worth studying, and someone has to do it. I understand the need (and use) of seeing somewhere other than your own home—for perspective or something, to see the unexpectedly beautiful and breathtaking and life-altering, blah blah blah.

I certainly understand the need to Travel, but I can’t for the life of me understand the desire to Vacation. I’m defining Vacation here as putting your unhappy and unfulfilling life on pause to spend your ill-earned dough on “seeing the world” from a chariot carried by a pack of deputies who feed you grapes, do your bidding, (or else) listen to your tantrums, take you shopping, throw sand in your eyes if you see something unexpected or not breathtaking or not life-altering, then drop your loose-skinned, self-righteous, entitlement-issued ass down in a crowd of people who never asked for your company or your █50 bills where you can speak a combination of loud English and uncertain Spanish with some Italian flavor thrown in for good luck, all the while demanding attention, attention Seľor! Then you can feign fulfillment again for a year or so (or at least change the subject to your less and less recent and now fading vacation (Hey, you’ve got photos, so you must have been there) until you’ve been trampled on enough that you can’t muster the strength to fake it anymore so you need to go trample on someone else on some other part of the globe again. Talk about self-righteous. God, I’m a dick. It’s not enough to see the world, now, you have to suffer too? Yes, suffer! Suffer, because real life is suffering! Suffer and enjoy it! It’s coming anyway! Yes!

The meal comes sectioned into three portions like a fancy kid’s plate. One has potatoes, one has intestine and one has stomach. They have more appetizing names for these things, and it’s not just straight-up stomach, it’s cooked with loads of oil, vegetables and spices. By the way, the lard was amazing, or else I wouldn’t have ordered stomach. If they can do that with lard, just imagine!

One-third of the plate contained a potato dish—about as safe as food gets. This was your everyday wedges of potato with a spicy reddish orange (vodka?) sauce on top. The second third was a beefy, oily concoction, with bell peppers, tomatoes and various other vegetables contributing—the intestines. It’s mostly meat down there, and it had been cooked to the point that it really did fall apart and melt under the slightest mastication. The final third was the tripe, which came in broad slices of thin, whitish, sinewy lining. This had been stewed in it’s own set of tasty juices, and took a bit more effort to knife into manageable sections. Each bite released the flavors of the seasonings that it had marinated in—and there were plenty of bites. Thankfully, a good deal of chewing does not make me feel any differently about the things I’m ingesting.

Meanwhile, I found myself trying to put out of my mind the wax anatomies (especially the digestive ones) on display the day before at our visit to La Specola.

La Specola is a Victorian-era science museum (one of the first ‘Wunderkammers’ intended for public exhibition—being formerly a diversion only for the wealthy) at the University of Florence that is dedicated to taxonomy and anatomical wax figures. The wax figures were created to prepare doctors for surgery, and the taxonomy was to, I don’t know, kill everything in the world. All of the displays are encased in wood and glass with very little attention paid to presentation by today’s standard. It’s basically a nightmare museum. And it’s great. Here is a list of it’s contents, far from complete and out of order: a tapeworm, a skeleton, all of your nerves standing up and walking toward you, a tapir, vultures, macaws and about 9000 other birds packed way too tightly into the cases, 3 different sets of owls, some moist-looking vaginas with the legs chopped off, alligators, evil-looking monkeys, a chair made of elephant ears, bones and feet, some creatures which may or may not have been other animals put together, a dodo head, brains, nerves of the brain and brains of the brain, every toucan you can (who can?) imagine, giant scary moths pinned and mounted, a statuesque woman in a seductive pose with a seemingly removable stomach laying face up on a tattered cloth in a glass box, another with her intestines spilled out, on similarly ancient bedding, a whale, rhinoceri, okapi, the mangiest looking, stitched-up, most lifeless lion ever, complete with its dead cubs and the hippopotamus that used to roam the shallow (and probably rather cold for his tastes) waters of the Boboli gardens. If the power went out there you would begin to cry immediately. There were children in there. Your kids would love it. It smelled old.

While I wasn’t thinking about that, I finished my meal. It took me much longer to finish than everyone else, somehow. It must have been all the chewing. I wiped my plate clean with a piece of bread, American style. I had filled my gullet and enjoyed it. I felt great that night, as I did the next day. Now here I am.

Now the straight lines of the floor tiles are bending and I’m doubled over—I’m wondering if this is this what it’s supposed to do. Is this the reason for the group semi-awe at my order? Did everyone else know something that I didn’t but am learning about tripe? It’s not food poisoning because that makes you puke. This is the inevitable end: the shit that comes out.

In retrospect:

  • SOMETHING I ATE
  • DOUBT THE FAMILIAR
  • BE AS REAL AS EXPECTED
  • TAKE PLEASURE IN SUFFERING
  • ALL ART = CULTURAL EXCREMENT
  • DEATH IS COMING, LIFE MAY BE TOO
  • DON’T EAT OUT WHAT YOU CAN EAT IN
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