I was planning a dinner party and was in the market for a turducken.As my friend Ron and I entered a local Cambridge shop known for specialty meat and game, a little bell jangled above us and the crisp flow from the air conditioning hit us; it was May 2010 and summer was knocking.
We stood for a moment, enjoyed the cool air, and took it all in. There were aisles full of jars of herbs and rubs, fresh produce, and meat … lots and lots of meat. We had heard the tales … in addition to pork, chicken, beef, and an assortment of related fats and lards, the shop sold alligator, antelope, kangaroo, python, turtle and a variety of other exotic game.
As we slowly walked the aisles, we chatted.
“I read on their website that they have haggis! I want to get a look at that!”
“What exactly is haggis?” I knew it was Scottish, but beyond that I had no idea.
“I think it is like tripe … only from a sheep,” replied Ron.
Ugh. Tripe. I had learned to love most foods that once tormented me as a child; Brussels sprouts, broccoli, even the dreaded fava bean had been taken off the DNE (Does Not Eat) list. Tripe however, remained my arch-nemesis at the dinner table. I had tried it once as a child, and only then because my father promised me it tasted like bubble gum. It is not that I believed the red stew of honeycomb tripe was going to taste like Bubblelicious or Trident; even at 6 years old, I was smarter than that. However, up until that point, I wasn’t aware of my father ever lying to me. With complete trust in Vinnie, I took a big bite. Bubblegum it was not. The only similarity between the lining of a cow’s stomach and gum was the chewiness and my inability to swallow it. Utterly disillusioned, I didn’t speak to my father for the rest of the night.
Of course the irony is that other people LOVED my mom’s tripe. Whenever she made it, Tupperware containers of the smelly red stew were delivered and shared with friends and family. Everyone raved and begged for more. Me? I remained steadfast in my hatred and loathing of the gut gumbo. My mother usually prepared it while I was at school and so it was years before I saw the tripe in all its raw and untouched glory. I remember the first time I happened upon my mother cutting the organ with a pair of kitchen scissors. As I realized that it smelled even worse before boiling, I also noticed that my mom was wearing my gold walnut ring.
“Mom! Why are you wearing my ring?”
“You left it in the bathroom and I was afraid you might lose it. So I put it on for safekeeping. I’ll give it back to you after I finish up here and my hands are clean. But you should be more careful with your jewelry, young lady!”
Later, when the alien-looking meat was boiling, I promised I would take more care with my things and my mother returned my ring. I put it on immediately and ran up to my room to escape the smell of the tripe. But for some reason, I couldn’t get the smell out of my mind. It seemed to be following me. I wondered if it was like garlic; perhaps the scent was in my system and slowly escaping out of my pores. It wasn’t until two days later that I realized there was a chunk of tripe lodged in the underside of my walnut ring. There is no word that I know of in either English or Italian that describes the moment when I discovered the rotting tripe I had been wearing to school. Suffice it to say that even though the gold was undamaged, I never wore the ring again.
I shared this anecdote with Ron as we waited in line at the counter to order our turducken. Ron, a vegetarian, was disgusted. “What other crazy things do you guys eat?”“Well, there is Simmental, a jelly cured beef that I was obsessed with as a child. They don’t import it anymore and I haven’t had it in years. And my parents love carne di cavallo, but you can’t find horsemeat around here. I’ve only ever seen it in Italy.”
“While I am horrified that your parents eat horse, I feel compelled to remind you where we are. You should ask the butcher if he can special order it for you. I mean they sell yak for God’s sake … they must be able to find you some cavallo.”
Once we got to the front of the line, we ordered our turducken from one of the butchers. He was an older man with grey hair, and a mustache that overwhelmed his kind face. Once we paid for our triple-stuffed poultry engastration, the butcher asked us if he could help us with anything else.
“Actually, yes … I’m wondering if you ever sell horse meat? Or are able to special order it?”
The butcher looked at me for a moment, and I could have sworn I saw his moustache twitch. “Hold on just a moment … let me go ask my boss.”
He disappeared into the back; Ron and I exchanged innocent and confused glances.
After a minute or so, another man emerged from the back room … also dressed in butcher whites. He was tall, pale and sporting a long, red ponytail.
He looked directly at me and Ron when he spoke. “Are you the people asking about horse?” His eyes were looking us up and down and his words were dripping with judgment.
“Yes — that was me. I’ve never seen it sold around here, but I thought it was worth asking.” I’m not sure why I felt the need to explain myself to Judgy McJudgerson, but here I was … rambling on. “My parents love it and I thought it would be nice to surprise them.”
McJudgerson didn’t return my smile. Didn’t miss a beat. Didn’t blink an eye. Didn’t … well … you get the picture.
“Let me guess … you are southern Italian.”
“Am I right?”
“Well … ah … yes … how did you kn–”
McJuderson cut me off. “It is always the southern Italians coming in here asking for horse. Did you know it is illegal to sell horse meat in the United States?”
I shook my head back and forth like a cartoon character. “Illegal? Seriously? Obviously I didn’t know that … otherwise why would I be asking you to sell me some?”
“Southern Italians are murderers.”
“Did you just call me a murderer?”
“Your people do not treat horses the right way. Horses are our pets, rides, companions; we work alongside them. How can you want to slaughter and eat them?”
“With all due respect sir, I don’t appreciate your commentary. I have never eaten horsemeat myself. And although my parents have, that certainly doesn’t make them murderers. And may I remind you: You. Are. A. Butcher. At an exotic meat shop. Hi pot … have you met this here kettle?”
I wanted to continue our carnivorous banter. I was all like, “come at me, bro.” But McJudgerson just smiled. His silence baited me.
“Do you sell canned Simmental?”
“I’m not sure I know what that is.”
“Pfft. I’m not surprised.”
“Is there anything else, Ma’am?”
He called me ma’am. An insult worse than calling me ugly. I smiled and through gritted teeth, pushed out, “No, thank you. I think we’re all set.”
We left the shop without another word. Once we were outside, Ron turned to me, “You okay? I mean, considering you’ve just been convicted of murder and all?”
“Please. His opinion on carne di cavallo was closed-minded. His ignorance of the joys of Simmental was embarrassing. His use of the word ma’am, however … now that was offensive.”
“I’m glad you’re priorities are in order. Shall we get some lunch?”
“Yes. I’m starved. I kinda feel like a salad. You?”
Note: Although the U.S. ban on horse slaughterhouses was lifted in 2011, I still haven’t tried horsemeat. Meanwhile, Simmental is still not being imported and remains out of my reach. If anyone would like to start a campaign to return it to U.S. shelves, please notify me at once. I’m in. If anyone has a supply and would be willing to sell me a can or two, I’m in … and I’ll pay you with a batch of my mom’s tripe. I’m told it’s quite delicious.