September 21, 2008
Paris on the Brain (and tongue)
When I was eight a crew of firemen came to take apart my kitchen—my mother had smelled something strange. They found withered remnants of meat in the baseboard heaters. I had left it there for our shit-tsu, who could hardly keep up with my under-the-table offerings.
It was a new one for the firemen. My mother eventually forgave me and I eventually came to accept red meat. But if you told that I would one day dine on offal, willingly, and pay handsomely for it, I would have thought you don’t know me. You don’t know about the baseboards.
But the aperture of my mind’s eye could have opened to imagine a scenario: a ramshackle village in a country with a negative GDP, warm hosts and a proud matriarch who would be blasphemy to offend, and I would have thought, okay. You never know.
Fast forward to Paris, 2008. Two good friends are visiting from the US. It’s dinnertime. When we find all the trick places you’d show an out-of-towner booked, we resort to improvisation. There’s a new place with a renowned chef around the corner.
On rue Saint Julien, Ribouldingue, with its crisp linens and perfumed bouquets, is a rare affair even by Paris standards. It’s one of the only all-offal restaurants around. Offal, yes, that’s tripe, innards, you know. According to our host, a true gourmand, if we ever were to try such delicacies, this was surely the place to do it.
It probably helped that we were already a bottle into our evening. “We’re here,” announced Judi, “I say we go big. Did you say they serve testicles?”
A matronly waitress, little amused at finding her menu reduced to giggles, explained away all those strange words. Prepared correctly, she claimed, these dishes could transport one back to childhood memories of grandmother’s kitchen.
The problem was no one served calf’s head in the suburbs of Boston. Nevertheless, Judi and Ralph, fresh off cubicle duty, were as primed as a couple competing for major prizes on a reality show, hoping to use their adrenaline to edge through the hard part.
The amuse bouche were creamy, gelatinous slices of pig’s skin, aged to an “ultimate softness,” according to our host. Ralph called it “kind of disgusting,” but added, “I mean, the texture.”
I had an ally.
Meanwhile, the plates had arrived. We sampled marrow—a great femur sawed in half to expose a dark, also gelatinous core. Its taste was so powerful and earthy, one bite on toast resonated for minutes in the mouth.
Admiring the sheep’s brain (see photo), paired with pickled garlic and roasted golden potatoes, the gourmand sniffed and beamed, “That’s happy!”
Judi thought that her testicles were, in fact, a bit bitter. We passed plates around, contemplating the new repertoire of textures and smells. I couldn’t help but imagine what hardships one would usually meet these strange dishes under, spoiled, narrow-minded American that I am.
“I didn’t realize it would be harder to eat brains than testicles,” Judi observed, looking suddenly very full.
The hit of the night turned out to be my own conservative selection, a bed of flavorful, fine green lentils topped with sausage slices. Even having never known either of my grandmothers, the dish was worthy of wishing it part of my own heritage.
When the waitress cleared our plates she nodded approvingly. We had tried. Save the pig’s snout and udder for next time, I guess.
It was only later that I found out sabodet, the sausage, was pig’s head. But it doesn’t bother me. Our fears, once survived, hardly matter.
You find new ones.