Sharply, almost painfully the tickle rises. It becomes a choice how long to bear it. Some could not handle this, they’d spit out. Away from the tongue, not trusting the intensity. If you chose to go through the tingle, it is the bite that comes with release. There is a calming sweet liquid trapped in the centre which then oozes onto the taste buds. It transforms the thrill into pleasurable candy. I remember it well, getting a taste of these small singularly wrapped chewing gums called Centershock. Now thinking of it, I would almost love to try one of them again. How tempting, to compare my idealised memory with my grown up perception. Nevertheless, I had kept with the dinner plans of buying only a few herbs, no sweets that night. I needed some Rosemary for my oven potatoes. To some extent this was the adult version of a Centershock. Let me explain.
The other day, I had listened to a podcast called “madfeed” which relates to the Copenhagen based Food symposium MAD (danish for ‘food’) initiated by Rene Redzepi. It was a 30 minute long talk, taking me deep into the chemistry of plants. Harold McGee beautifully explained into my ears, how any taste of a plant leads back to its function of communication with the outside world. Herbs, in contrast to fruits, don’t want to attract predators in the search to spread their seeds. Much rather, they have a defence mechanism which humans have learned to carefully incorporate into culinary experiences. If I would be holding the bottled essence of Rosemary there would be a big warning on it about it being toxic. That’s because, in high concentrations rosemary is actually poisonous. The side effects would be a stinging abrasive sensation in your mouth and throat, far more intense than expected. The reason for this goes back to their origin, where their exposed environments required them to develop a way to survive being consumed by predators. To try this out I bit into the raw twigs of rosemary, like a snail or sheep might try, it was indeed a rather disturbing experience.
This talk gave me an understanding as to why we can only handle a sprinkle of these types of herbs. And although it doesn’t cross our minds now, at the beginning using rosemary was somewhat a risky venture. I guess we humans have always been experimental with our food. Some people push the boundaries further and consciously like the danger of some types of foods. Could I be one of these people? For them the nibbling, chewing, smelling, tasting, and then the foods journey into the stomach becomes all the more pleasurable if the food has an aura of danger.
In his book ‘City of dreaming books’, Walter Moers beautifully writes: “I stared at them in astonishment. Harpstick grinned. ‘Local speciality,’ he said. ‘It takes a bit of getting used to, but in time you can’t have enough of it. Rye bread warm from the oven spread with peppered butter and honey with roasted bees in it. [….] ‘Take care for all that!’ Harpstick warned. ‘Once in a blue moon a bee’s sting hasn’t been removed. […] that’s one of the attractions of Bookholmian bee-bread: the subliminal danger, the hint of uncertainty – the buzz so to speak.
I find it intriguing, how in some parts of our world a choice of danger becomes tempting reality. It does look exciting to see a scorpion and its poisonous tail inside a liquor bottle, yes, but in Japan for example there are people who would offer you the sensation of eating octopus that is so fresh it still moves. Stories go round how some octopus have so much remaining nervous charge they would intuitively hold on to your tongue and choke you from the inside. This would be something I would like to try, however it is a bit hard to come by in London, where I currently live.
In some Japanese restaurants guests can seek for the excitement of ordering puffer fish, also called Fugu. I am not sure if I would be as much into the idea of trying this famous fish, possibly so poisonous it can numb your entire body to death. Any Fugu caught in open nature, is only edible if prepared with perfection. Chefs absorb a lot of training, before they are trusted in how to remove the fish’s poisonous skin and its organs carefully. Now, it is open truth that there are fish farms that have managed to control the feed of their fish to an extent that there is barely any harm left within the animals. In knowing this, the wonderful excitement at the table still remains. It’s the mere possibility, that potentially one fish could be a deadly example, and preferably the one of the neighbouring table.
I actually tried to find Fugu fillet and I had to learn that the EU still forbids the fish to be served. When I then finally found a secretive Fugu supper club that serves it to their so called members in London under quite exclusive conditions, I suddenly felt myself wondering meticulously if they were receiving the correctly poisonous fish for such serving prices.
Usually we don’t like to look death too much into the eye. And over such topics people really split into two categories, thrill seekers and those that stay away from unnecessary confrontation. The dutch artist Mark Manders plays on this idea in one of his art installations. In this piece, he has the entire ground of a room covered with thick cotton blankets and informs the visitor about an earlier point in time where he hid three dead birds underneath these blankets. Hearing it from him, I experienced how suddenly every step turns extremely conscious and a simple walk through the room becomes a thrill ride. But now my curiosity somehow battles with the wish to avoid wrong steps.
Maybe its this being more present in our own senses, that makes the danger a worthwhile quest. The french say we should dance before we die. In constant awareness of our own fragility our dance might be more vivid, more out there and lived through. Curiously dancing, life shows itself beautiful in all its amplitudes.
Images by Christoph Dichmann