There is a place on Earth called Skuon.
In Skuon, a small dusty town in central Cambodia, one has the opportunity to sample the local delicacy: fried tarantulas.
And by opportunity, I mean that's the only thing there is to do in Skuon. The town serves mainly as a rest stop for travelers going between the capital Phnom Penh and a handful of other locales in Cambodia. When your vehicle stops at the depot in the center of town, no one wastes any time.
Several women approach you carrying platters piled high with lifeless black tarantulas. It's a novelty, sure, but for me it also felt like a test. Did I want to eat a fried tarantula? No. But could I really go to Skuon, referred to by some simply as "Spiderville," and not eat one of these things? Absolutely not.
The legs are pretty much the essence of fried. They're crunchy, but don't taste like much except maybe the skin of fried chicken. The head and body aren't too offensive. They have a bit of meat inside that a Telegraph reporter once generously described as "rather like a cross between chicken and cod."
But it's the abdomen that really sticks with you. The bulbous, if I may use that word, abdomen is full of goo. White goo or brown goo. Sometimes both, depending on the sex of the spider and when exactly it was that it had its last meal.
The globular morsel gently bursts in your mouth, and almost as immediately you begin the frantic exercise of looking around for something to puke in. As Slate's Seth Stevenson once so masterfully called it, the "Could I Vomit in This?" game. Your friend's baseball cap, for instance, may suffice. That random potted plant over there, will definitely do.
No two ways about it. Eating a spider is gross. But if you can manage a swallow, you'll have an anecdote on hand for the rest of your life. And for that, my fellow Americans, I am grateful on this Thanksgiving holiday.
Here are a handful of other disgusting foods my coworkers are grateful for — or not, as the case may be.
David Case, Europe editor
It’s been seven years since it happened to us. Finally, I’ve recovered enough from the trauma to actually write about it.
Sheep’s brain for breakfast.
That’s right. My wife and I — we started the day with sheep’s brain, a grisly-grey and lipid-yellow gunk, scooped from the skull of an unlucky young beast, right there in front of us. The meal had the culinary appeal of a ninth grade dissection experiment.
It happened in Qom, the religious capital of Iran, the bastion of Mullahs that in 1979 brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini, America’s arch-nemesis.
Ironically, we consumed this nasty mass of baked brain not out of hunger, but because we needed a place to sit down.
You see, we had just gotten off the bus. Or, more accurately, we had ridden the cramped, cold and far-from comfortable night bus to Qom, from the enchanting desert city of Yazd 10 hours away. Qom is a city perpetually on edge, and at the time the Iraq insurgency across the border was picking up steam. After a tense pre-dawn security stop, the bus driver left us to fend for ourselves at a market outside town, while the rest of the passengers traveled onward to the relative civility of Tehran.
The market was bustling at 4:30 a.m., with all sorts of shady operators tending to their nocturnal business. We found ourselves scrambling for a taxi among drivers who knew we were desperate — an odd experience in Iran, where nearly everyone we met was gracious to Western travelers.
After an extended struggle, we arrived in town exhausted.
There, hotels were either booked or shuddered for the night. So we found ourselves out on the street, picking our way through prone bodies. Qom is a major pilgrim destination for Shiite Muslims. Hoards slept on the sidewalks, awaiting the morning call to prayer from the stunning Fatima Masumeh Shrine, one of Iran’s holiest and most beautiful mosques. Women — ocassionally two, three or four to a man — sat along the sidewalk like ominous dark boulders, shrouded in black from head to toe. Even their eyes lay hidden behind mesh.
There was nowhere to sit down. Nowhere to rest. Nowhere to put down the backpacks that held our belongings. People stared, especially when we stopped. We felt distinctly unwelcome.
So when we found a cafe with its lights on, we went inside. There, we could sit, although under the fluorescent lights we were even more conspicuous. We had to eat something, had to order, had to spend some money. The proprietor, who watched the morning call to prayer at Mecca on large TV, was abrupt and menacing, speaking in long bursts of Farsi, louder and louder as we failed to understand.
The only item available: sheep’s brain, along with a greasy yellow broth.
We pointed. He served.
I just tried my best not to make eye contact with the long nosed-fella’s charred remains.
But I failed.
And I still can’t get the image out of my eye.
Oh, in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t taste like chicken. It’s just plain nasty.
Thomas Mucha, GlobalPost Editor
As a journalist working in countries around the world, some disgusting food ends up on your plate.
Ox penis. Duck tongues. Goose stomachs. And let's not forget fish lips, steamed rabbits' ears and black scorpions, to name a few. But my most memorable culinary nightmare happened year after year in Hamtramck, MI — a Polish enclave surrounded by Detroit's city limits.
Behold zime nogi — pronounced by my Polish-speaking great grandmothers as, "shim-na-no-gee." Four terrifying syllables that still bring a gag reflex to the back of this Polish-American throat.
That's because zime nogi, in American English, would be called "pig feet flavored Jello." Smothered in (what else?) white vinegar. And (naturally) served and eaten cold. We're talking a gelatinous goo of chilled porcine hooves, shaped into whatever plastic mold that happens to be collecting dust in grandma's kitchen pantry.
Yes, I know this is a common peasant food across Eastern Europe and in other parts of the world. Yes, I know that — according to the Eastern European Food section of about.com — zime nogi is a peasant chef's attempt to "emulate the aspic-covered gourmet dishes of the aristocracy, or szlachta." I also know pigs' feet are served across the UK, where the dish is called trotters.
And, blah blah blah, it's part of an emerging culinary tradition where hip young chefs are restoring the happy tradition of "nose-to-tail" eating.
Whatever. This is pig feet meat-flavored Jello, people.
So this Thanksgiving while eating with my family in Detroit, I will turn up my snout at the zime nogi, gyrating ominously on the overflowing plates of my Polish relatives. And for that I will be grateful.
Sarah Childress, Americas editor
I ate bull testicles once, in Kenya. Actually I only ate half of one.
I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater, try anything once, you know. We were at one of these restaurants that serve all kinds of meat. Back in the good ol' days of colonial oppression, the restaurant apparently served really wild stuff, like zebra and lion. You could go and see the animals in the game preserves, and then eat them for dinner that night.
Then the Kenyans gained independence, and the conservationists stepped in to help the animals, and the time of eating anything you saw ended.
Now, the restaurant serves animals they can raise on farms. There are alligator bites (fishy!), ostrich meatballs (delicious!), and more run-of-the-mill fare, like beef, chicken and even turkey.
Then one day I took some friends there, from out of town. Friends from out of town love to go there, because it's exotic and the waiters also wear aprons with zebra print on them and say things like "Hakuna matata!" which nobody really ever says in real life. Plus, there's lots of meat. So that day, the waiter announced that they had added some new treats to the menu. When the waiter came round with the little grey round balls on a sizzling hot plate I thought, why not?
It plopped onto my plate, rolled a little. I cut it down the middle. It's important to make sure you know what's in there, before you bite into something like that. It was gray inside, and firm, the consistency of a hard-boiled egg yolk. I chewed once, and then just swallowed it down because the taste was really ... I mean, it was a bull testicle. That's exactly what it tasted like.
Katrine Dermody, marketing and sales manager
I think that it’s fair to say that I have an appreciative and adventurous palate. A daughter of a chef, I am no stranger to trying new things, especially when it comes to food.
But on my very first night living with a host family in a sleepy lakeside town outside of Geneva, Switzerland, I found myself in a precarious food-etiquette situation. Struggling to ignite any riveting French conversation, I asked if there was anything that I could do to help prepare dinner. After politely declining my offer, my host father, Jean-Marc, attempted to pique my appetite instead. With a straight face, he pointed to their slovenly pet cat and told me, “Tonight we are eating Biscuit.”
Biscuit, unamused by Jean-Marc’s comment, hissed, and slowly but purposefully strutted out of the kitchen. With an apologetic grin, Jean-Marc nonchalantly said, “I’m just kidding, we’re having horse.” Thinking that it was perhaps another wisecrack to loosen me up, I nervously smiled as my eyes darted around the room. Within seconds, I knew he was not, for lack of a better word, horsing around.
I will say that horse is easily one of the more unpleasant things that I have ever eaten. The meat was cut into thin, scraggly slices and was cooked until it was well past well-done. It was to be appreciated as it was, without any sauce or culinary distraction. It was grayish and tough and it tasted gamy, with a hint of guilt. (Though I concede that this last 'flavor' was due in part to the fact that pieces of Black Beauty were strewn across my plate). On top of all of this, my host family beamed with pride as they watched me “enjoy” each painful bite.
So this Thanksgiving, as I fight holiday traffic in the pouring rain in an effort to get home in time for dinner, I will be especially thankful that horse will not be on the menu.
Andrew Meldrum, Africa editor
Caterpillars are considered a delicacy among the Ndebele people of southern Zimbabwe. And I ate them.
I and another journalist were invited to a feast prepared for Zimbabwean opposition leader Joshua Nkomo. There was sadza (corn meal) and pumpkin leaves, chicken and many other treats.
The caterpillars were heaped in a big bowl. They were black and scrunched up. I took a few. My friend heaped her plate.
The caterpillars were crunchy on the outside and squishy, almost slimy on the inside. They had a salty, mineral taste. At first I did not mind the taste but by the time I had about four or five, I had a funny aftertaste in my mouth that I didn’t like. I wanted a cold beer but there was none. Instead I had some sour milk, kind of like a good, runny yogurt, and that cleared my palate of the caterpillars.
My friend kept eating her plate of caterpillars. But after a while she complained of a strange aftertaste.
Driving back from the rural gathering, our driver asked if we liked the caterpillars. We said yes, but my friend had an odd look on her face.
“We send the boys into the bush and they spend the morning collecting the caterpillars, a special furry kind. And then we prepare to roast them over a fire,” said our driver. “First we squeeze the life out of them. It is green.”
My friend looked peculiar.
“Stop the car,” she said in a loud voice.
When we pulled over, she ran out into the bush and was sick.