I grew up in a big house in the country, with a farm attached. My family has always been great eaters and food a source of joy and celebration rather than just fuel to get by. Actually, we're all pretty damned greedy, full stop. My father was, and still is, a keen gardener. When I was a child, he'd bring in hauls of knobbly Pink Fir Apple potatoes, tiny broad beans nestled in their furry pods. Then plump, fiery radishes, endless varieties of lettuce, curly kale, prickly artichokes, and mammoth cauliflowers. There were plums and apples and pears in autumn, picked straight off the tree. And figs as warm and seductive as a Sicilian breeze. This was local, seasonal fresh food way before the concept became trendy. I assumed that everyone's father had large kitchen gardens and chickens pecking about the lawn. My sister and I used to collect fresh eggs from the henhouse every morning (very softly, so as to avoid the broody hen's angry beak). They were warm to the touch, with a brilliant yellow yolk. At Easter, my father would swap the brown speckled eggs for chocolate ones, covered in a sugar shell so realistic that even the birds were fooled. We all had favorite birds, including one called Whitey who was convinced he was human. He'd strut into the kitchen and chase the dogs. Sadly, he fell victim to Mr. Fox, who ripped off his head along with six of his favorite ladies. So we respected the various animals that milled about the farm but were under no illusions as to their purpose. The link between beast and plate was always made clear, in very unsentimental terms; all the creatures on the farm were for milking or eating, save Humphrey, an overweight and irritable sheep who had escaped the abattoir though pure strength of character. Cruelty to any beast was unthinkable and still remains one of the most important lessons I learned; if we eat meat, we must ensure it was raised in the most humane way possible. It was only my mother who cooked, although we had various lovely (and generally wide) ladies in to help occasionally. My father could hardly boil a kettle, let alone fry an egg (he's improved now, stretching to Dover sole, kippers, and steak). He would grow, raise, or buy the ingredients and my mother would cook them. Thankfully, she was a master of simplicity. She made no secret of hating pastry and cakes and the other, more empirical side of British cuisine. But show her a flappingly fresh Dover sole or a piece of well-hung beef and she'd produce perfection every time. The average time between being dug up and appearing on the plate was about thirty minutes so the flavors were clean, pure, and sharp. This sort of pared-down cooking only works when the ingredients were of the very highest quality?which they were. Summer nights were filled with the aforementioned sole and sauté potatoes, say, with a handful of rosemary from the bush outside the kitchen ("always pick from the highest branches, as those dogs," warned my father, "just love to piss on the base"). Freshly podded peas with roast chicken (perfectly burnished, with the "essential lemon up its ass"), freshly boiled prawns with mayonnaise and blushing pink wild salmon with buttery new potatoes. Then summer puddings pregnant with tart berries and gooseberry fools, homemade, with just the right amount of tart to make the lips pucker. Winters meant hearty, soul-sustaining stews and braises and roasts and buttery potted shrimps (always from Mr. Baxter in Morecombe Bay) and the very tenderest of calves' liver. Pudding was treacle sponge or treacle tart and I never remember a hungry or unhappy meal. These first eight years of my upbringing were blissful in every sense. But then, out of nowhere, came the sucker punch that would change my happy, privileged world forever ... five years of prep school.
This particularly British institution sees eight-year-old boys packed off for five years of education away from home. As sad as I was to leave my parents and sister, I wasn't unduly worried by the whole thing. I had friends from my previous school to meet up with and the whole thing seemed more adventure than trial. But it was there, cosseted behind high walls just outside Oxford, that I learned the true meaning of disgust. The food was institutional slop of the lowest form, the sort of bland, unthinking crap that gave British cuisine such a filthy reputation. Within two days, I'd moved from belly-filling bliss to hellish gastronomic torment. Breakfast consisted of scummy, pallid flaps of tired bacon, cooked days in advance. God only knows the state of the wretched pig that produced this sorry dross but you can guarantee he wasn't a happy porker. Then fried egg with the consistency of ice hockey pucks and imbued with a faint, sinister, fishy tang. There was fried bread sodden with cheap grease that would slip down your throat and taint the palate for days to come; and highly suspect sausages that almost certainly contained the ear lobes and assholes and other assorted detritus of the abattoir floor. Even the toast was either burned to ashes or raw and soggy. Lunch was equally depraved, usually mince, gray, gloomy, and gristle filled. A few despondent boiled potatoes, complete with mouldy black eye, stared up, begging the horror to end. Sometimes, these wretched specimens would be given a very cursory mashing (i.e., they were broken up with a fork) and put on top of the mince. This was dubbed Cottage Pie. Sometimes they added a tinned tomato and a handful of musty oregano and named it Bolognese (if I hailed from Bologna, I'd sue the bastards for libel). Or slip in a few uncooked sheets of lasagne and christen it -- yup, you've guessed it -- lasagne. When it came to mince, my school's kitchen creativity knew no bounds. Liver was particularly horrific, tough, pungent, and riddled with chewy veins. Of course, the plate had to be cleaned before you could move from the hard wooden bench. You had to swallow vast lumps with a torrent of water, or stash it in your pocket to throw away later. Even the birds turned up their nose at this organ. I can go on and on: fish pie that was all uncooked flour and sharp bones, salt-lick gammon steaks with a cloyingly sweet pineapple ring perched daintily on top. And a chicken casserole that resembled the contents of a vomitorium. Sunday lunch was decidedly the worst, in that this fine symbol of the pleasures of British life was reduced to gutter level, the holy made profane. There was no way you could tell the paltry, processed and limp slices of beef from the pork and lamb in flavor. Everything was just a slight variation on beige. For a young boy raised with a true love of food, Sunday lunch at school was torture. All I remember is hunger, a gaping emptiness that followed me about like Banquo's ghost. Of course, I knew nothing of true hunger, but those five years laid the base for a greed and obsession with good food that would shape the rest of my life (as well as the ever-increasing curve of my belly).
One of my favorite places to escape was the library, with its sombre air of enforced tranquillity. I'd find a distant corner and drool over Time-Life Guides to America. Filled with picture-perfect American families, all bright eyes and white grin, I'd stare transfixed at their impossibly juicy hamburgers, devoured in gleaming white, pristine kitchens. There were tables groaning with scarlet crayfish, as alien to me as the tyrannosaurus rex. I knew how to eat a crawdaddy way before I actually got around to trying one. A detailed diagram made every last detail clear. The next page would have bare-chested Rhode Islanders digging into a clambake, right down to sucking the empty skulls. I sat for hours devouring these images, mouth agape, living vicariously through the musty photos of an old Time-Life tome. This was gastroporn in its purest form, with me the desperate, but oh-so-willing, voyeur. By the age of eleven, I was backward in most things, but entirely conversant on the matter of Coke's fiasco with New Coke. I could hardly add, yet I knew that M&M's had royally screwed up in not getting their product into ET (the role went to Reese's Pieces instead). I probably knew more about American fast food, candy, and soft drink that I did about the kings and queens of England. In fact, I know I did. But my first experience of real America -- rather than my long-held fantasy -- came at age twelve, when we spent a summer in the Bahamas. As we touched down in Miami and climbed onto the monorail to change terminals, my heart threatened to rip through my chest with heady excitement. I was actually here, two feet placed in the Cinnabon-scented Promised Land. So while the Bahamas had suitably limpid seas and powdery beaches, it was the artificial chill of the supermarket that held the most appeal. Here, at last, was American consumerism in full flow (although we weren't strictly in the country), my movies' visions made real. This was a place where the grocery store aisles were crammed with Cap'n Crunch and Fruit Loops and Pop Tarts. Then Oscar Meyer bacon and Squeezy Cheeses, Clamato, Beefmato, Cherry SevenUP, root beer, and Frito Lay's. How could anyone be unhappy in a country with such choice, so many "free gifts" and "special offers" screaming out from every pack? My father, no slouch when it came to shopping himself, had to drag me out and onto the beaches. "We're surrounded by sea and all you want to do is wander those freezing aisles." He couldn't have been more right. It was six years before I got back to the states, and this time I was ready for third base and beyond. After that first, subzero kiss of the Bahamian hypermarket, I was ready for full consummation. Aged eighteen, this was my first taste of real freedom. It was 1993, school was out forever, and two old friends and I aimed to drive and Greyhound our way through the West and Southwest. At first, the endless small towns and strip malls provided an education in real fast food. Hot dogs at Dairy Queen, sliders at White Castle, and all-you-can-eat pizza at Domino's. But even a trio of ravenous junk food addicts began to struggle after the fifteenth Jack in the Box of the week, and began to crave real food. As much as we revelled in those burgers, I wanted a taste of Time-Life America, all those clams and crawfish. The one advantage of bussing through the likes of Barstow and Indian Springs, Rockspring and Rawlins was a view of the real America, not just of the stoning vistas and ever-changing views, but the endless uniformity of super edible brands. In parts of the country, one town was near identical to the next, only a road sign to tell them apart. In Wyoming, we found margaritas made in old petrol cans and buffalo wings in the Silver Dollar (they didn't card us there). Santa Fe was my first taste of a burrito, then Albuquerque for mountains of crispy bacon and eggs over easy. The waitress called us "honey" and had a pencil stuck behind her ear. There were freshly boiled crabs in San Francisco and dinner at The Ivy in LA. We flew back, seeing ourselves as real men now. Our parents, pleased as they were to see us, quietly disagreed.
But it was my first visit to New York that sealed the relationship. A few rocky moments in the West (sleeping outdoors in bear country, for one) did nothing to quell my love but New York blew my mind and belly, too; all I ever do in that city is eat, or think about where to eat next. A cheeky dog on the way to breakfast, usually eggs and bacon. Then dim sum in Chinatown or a brace of lobster rolls at Mary's Fish Camp. If there's room, perhaps a bite of pure burger perfection at The Corner Bistro (if I'm uptown, JG Mellon is just as good). Maybe a sleep before a quick run to Gray's Papaya for hotdog and juice (for health reasons, of course), then a kip. Then dinner, maybe a steak and salad frisée at Les Halles, or buttery o-toro at Blue Ribbon sushi. No evening is complete without a late-night stop off to Union Square's Coffee Shop and some chilli cheese fries. For me, New York is the greatest eating city of them all. By this time, I was writing a food column for Tatler magazine, being paid to eat. More excuse, then, to slope over the bridge for a charred Peter Luger Porterhouse or back to Ray's on Prince for thin crust pizzas so fine that I'd run off, join a cult, and drink gallons of Kool-Aid for just one more bite. New York is my sort of city, a place where the glutton is seen as gourmand, the troughing pig as discerning auteur. The moment I'm in under that tunnel or cross over that bridge, I feel that all is well in the world.
But it wasn't just America that had designs on my heart. I had traveled around India and Thailand, developing a taste for the sour and salty, the hot and pungent. Each different area had its own cuisine, its own table d'hote to be discovered and devoured. Thai food became an addiction, the heat and fragrance driving my taste insane with sultry, exotic new sensations. And I had started to cook properly, too, first British and Italian, then anything I could lay my hands on. But America was still sacred and every new visit offered some new and delicious revelation. I discovered Calvin Trillin and A. J. Liebling, two masters of elegant, greedy prose. While Liebling concerned himself with Paris (his Between Meals is a collection of unparalleled passion, libido, elegance, and gustatory joy), Trillin went in search of the true American flavors. It was Trillin who taught me about buffalo wings, Cincinnati chilli, and the true home of real "que" (Arthur Bryant's Barbeque, of course). Not that your Carolinians, Texans, and various other Southerners would agree. I loved Trillin for his well-honed, clean prose and his inquisitive delight in all things edible. I must have read his Tummy Trilogy over a dozen times now, and each time, it seems to improve. My first brush with barbeque was in Virgil's, just off Times Square in New York. When I admitted this to a true Q head, he laughed me out of town. "You go to New York for Que. Jesus, that's so wrong. I'd keep that dark little tale secret if I were you." But a few sessions judging at The Jack Daniel's Invitational Barbeque Competition in Lynchburg, Tennessee, soon taught me the difference between Boston Butt and Baby Back ribs, wet rubs and dry.
Barbeque is a top ten food (alongside caviar, Joe's Stone Crab, roast beef, Pho soup, cheeseburgers, potted shrimps, a proper meat ragu sauce, prawn dim sum, decent smoked salmon, chilli, and o-toro sashimi ... wait, that's eleven. And I've hardly started. Tomorrow's list is guaranteed to be different) and near impossible to get over here. I crave its smoky allure and miss it like a parent misses his child. It's that bad. In Britain, as a result of foot and mouth and BSE and avian flu and every other damned disaster that has erupted in the past few years, we've started to look more closely at where our food comes from, how it's produced, and how far it needs to travel. Thanks to the likes of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, food has become headline news, something to be discussed, argued about, and improved. And not a moment too soon, as obesity levels are rising and the long-term cost of cheap, processed foods ruinous. Although the organic movement moves from strength to strength, I worry that the big corporations just see organic branded goods as a way to make bigger margins. We should care about organic as a sustainable system of farming, not because it's this week's new trend. I've met scores of brilliant farmers who refuse to turn organic (it might cost too much, take too long, or just seem unnecessary) yet their produce is among the best in the country, as they farm using old-fashioned methods. Intensive farming is at the heart of all our problems, not nonorganic food. Food miles are another huge issue. How "green" are organic French beans, jetted half the way across the globe from Africa? Good, healthy food comes from sensible, humane farming practices?a respect for the soil and the environment. Local food, too, is all very well in spring, summer, and autumn but life could get a little dreary in winter without lemons, oranges, and olive oil. So pragmatism is important, too. There is no easy solution to any of these food questions, but we should never stop searching. Food not only keeps us alive but is tightly entwined with politics, economics, health, and happiness. In Britain, we're once more starting to relish our national produce, to rediscover regional specialties, be they Melton Mowbray Pork pies or West Country cheddar. For me, simplicity and a respect for ingredients are fundamental for good food; a perfectly hung piece of steak with crisp chips with fluffy insides, say. Or a slow cooked stew or chilli. And it's my love of the regional cuisine of all countries (for there is no national cuisine, just a collective of regions) that remains constant. As much as I respect the Kellers, Towers, and Trotters, my love is of the regional: the clambakes, boudin stalls, crawfish boils, breakfast burritos, and frozen custard. Give me a napkin and a pile of boiled blue crab over silver cutlery and three Michelin stars any day. A good oyster Po' boy is a thing of true beauty, and for me, more attractive than the creamy flourishes of New'awlins Creole cookery. I like unshowy kitchen knowledge, accomplished technique, and quality of ingredients, not over-embellished flummery (though an evening with Blummenthal or Adria can delight and dazzle the palate, too). Give me Goode's smoked link and brisket over a whole river's worth of foams and reductions. And that philosophy, I hope, permeates the book.
The Year of Eating Dangerously is not so much about picaresque derring-do (although there's a little of that, albeit rather windy), but a fascination with the world's diverse cuisines. And why one man's insectis another man's garni. I wanted to sample everything, however gruesome, to try and establish some kind of culinary context. Very rarely did the taste repel on my travels. More often than not, it was the idea of the insect, dog, or snake that put me off. It was my brain shutting down before I had the chance to reason. Strip away our preconceptions and everything's just another source of food. British food -- the real, artisanly produced stuff -- is in rude health at the moment. You might laugh, but Britain's raw materials are among the best in the world, some of our chefs and producers, too -- these are passionate people dedicated to quality and flavor, not to making a quick buck. For those of you who see the UK as a culinary joke, think again. We're a food nation on the up. But this is not the time or place for patriotic war cries. This is a bookabout food in its every guise. Although the title might sound a little sensationalist, I hope that my love of all cuisines shines through, from the high altar of Roubochon and Blummenthal and Ramsey to the pure incendiary joy of Prince's Hot Chicken restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee. I went looking, not just for bizarre food, but to see if local food cultures were standing up in the face of ever-more homogenized fast food and processed pap. Even though two chapters are set in America, I have many years of research in the U.S. left to do -- I want to crack Dungeness crab and catch shrimp off the Gulf Coast. I want rainbow trout in the Rockies, chilli cook-offs in Texas, and the chilli harvest in New Mexico. Kansas City is a must, if only to bring to life Trillin's immortal words on the subject. I want a genuine Philly cheese steak sandwich (not a flaccid Vegas knock off), and a proper New England clambake. And that's just the beginning. Despite my lifelong love affair, I'm only really getting to know America now. As for America's most dangerous food? No hesitation there, it's got to be those anonymous service station sandwiches that clog up the chilla cabinet like ghostly moans. That flap of lurid cheese, the over-sweetened bread, and the slimy, processed ham from God knows where. They're usually called something like "Happy Snack," when they're actually anything but. In a whole year of eating dangerously, in a country blessed with a truly glorious regional and modern cuisine, this symbol to the cheap, the mass-produced, joyless, mediocre, and unthinking was by far the most frightening thing of all. This is a book about a love of good food, and a fascination with other cultures. Far from being some gloating, narrow-minded rant about the strange food of foreign countries, I see this as a love story about all things edible. And, at the very least, I hope it makes you hungry.