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Nightmare on Aisle 9 

Frightening fare not for the faint of stomach

During Halloween, food and lifestyle magazines are loaded with recipes for such ghoulish grub as witch cupcakes, spider web cookies, and caldrons of bubbly green brew with floating kiwi eyeballs. These are cute, but not really scary. Real food can be much scarier.

Of course, given time, most foods can become scary. Those of us who store leftovers can attest to opening a Tupperware lid revealing a layer of silvery moss-like mold covering last week's dinner. Yuck.

Fresh foods can also be off-putting. Lima beans and Brussels sprouts, the latter known as "shrunken heads" in my house, rank high on many kids' lists of repulsive foods. If you think about it, the produce department's root section contains its own horrors: roots sprouting twisted appendages, others covered by repugnant hairy surfaces.

Some people shy away from ethnic markets because of the foods found on those shelves: cans of lamb tongues from Australia, horse meat from Argentina. For those who shop in Asian markets, how carefully do you check out the ingredients to make sure dog isn't one of them? But before you think too far on that one, imagine how Hindus must feel walking past the beef department in American grocery stores.

But you don't need to shop in an ethnic market to find a little shop of horrors. Our local grocers have quite a few items that I find frightful.

Take Armour Star's Pork Brains in Milk Gravy, for example. The notion of pork brains may seem unsettling -- after all, it is the gray matter of the other white meat. The Armour Star five-ounce can conveniently comes with a pop top. The listed ingredients for Pork Brains in Milk Gravy are quite straightforward: pork brains; milk, less than 2 percent; water; corn starch; salt; sodium nitrate. The label's picture of scrambled eggs and brains, with a parsley garnish, is Armour's "serving suggestion." The recipe for this dish is printed on the side label. Step one: drain brains. At least someone at Armour has a sense of humor. Here's the kicker though: the cholesterol content of this small can, which is one serving size, is 1077 percent of daily nutritional requirements. In other words not only does this can of pork brains taste nasty (don't ask), but it supplies you with your required cholesterol for a third of a month. Now that's really scary.

Also in the canned meat section you can find a three-ounce can of Potted Meat Food Product. On the label of Libby's version of this product, the company states, "Libby's Potted Meat is a delicately seasoned spread perfect for sandwiches and snacks. Stir in chopped onion, salsa, or pickle relish for variety." The nutritional information is not printed on the can, but an address is given if you want to write to the company and wait for an answer. But check out the ingredients.

First up is mechanically separated chicken. Huh? I went to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture for a definition: "Mechanically Separated Poultry (MSP) is a paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue. Mechanically separated poultry has been used in poultry products since the late 1960s. In 1995, a final rule on mechanically separated poultry said it was safe and could be used without restrictions. However, it must be labeled as "mechanically separated chicken or turkey' in the product's ingredients statement."

Oh yum. Let's have chicken paste containing edible tissue extruded from bones! (Hot dogs, by the way, can contain any amount of mechanically separated chicken or turkey.) The other ingredients of Potted Meat are partially defatted cooked pork fatty tissue, beef tripe, partially defatted cooked beef fatty tissue, vinegar, salt, spices, sugar, flavorings, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrate. I have a bone to pick with Libby for suggesting that mechanically separated chicken, partially defatted pork and beef fatty tissue are ingredients "perfect for sandwiches and snacks."

Looking further on the grocery store shelf I spot Chicago-based Beverly Brand's 10-and-1/2-ounce can of Bulk Sausage, cereal added, with natural juices. This product contains beef tripe (the muscular lining of beef stomach), pork stomachs, partially defatted beef tissue, beef heart meat, water, cereal, salt, vinegar, flavoring (the other ingredients aren't enough?) and sodium nitrate. The picture on the label shows six fried sausage patties, with parsley garnish, surrounded by toast points topped with pads of butter. Oddly enough, to help meld the bulk sausage into patties, the label recipe requires one beaten egg.

Other grocery store items may not actually be disgusting, but the package design depicts them that way. Take the picture on the front of Libby's Country Sausage Gravy: darker chunks protruding from an "artificially lightened" substance. This unappetizing photo, no doubt about it, looks remarkably like vomit or a house pet accident.

Canned foods aren't the only frightful items at the grocery store. Those Maine lobsters crawling around the floor of their containment chamber remind me of atomic cockroaches, not that this image has stopped me from eating them. Besides how foul is it to pull off a lobster tail and have the green liver ooze onto your plate?

Which reminds me of that classic camp song: "Great big globs of greasy, grimy gopher guts, mutilated monkey meat, little birdies' pickled feet.... And I forgot my spoon." Bon appetit.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. To contact Tricia via email: TLChild@bellsouth.net.

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