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You've probably eaten s'mores, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a hot dog from a cart. But what about crocodile, sea urchin or -- dare we say -- roadkill?
All of these foods made it onto the omnivore's 100, a list of foods that Andrew Wheeler, a British food writer, believes an omnivore should try in his or her life.
The genius of the list lies in its diversity, and in the clever way it challenges one's assumptions about food. Some items are luxuries, such as a meal at a Michelin-three-star restaurant or caviar and blini. But junk food is also represented, both the American Big Mac combo meal and Japanese Pocky, which are thin, pencil-shaped biscuits dipped in chocolate or other coatings.
Things that can be painful to consume are well represented in a range of mediums, including a raw Scotch bonnet pepper (one of the hottest peppers in the world), a variety of curries (Wheeler is English, after all), and baijiu, a popular Chinese distilled spirit that is very strong (between 40 percent and 60 percent alcohol) and whose taste is often described as akin to rubbing alcohol.
Foods that can disgust you are also fair game, especially those that involve secondary cuts of meat or blood, such as head cheese (a loaf made from the cooked head of a calf or pig coated in aspic jelly) or black pudding (sausage made by cooking blood, usually from pigs or cows, and a thickener such as meat, sweet potato or oatmeal, until the blood congeals).
Mr. Wheeler, who lives in London, originally posted the list on the blog "Very Good Taste," which he co-writes with fellow Londoner Jill Phythian. He asked readers to post the list in their own blogs, bold items they've eaten, and cross off anything they absolutely wouldn't try.
Clearly I am not alone in thinking this list is ingenious, because it's been picked up by so many bloggers that Mr. Wheeler can't keep up with the responses. I barely blinked when I noticed it on local chef Bill Fuller's blog, "Hungry, a Process," earlier this week.
Though Mr. Wheeler's results are admittedly far from statistically significant (food bloggers and blog-readers are a self-selective group), the results of this unofficial survey are worth examining. Some are obvious, but others are more intriguing.
"Insects scored very badly in people's responses," Mr. Wheeler noted, while "wild berries proved by far the most universal item on the list. ... More people have had oysters than a Big Mac meal. More people have had Spam than foie gras. About as many people have had Bellinis as have had vodka jelly (or 'Jell-O shots', as American respondents insist on calling them)."
In other words, food lovers are as likely to have missed out on common, easy-to-find, inexpensive food items as they are to have yet to sample certain luxury items.
I've eaten 81 out of 100, and there's nothing I'm dead set against eating, though, like Mr. Wheeler, I'd want to be in expert hands while eating either fugu, the potentially deadly pufferfish, or roadkill. While I like spicy food, I'm not a masochist, so I'm going to wait for a particularly brave day or a bad cold before I chew on a raw Scotch bonnet pepper.
I initially planned to eat as many of my uneaten foods as I possibly could in a week. I was hard at work tracking down horsemeat, haggis (a Scottish specialty involving a sheep stomach stuffed with minced animal organs such as the heart, liver and lungs) and whole insects. Then I realized that I might be missing the point. When it comes to food, context is everything.
I'll probably save horsemeat for my next trip to France where certain butcher shops specialize in it. Putting myself in an environment where this food is normal is likely to help me overcome any cultural prejudices I have against it.
I did, however, check one item off of the list, one that was easy to find and fit into my plans for the week. A couple of dinner guests and I devoured a round of Epoisses on a Saturday evening. This rich, runny, just slightly stinky cow's milk cheese from Burgundy was a huge hit, and I can't believe I've lived so long without trying it.
The list made me think: Is there ever a good reason not to eat something new? What is the worst thing that could happen?
The food that I can remember disliking the most is natto, a type of fermented soybean that tasted like rotting Parmesan cheese. (It's not on the list.) At the time, I couldn't imagine taking a second bite. But looking back, it wasn't so bad that I can swear I'd never try it again. Even if I never learn to like natto, I'm still glad I tried it.
Mr. Wheeler himself has a few items on the list left to check off, and he's hard at work making a dent in it.
"So far I've bought a crocodile fillet to make a stir fry, and I've munched on a Scotch bonnet. I've also been searching high and low for umeboshi [pickled sour ume, a Japanese fruit that is something like a cross between a plum and an apricot]," he said.
He's happy to try everything left on his list, explaining, "I've eaten hakarl (not on his list), which is fermented rancid shark meat from Iceland, and it smells like urine, and I don't think there can be many worse things in the world to put in your mouth.
"If I can manage that, I think I can manage just about anything."
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1198. First Published October 5, 2008 4:00 AM