Monday, July 21, 2008

The Monfish Liver Incident

While The Hungover Gourmet is vacationing we bring you some pieces written for other publications and other items from the archives. The following piece appeared in Carbon 14 #20.

The Hungover Gourmet was not always such an adventurous eater. In fact, truth be told, I was downright picky. Some, including my mother, might go so far as to label my adolescent and teenage eating habits "a pain in the ass."

Cheese was its own food group. I didn't care how or why you were serving it, the only question I had was, "Is there more?"

I loved potatoes and corn in any form, tomatoes pureed past any known resemblance for topping pasta only, and the jellied cranberry sauce in the can that we'd have with the weekly roast chicken or holiday turkey. That about sums it up as far as veggies go. Every once in a while I'd go crazy and have some peas when we got the oddball Friday dinner of scrambled eggs, mac and cheese, and canned peas, but only if I was feeling saucy. No beans, beets, asparagus, broccoli, lettuce, brussels sprouts, leeks, artichokes, kale, mushrooms, onions... you get the picture.

Fish, as far as I knew it, came in three distinct forms... canned tuna, frozen fish sticks, and the fried flounder we would get at Howard Johnson's on the Friday nights we weren't having the aforementioned culinary atrocity. On those nights my folks would pack three growing boys into the family car and unleash them on the "All You Can Eat Fish Fry" with extreme prejudice. On more than one occasion we tested the legal ramifications of such a claim. As the owner of The Frying Dutchman once said, "It's not so much a man as a remorseless eating machine. Argh."

But Catholics and a good ol' fish fry go together like ram-a-lama and ding-dong. And while The Church may have been looking the other way when it came to the decidedly thorny "meat on Fridays" issue, my folks believed in kickin' it old school. And kickin' it hard. Slim Jims after that last day of school were nothing short of a mortal sin, and we won't even begin the "hot dog at a ballgame" debate.

In their defense, it was the 1970s and they were still firmly rooted in the 1950s. Inevitably, this made for some edgy relations around the ol' homestead. How could parents who appreciated Mitch Miller understand sons that embraced Frank Zappa? Since when did the writings of Hunter S. Thompson surpass a good issue of Reader's Digest? We might as well have been sacrificing virgins in the basement - which my older brother may or may not have been doing.

The HoJo's in Willingboro is no more, a dozen eateries since it stopped being "Home of the All You Can Eat Fish Fry." Last time I checked, the familiar edifice was gone and the cracked parking lot had sprouted tall, gangly weeds. Yet I can still recall the area where we obeyed the "Please Wait to Be Seated" sign and the art deco crown of whipped cream that floated atop the hot chocolate I ordered, even in the middle of summer.

So the radical change in eating habits over the next few years came as somewhat of a shock to friends, family, and casual acquaintances to whom my finicky eating habits were something of a legend. I was soon eating anything. Everything. Fresh vegetables, beans, grains, and even some fruits... a development that had some questioning if the real Hungover Gourmet had been spirited away to a foreign country and replaced with an identical, just as dashing, eating machine!

In reality, the story behind the change was somewhat less glamorous. I'd had my culinary horizons expanded while I was working for a humungous drug company that paid me to attend health conferences under the guise of "research" for an upcoming product. Fish oil capsules, if you can believe it. Pretty soon I realized that I was already shaving precious years off my life thanks to a frightening amount of cheapo hootch. Oh, and that odd inhalation of spot remover for kicks sure wasn't helping. Those daily trips to the curbside vendors for cheese steaks and Chinese food could not be making this any easier for arteries that were hardening so fast you could hear it.

Even still, no amount of nutritional information, culinary experimentation, and horizon expansion can explain last week's "incident."

After munching on our usual sushi eatery feast of unagi, tuna, soft shell crab, spicy tuna, and a delicate blend of tuna marinated in garlic and olive oil, we decided we were hungry for a bit more. Another order of marinated tuna I later I found myself saying five words I still can't believe came out of my mouth: "I'll try the monkfish liver."

They neglect to tell you a few things when they're convincing you to try the monkfish liver. First, there's no picture of the monkfish anywhere to be found. Which really isn't fair. Upon later researching what I'd eaten, I discovered that this large, ugly fish - also known as "allmouth" - looks like some sort of ankle-biting monstrosity from an Umberto Lenzi flick. In reality, it's nothing more than a large, ugly bottom-dweller, mainly composed of a huge ass mouth attached to a long, muscular tail. Gaping mouth and tail. That's about it. Oh, right, and the liver riding around somewhere in between turning all that bottom-feeding muck into tasty liver treats! Or, so I thought.

Sushi Girl also neglected to inform me that the monkfish - or Lophius americanus to you egghead types - has exactly two edible parts: its tail and, you guessed it, the liver. Which, I would later discover, is a delicacy in Japan. The same place where game shows subjecting contestants to excruciating physical torture and humiliation are runaway ratings hits.

The monkfish liver is about three inches long and two inches wide, grey brown in color. In other words, not unlike other livery products that I enjoy on a regular basis like chicken livers, turkey livers, gizzards, and various and sundry other "organ" meats. I will also confirm that I love, not like, love liverwurst on rye sandwiches and have been known to suck back a wedge or two of scrapple on a weekend morn.

In other words, I'm no pussy when it comes to food.

Frankly, though, the grey mass stacked on the plate in front of me is making me second guess years and years of culinary progress. "Maybe corn, cheese and fish sticks isn't such a bad diet after all," I think as my companion suspiciously eyes the platter. The look on her face tells me she's sure she saw one of the livers move.

I'm getting bolder by the second, noting in my head that they've never steered me wrong. Each dish I've ordered has been a truly delightful experience. "Then again," my brain chimes in, "the law of averages says you're gonna hit something that downright sucks. And boy, oh, boy, this looks like it might be it!"

Realizing that chopsticks are no match for the slightly squishy masses I pinch a liver between my fingers and bring it in for a chomp. What happens next is not, well, repulsive. It's simply... unpleasant.

The texture isn't like those other, more familiar, livery products. I'm expecting it to be a bit firmer, with a little more, um, grit. Instead, it's smooth and spongy, which makes chewing it an odd, unwelcome experience.

But it's the taste and smell that really kick in the gag reflex and almost bring this entire experiment to a rather messy conclusion.

This might be odd for an avowed sushi fan, but I don't like stuff that's, well, fishy. I have a limit, a tolerance if you will, that ends right about where bluefish begins. And the monkfish liver in question kicks that up a notch, if you'll pardon the expression.

I choke down a bite, hoping that maybe it'll get better with age.

"Please God, I'm begging you."

I dip it in the unapologetically nondescript sauce surrounding the second liver and give that a shot.

"Dear Lord, it's actually getting worse!"

I can feel my gag reflex starting to kick in as I dip it in a little of that delightful garlic and olive oil residue and...

"Ack, ack, ack..."

For the next thirty seconds I'm a ten-year-old from South Jersey, stubbornly refusing to eat the bowl of homemade Navy Bean Soup that's sitting in front of me. Years of expanding my horizons and trying new things are gone as I toss the last bit of liver on the plate and gulp down glasses of water from surrounding tables in a mad rush to get the taste, texture and experience out of my mouth and out of my mind as fast as humanly possible.

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