"Bugs, horses, brains, whale; leaves, weeds, ice cream flavored with lichen-covered logs." This list of dubiously edible foods begins New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear's fascinating new book, Everything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture, her exploration of an emerging American cuisine -- the cuisine of the extreme. The book follows dozens of strange and sometimes stomach-turning meals, some of which will be recognizable to devoted readers of Goodyear in The New Yorker, but all of which interrogate the boundaries of foods which Americans have long considered "inedible" due to ethical, legal, and social taboos.
"I had been noticing for a while that going out to dinner was starting to feel like more of a challenge than simply an indulgent experience," Goodyear says of the reason she decided to write the book. We go out to eat at great restaurants, generally speaking, to enjoy a meal composed of the best (and often most expensive) ingredients its chef can find, but Goodyear noticed that, in recent years, diners were finding pleasure in confronting the unfamiliar. "Chefs were trying to get us to broaden our sense of what was edible, broadening the American sense of edibility," she says.
Goodyear's book is essentially a meditation on what "edibility" means, and especially what it means to a culture whose sense of what is and is not acceptable to eat doesn't necessarily include everything that is safe to eat. A lot of the dishes she discusses -- the whale meat, the insects, the partially formed duck embryos, the intestines and feet and tails -- might be scary to people who had been raised on a steady diet of hamburgers and pork chops, but are acceptable foods in other cultures, most of them stemming from poverty and caloric necessity. In confronting this disparity, Americans are confronting something about themselves, too. "With taboo-breaking you really explore the dark side of eating," she says.
And while this kind of eating can feel like a boys' club, or a tiresome foodie I've eaten weirder things than you competition, Goodyear believes that the drive to consume "weird" foods goes deeper than posturing. As the world has industrialized, its population has grown, and more countries like China and India are adapting the patterns of American eating -- the monoculture crops, the resource-intensive meat production, even the idea that middle-class folks should be eating meat every day -- more Americans are realizing how unsustainable that diet is. "All of that has contributed to the sense among Americans that we need to think of some alternatives. We spelled out a way of eating for the rest of the world, and now that the rest of the world is eating that way, we're kind of saying, wow, it's not sustainable, it's not good for the environment, it's not good for your health." she says.
That's not to say that the dare element of these foods is necessarily a bad thing. "It' s a way of getting over the hump," she says. "You want to put it on your Facebook that you ate this totally crazy thing. Showing off is a way to get that momentum to try something new."
Everything That Moves hit shelves on Nov. 14. Goodyear will be reading from it and signing books at Omnivore on Saturday, Nov. 16, 3-4 p.m.