Bugs, horse, brains, whale; leaves, weeds, ice cream flavored with lichen-covered logs. The disturbingly familiar and the alarmingly rare, the unregulated, illegal, and indeterminate. A new American cuisine is forming, one marked by extreme and challenging ingredients. Animals never before considered or long since forgotten are emerging as delicacies. Parts that used to be for scrap are centerpieces. Ash and hay are fashionable ingredients, and you pay handsomely to breathe flavored air. I haven't yet heard of an American chef with the nerve to serve actual dirt — in Tokyo you can get a fancy dirt soup, and compost is an ingredient at one of Spain's most celebrated restaurants — but a high-end meal in this country feels incomplete these days without a little mound of "soil" made from cocoa or coffee. Going out to a nice dinner often precipitates a confrontation with a fundamental evolutionary question: Is that food?
My relationship to food is that of an acrophobe to a bridge: unease masks a desire to jump. A well-fed child with the imagination of a scrounger, I remember holing up in the back of the station wagon eating the dog's Milk-Bones, which were tastier than you might expect. Thinking of the sorrel that grew under our swing set still makes me drool. In winter — we lived outside Cleveland at that point — we drizzled maple syrup on the snow. My mother, who taught herself to cook by reading Elizabeth David, made everything from scratch, down to the English muffins. (She says I once asked her peevishly if it wouldn't be more convenient to buy some frozen food.) My father hunted. We always had a meat freezer full of doves from the eastern shore of Maryland and elk from the Rockies.
As I grew older, I remained curious. When I was in college, I got a summer job in Hong Kong at the South China Morning Post. After being teased in the lunchroom by a Singaporean colleague for being squeamish, I tried chicken feet. In Hanoi, I went to a dog restaurant and ate seven courses of "hornless goat." (Back home, I told my disgusted family that dogs may have been domesticated to serve as a source of meat in lean times. They still thought I was gross.) In Africa, I ate African animals; in South America, South American ones. But at home I was a "normal" eater — no chicken feet, no pets.
Until I started hanging out with foodies. Coined by the critic Gael Greene in 1980 to describe the devoted fans of an untrained Paris housewife who cooked in heels, the word foodie has taken on a new life in the age of social media. An American foodie documents what she eats with the avidity of a competitive birder, and publishes the images online for the world to see. So-called food porn is the most popular content on Pinterest, one of the fastest-growing websites in history, and it dominates the photo-sharing sites Instagram and Flickr. It's everywhere on TV. And, as with any fetish, the more outlandish and rarefied a find, the more a foodie likes it.
In "The Food Wife," a 2011 episode of The Simpsons, Marge and the kids become thrill-seeking food bloggers, sampling pig snouts, walrus moustaches, pine-needle sorbet, and a "regret course" of human tears. Matthew Selman, who wrote the episode and considers it a love letter to his kind, arranges family trips around restaurant reservations and finds himself ordering "the most organy, taily, brainy, nosy thing in the world — because it's exciting and dangerous." He has a hard time with the terminology, though. "I wish there was a word other than 'foodie,'" he says. "How about 'super food asshole' or 'pretentious food jerk'?" But somehow this piggy, cute, overweening word is right. Gourmet is too grand — too faux — for this movement; epicure is too ancient. We needed a word in English — a keen, young, democratic word — to describe the epidemic of food love.
Writing this book, I set out to explore the outer bounds of food culture, where the psychological, rational, legal, ethical, and indeed physical limits of edibility are being tried — and sometimes overturned. What I found was a collection of go-betweens, chefs, and adventurous eaters — scofflaws, innovators, and crusaders — who are breaking with convention to reshape the American palate. Eating alongside them tested my stamina and tolerance for risk. There were things I was surprised to learn I could not bring myself to eat, and other I was disturbed to discover I relish. In our contemporary cuisine, I see anxiety behind the hedonism and resourcefulness tricked out as decadence. After centuries of perfecting the ritual of "civilized" dining, there is a furious backpedaling, a wilding, even among the chefs who employ the most cutting-edge techniques. At the same time, the traditional foods of poverty are being recast as elite. It is the height of sophistication to tear the meat from an animal's bones with your teeth and bare hands. To look at the food for sale in our best restaurants, you'd think that our civilization had peaked and collapsed; what we see on our plates is a post-apocalyptic free-for-all of crudity and refinement, technology and artlessness, an unimaginable future and a forgotten past.
So is foodie-ism greed or resourcefulness? If it were a matter of survival, there would be no difference. But this movement is about pleasure — pleasure heightened at the brink of calamity.
Excerpted from Anything That Moves by Dana Goodyear by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright 2013 by Dana Goodyear.