On a cold Tuesday evening in December, a group of New York “Gastronauts” headed out to Flushing to sample the delights of Northern China. At A Fan Ti, a tiny hole-in-the-wall, they feasted on a massive pile of lamb’s eyeballs in brown sauce, spicy shredded lamb stomach, lamb brain, and grilled kidneys, among other traditional fare.
“It was bizarre to see an entire plate of eyeballs,” says Benjamin Pauker, co-founder of the Gastronauts club for adventurous eaters. “You have a gelatinous white area, and the harder pupil, plus the entire ocular nerve behind the eyeball. So when you slice through it, it looks like an onion.” He likens the flavour—fatty, melt-in-your-mouth—to bone marrow. “But I’m connecting one weird food to another,” he laughs.
Pauker would do that. In under five years since he started the club, he’s ingested live octopus, chicken feet and braised goose feet, pig knuckle, tripe soup, myriad bugs, smoked pork tongue, pig stomach, as well as fried frog. He’s seen his club expand from four to over 450 members, and now there are offshoots of the original popping up in Berlin, London, Paris, and other parts of the U.S.
Of his criteria for picking eateries, Pauker says, “We’re not going to cross lines of legality, like cannibalism or eating cats and dogs, but everything else is fair game.” Indeed, most dinners rival Trimalchio’s lavish banquets. Gastronauts usually eat off-menu, and order “the weird items in small print at the bottom of the menu that folks eat everyday in Manila, Lagos, Bangkok, or Lima.”
While some may think this kind of dining is extreme or fetishistic, Shyon Baumann, co-author of the new book, Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape, argues that exploratory eating represents the democratization of food culture. “Within the last 50 to 60 years, eating clubs have gone from focusing on elite, French cuisine to focusing on good food from every tradition.” The clubs of today are more inclusive, less Eurocentric.
But the Gastronauts are “kind of on the edge,” he adds, bestowing them with the highest foodie honour: “People who push the envelope most when it comes to eating are seen to have the most credibility,” he explained. “The fewest number of people can gain mastery or knowledge of food at that level.”
For the Canadian food writer and culinary anthropologist Naomi Duguid, the most important part of venturing into the food of another place is shifting one’s cultural lens. “It’s not about exoticizing or seeing food as product or performance, but it’s about trying to appreciate the culture it’s part of.”
Pauker says members are encouraged to try everything, and most are willing to open their palates to exotic fare, even cod sperm. Of the Japanese specialty, he admits the hardest part of eating it was overcoming the cognitive obstacle that “I was ingesting an enormous amount of sperm.” He reasons, “This is just how people eat in other cultures.”
For Gastronaut co-founder Curtiss Calleo, a recent highlight was his second foray into dancing shrimp. “You get the shrimp drunk and numb them to the point when they go comatose, and then you eat them.” Isn’t that a bit excessive? No, he says. He sees their food adventures as part of the wider “Nose to Tail” movement. Coined by the British chef Fergus Henderson, eating this way involves using the entire animal from nose to tail—or from sperm to eyeballs.
“We hear that a bit of what we’re doing is excessive,” says Calleo, “but we would counter that by saying the rest of the world eats this stuff. So it’s not extreme to eat a goat’s eyeball if it’s what people eat in Northern China. And it’s more ethical to eat the entire animal, rather than grow a chicken, chop off the breasts, and throw out the rest. I would argue that our Western palate is what’s excessive.”