The new American cuisine is angry. Sometimes it even fights back. Take the live octopus served at a barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles, as described in Dana Goodyear’s Anything That Moves. The animal’s tentacles keep struggling even after they’ve been severed from its head. They can lodge in one’s throat, sometimes with fatal results. And those are just the dishes. The diners themselves are perpetually dissatisfied, oddly aggressive connoisseurs—you like pig feet? I’ll take dog!—turning the necessary act of caloric intake into an extreme sport.
Goodyear, a New Yorker staff writer, covers it all with passion and curiosity—from skewered bull penises to beating eel hearts, horse guts, bone marrow, and coffee beans crapped out by feral cats. She embeds with a growing community of people who seek out the most insane food imaginable. If it’s meat, it’s nice if you can kill it yourself and save the blood for a tasty digestif. If you’re at the right place, such as the Starry Kitchen, also in L.A., your meal might be topped with sautéed marijuana, and you should not operate machinery afterward (even if it’s to crush bones for the next night’s feast).
Extreme eaters aren’t afraid of raw eggs, will go to jail for raw milk—which apparently is delicious—and will sprinkle manure on their veggies if they can get it. The cult is spreading like beards in Brooklyn. Fried grasshoppers are now for sale at gas stations across the country.
Goodyear follows Jonathan Gold, a Los Angeles Times food critic who specializes in finding “C-rated” restaurants in sketchy neighborhoods. (Gold has his own ranking system for Chinese restaurants—A: American Chinese, B: Better Chinese, and C: Chinese for Chinese. He likes the Cs.) She hangs out with Brett Ottolenghi, a weird food merchant in Las Vegas who caters to a city with 10 of the 50 highest-grossing restaurants in the country. He makes money by delivering esoterica: squid ink from Spain, rare kinds of cinnamon, pink pine nuts. And he’s the most normal guy of the bunch.
Goodyear writes about the founders of specialty food companies such as Reese Finer Foods, who up until the 1970s made a lot of money offering canned rhinoceros and Bengal tiger. (Both animals are now endangered.) She even tastes some of the cuisine, going to L.A.’s Animal, where every part of an organism is on the menu, and Incanto in San Francisco, where she enjoys the head, feet, heart, and spleen of a lamb.
Extreme cuisine is the decadent hobby of an upper class. Who else can pay $70 a pound for ant eggs—and have the time to find them? Or shell out $30 for corn with a special fungus growing on it? The ancient Romans, toward the end, feasted on the brains of peacocks and kept live moray eels in their villas. We serve shark fins to the high rollers in Vegas.
But decline is part of the group’s creed. The buzzard-like interest in the uncooked and offal is an advance action against, or preparation for, the exhaustion of the globe. When the tasty fish are gone and the grasslands have turned to desert, we’ll start looking longingly at our pets, and even insects. (Ounce for ounce, many bugs have as much protein as beef.) Extreme cuisiners, as Goodyear sees it, are getting a head start on the apocalypse by wasting a little less right now.
Anything That Moves is frenetic and fascinating and turns the stomach. The book finishes, brilliantly, in nausea, as Goodyear tries to keep down an unhatched duckling, “cooked in its shell and eaten entire: eyes, beak, feathers, and bones.” As the chapter closes, the duckling is coming back up: the body unwilling to submit anymore to the brain’s bad ideas.