Years ago, when my father was still in the army, we lived in Europe for three years. Occasionally, we’d have to travel around for him to go to this meeting or that meeting. This probably started me on my journey to becoming a hardcore foodie. We’d eat out in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, you name it. Except for anything east of the Iron Curtain. This was in the bad old days of the Cold War, and half of Europe was still under the control of the guys with ridiculous fur hats. And I don’t mean the guards at Buckingham Palace. I mean the guys who think vodka is a food group.
On one trip to Italy (Always a good stop for hardcore foodies. And drunks. And prospective fat people and diabetes sufferers. And young heart attack victims), I was stuffing my face with pasta, earning a baleful glance from my mother at my atrocious manners. Fortunately, the Italians’ manners were far worse, so I fit right in. Once I’d finished choking down a baseball sized wad of noodles, I looked at my Dad’s plate and asked to try what he was having. Sharing around a bit was a normal thing for us, since we were eating things we frequently couldn’t get back home.
He scooped a bit of the innocuous looking meat on my plate, which I promptly wolfed down. It was tasty, although a bit chewy. I liked it, and it wasn’t like anything I’d ever had. I asked my father what it was, and he told me it was…octopus. I nearly gagged, and he grinned widely. I think he knew how I’d react, and gleefully basked in the glow of my shock and dismay.
Octopus is not something a young boy thinks is food. They’re squirmy things that we’d see floating through unearthly underwater environments on PBS. Or see squeezing through tiny holes. They’re tentacled nightmares that haunted the dreams of H.P. Lovecraft and influenced his imagining of the horrific beings that haunt his rather twisted stories. They’re freakish, alien monstrosities. Not supper. Of course, when you’re age is in single digits, supper is hamburgers, mac and cheese, spaghetti, and other basic fare. There’s a reason the kids’ menu is always boring nonsense.
But I benefited in the end. My dad’s prank didn’t just make me a foodie. It made me a weird foodie. I mean, not quite Andrew Zimmern weird (I don’t eat genitalia), but I learned that things that are a bit esoteric can be very good. And I’ve learned recently, they can also be very good for you.
Six ounces of this slimy, otherworldly creature have 280 calories. Like most seafood, it’s a little light on the calorooskies, which is a good thing. It’s loaded with B vitamins, which is not surprising. Most meats, even slimy, otherworldly, tentacle-creature meat, have these. It has 40% of my Recommended Daily Allowance in niacin, 30% of my B5 requirement, 85% of my B6 needs, tons of vitamin B12 (way more than is necessary for a full day), over 100% of the copper, selenium, and iron requirements, 24% of the magnesium requirements, two-thirds of the phosphorus, one third of the potassium, and half of the zinc. Also, it has 40% of the daily requirement of Omega-3 fatty acids. It’s cousin the squid is almost as good in terms of nutrition (it has slightly higher quantities of some nutrients, such as vitamin E), with two-thirds of the calories and 60% of the Omega-3s in the same portion size.
Meats, including strange meats, generally come with the same types of nutrients. Six ounces of almost any meat will provide anywhere from 20% to 100% of your RDA in many B vitamins, as well as high quantities of copper, zinc, selenium, iron, and phosphorus. But oftentimes the weirdo meats have additional benefits (and lower calories) than the standard staple meats of the American diet, such as beef, pork, and chicken.
Another bizarre beastie that’s healthy is conch, the strange beast which comes in a shell which seems carefully sculpted to perfection by Mother Nature herself. With an abominable, nightmarish tentacle-being crammed into the middle.
The last time I had live conch in my house was when my wife and her assorted girlie friends took a trip to one of the beaches near Sarasota on one of their girlie-friends-only trips. She brought back literally dozens of tiny conch shells. I discovered her boiling them in the kitchen, and asked if that was what was for dinner that night. She said “You got jokes?”. Clearly, she didn’t consider these to be food. She’s not as much of a weird foodie as I am.
No, her goal was to kill the things inside, then clean out the shells so she could use them for decorations. Naturally, I was the one who got stuck with the duty of cleaning out the shells. She couldn’t bear the thought of touching the horrid critter within, dead or alive. Fortunately, now that I know she finds them terrifying, I can use this to punish her, which I often do when we go to the beach. Any time I feel like self-imposing celibacy for a week or three, I can frighten her with live ones, or disgust her by eating dead ones. Conch fritters are a great thing, and the look of distress on her face when I eat them always fulfills my recommended daily allowance of schadenfreude.
Anyway, six ounces of cooked conch has 220 calories, so it’s not bad at all for those of us trying to lose weight. It’s a little light on the B vitamins, although it has plenty of B12, something which is (with a very few exceptions) only available in meat. Unless you take supplements. Which is cheating.
But I guess I’m getting off track with my peeves about supplements. Back to conch. It also has the minerals typical of meat that I listed above. In addition, it has 75% of my folate RDA, nearly 75% of my vitamin E requirements (which is something that’s hard to come by, unless you eat nuts), 16% or so of my calcium needs, and almost all of the magnesium I’d need in a day. Also, like most dead denizens of the oceans, a decent chunk of omega-3 fatty acids.
But creepy things of the ocean aren’t the only weird food I’ve learned are actually good for me. Anyone who grew up in the American Holy Lands of the Southeast has partaken of the flesh of the antlered, cervine beast. Deer, in other words. I’ve noted before that hunting these things can be decent exercise. Eating them is not bad for you either.
After you brutally hunt and kill Bambi’s mother, the resulting venison will provide 270 calories for every six ounces. In addition to the typical nutrients that come from faunacide, venison also has a decent chunk of potassium. This is not something that’s hard to come by, but it is something we need in relatively large quantities, so it’s always good to make sure we’re getting enough. And if you waste Bambi’s northern and Canadian cousins (elk and moose), the nutrition is about the same.
That’s not the only weird frontier meat I’ve heard of. My sister-in-law’s family comes from the gun-nuttiest state north of the Mason-Dixon line: Michigan. Where they hunt things with M-16s and eat anything they kill. Including…bear. Yes, bear. I never would’ve thought of that as food either.
Bear is not as healthy as the other things. Six ounces has 440 calories. Bears are fat. Go figure. But it contains all of the normal meat nutrients, including 100% of B12, zinc, and iron. But only if you’re willing to murder and eat Winnie the Pooh. I’m not. Bambi is fine, but Winnie the Pooh is where I draw the line.
And then there’s the uniquely American animal that was the staple of the Sioux diet, and mostly just target practice for colonists. And by that I mean, bison. Nearly wiped out, they’re making a comeback, as many ranchers are raising them for food. I’ve noted before in a piece about burgers that ground bison burgers are quite good for you. But if I avoid throwing dead stuff in the meat grinder and have a six ounce bison steak, I’ll get 300 calories, which is not bad. In addition to the normal meat nutrients, it also has about one third of my potassium RDA.
Then there are the things that medieval men called transportation and weird French people actually consider food. Les Francais are known to eat horses. Which is strange to American sensibilities. How does one eat Mr. Ed? Can’t they just turn him into glue like normal people? Anyway, if you do ever eat horse meat, you’ll find that nutritionally it’s almost the same as bison.
Then there’s the animal that infomercials scammed unsuspecting Americans into buying and raising. Alpaca. Or its cousin, the llama. Information on these is scarce on Ye Olde Interweb Machine, but from what I’ve been about to find, a six ounce portion of these has maybe 240 calories, and tends to be lower in cholesterol than many other meats. And in addition to the B vitamins that all animal sacrifices appear to have, they appear to have healthy doses of zinc, potassium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium and copper. But I couldn’t find traditional nutritional information for these. The only sources were obscure medical research stuff that appeared intentionally designed to have the information in an unhelpful, wonky format. Also, it uses that strange, exotic method of measurement (the metric system) that is only used by…everyone on the planet except Americans.
If you find your way to the west coast, especially up in the uber-frozen wastelands of Alaska or Canada, there is a surprisingly kleptomaniac animal that you can eat. I mean, the sea lion. If you manage to catch and eat one of these fish thieves, you’ll get 200 calories per six ounces, the usual assortment vitamins and minerals humans get when asserting their dominance over other animals (in many cases over 100% RDA, such as with iron, selenium, copper, and B12), along with 75% of the vitamin A RDA and 20% of the potassium. Also, a third of the omega-3 fatty acids you’ll need.
And it’s much more docile and trainable (and therefore more adorable) cousin, the seal, has 240 calories per six ounces, the normal meat nutrients, and 20% of the Vitamin A. And one third of the omega-3s I should eat in a day.
And then there’s that strange, poisonous thing that the Japanese turned into a delicacy. Pufferfish. Or blowfish. Or whatever. I’ve often wondered how many people died before they figured out how to make this edible. Maybe some medieval Japanese daimyo just fed variants of this to his peasants until one of them finally didn’t keel over.
But I digress. Nutritional information for this is almost as scarce as the furry, infomercial scam animal from South America I mentioned above. But from what little I did find, six ounces of this has only 150 calories, and it apparently includes the various minerals and vitamins one would expect with almost any seafood. The downside is the off chance that it results in…death. Or perhaps even undeath. I’ve heard that assorted Voodoo sorcerers in Haiti use pufferfish poison to turn people into literal zombies. So maybe we should all take a pass on this weird meat.
But for more classic North American weirdness, there’s the other thing rednecks like to kill. Wild boar. You’d think that boar was basically just pork. But you’d be wrong. Pigs are the sedentary, obese cousins of boar. Boar are far less fattening. Six ounces has 270 calories, and the usual nutrients that one can get from being an apex predator and ruthlessly killing and eating animals.
And then there’s the animal only enjoyed by crazy Cajuns and crazy Florida men. The latter of which is obviously redundant. And by that I mean…alligator. This also only provides the normal nutrients of meat. There’s nothing special here. Except, it only has 150 calories per six ounces. It’s a slightly chewy meat that tastes like a cross between catfish and chicken. Which seems like an abhorrent hybrid, I know. But you should try it. With lots of cocktail sauce. And actual cocktails. But not too many of those. Too much alcohol can kill a diet.
And weird meats around the world are also lean and healthy. When I visit my wife’s African homeland, we occasionally can go on a safari and eat things that one only finds in a reservation. Like impala, warthog, buffalo, and crocodile. Their nutritional value is about the same as deer, boar, bison, and alligator. And you can enjoy them all in an exotic, off-the-beaten-path locale. So I can eat healthy and feel like Anthony Bourdain when we visit her family.
And there is one last weird food I had once that I should cover. Only once, because it’s expensive. The delicacy of guys with funny hats and vodka addictions and strangely centrally planned economies. And by that, I mean caviar. Which is fish eggs, which seems really odd. Of course, I can’t judge too much. The haggis that my Scottish ancestors thought was food is noticeably weirder.
Caviar has 450 calories per six ounces. Not that anyone would ever eat that much (unless they’re uber-rich Russian oligarchs), I’m just trying to be consistent with everything above. This much caviar has all of the animal sacrifice nutrients, and has half a day’s Vitamin A, one third of the Vitamin D RDA (which typically only comes from dead fish or sunlight), 20% of the Vitamin E, half of the Calcium and all of the magnesium I need. And all of the Omega-3. Way too much, really, over 7 times what I’d need in a day.
Unfortunately, there are downsides. It’s high in cholesterol. Six ounces will have five times what I should be eating in a day. So you shouldn’t eat caviar for the same reason you shouldn’t eat organ meat. Also, I’m pretty sure it costs more than cocaine. And eating it makes you a communist. So there’s health, financial, and geopolitical reasons to never eat this.
Still, for the most part, strange foods aren’t bad for you. They can be healthy. So don’t be afraid to try some new things. Eat some weirdo animal you didn’t think was food. Eat the alien sea monster. Eat the giant lizards. Eat the wild, sylvan animals. They’re loaded with all sorts of nutrients, and most are light on calories. But maybe stay away from the poison fish. And don’t eat the commie food.
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