[Sca-cooks] A curious question about the rotted meat mythos

Phil Troy / G. Tacitus Adamantius adamantius1 at verizon.net
Thu Mar 13 05:33:52 PDT 2008

On Mar 13, 2008, at 2:12 AM, Kimberly Vallance wrote:

> Actually this is rather uncalled for and rather mean.

I'm sorry it came across to you in that way, and it was not a  
criticism of you. If, on the other hand, you're using American norms  
for what is and is not unusual, for many that would mean anything that  
isn't boiled, roasted, grilled or fried meat with potatoes on the side  
to be really weird, and probably foreign, food. And when someone,  
anyone, describes a process as rotting when it's not being broken down  
by bacterial action, it's just wrong. It's easier to say than "Broken  
down by enzymatic degradation," or "denaturization of proteins", but  
the fact is that there's definitely a negative connotation to  
"rotten" (I can think of one exception and that is in translation).

> http://icecook.blogspot.com/2006/01/how-to-prepare-hakarl-rotten-or-cured_17.htmlis
> a link from a blog from someone in Iceland by the way her other site
> http://www.isholf.is/gullis/jo/Seafood.htm has some recipes for other
> Icelandic foods. She even uses the term rotten.

See above. First, the fish in question does acquire some flavor by  
bacterial action (as do cheese, sauerkraut, etc.), but the majority of  
its changed character is the result of enzyme action. Does food rot in  
our stomachs? She also may not be fully aware of all the chemistry  
involved in the process, and is writing about the process in a  
language not her own, one which appears to be somewhat deficient in  
distinguishing between different processes. And then, there's the fact  
that as cultures change and come into more contact with each other,  
some old traditions fall away and attitudes change. I'm sure there are  
more people viewing McDonalds' as normal in Scandinavia than there  
used to be; conversely, there are probably more people looking askance  
at lutefisk than there used to be.

>  Most research that I have
> been able to do thus far talk about the gravel method.

Is gravel inherently bad? It provides drainage and a uniform cool  
temperature, which is more than can universally be said for a normal  
American farm's root cellar.

> I didn't say run it will kill you.

No, you didn't, and I didn't say you did. I suggested that attitudes  
like that do exist.

> I was asking if this sort of thing could
> be where some get the medieval folks ate rotten food.

Well, there's always that possibility, but it's pretty generally  
accepted that some widely-broadcasted statements from some 18th- 
century scholars are the main culprit there.

> I try most things at
> least once before crossing them off the list of what I will eat.  
> Though I
> may go ewww that is gross I still try it. I am not fond of feta  
> unless it is
> what my Greek friends get, I don't like bree or blue cheese *blue  
> cheese
> being in the top ten of ok that is just nasty* But because of how I  
> have
> been able to find it described *the process at least* I was curious  
> if this
> sort of food helps to continue the myth.

Now there's an interesting question. Given that we don't know all that  
much (some, but not as much as in some other cases) about the foods of  
medieval Northern Europe, and whether there's a gap between court  
cookery (which tends, on the surface, to all be fairly similar and  
cross borders easily without necessarily telling us too much about  
what everybody else is eating) and the traditional foods of a country.  
But the myth you speak of is pretty clearly derived from looking at  
court cookery, which doesn't tend to contain anything resembling  
hakarl. What's interesting here to me is that we do have the  
occasional snapshot of non-court eating habits among nobles, which  
seem to represent a little more tolerance for weirdness than the court  
cookery (William the Conqueror eating dirt -- okay, I'm kidding on  
that one, slightly -- say, or hunters eating raw venison or boar liver  
in the field, or fishermen eating the odds and ends of their catch  
they they couldn't sell)

> As a child we processed a lot of our own meat and I eat things that my
> husband describes as just not right. It is not xenophobic  
> superiority it is
> just out of his norm.

Many would argue that being uncomfortable with the abnormal is  
basically the definition of xenophobia. Of course, it doesn't have to  
have a negative connotation. Xenophobic superiority is something else  
again; I don't know your husband and wouldn't dream of accusing him of  
such a thing. I'm just accusing _some_ viewers of TV shows about  
bizarre foods of it, and the producers of such programs of probably  
being aware of, and capitalizing on it.

> Not everyone grew up on fresh cows milk and venison,
> squid, lots of different fish and many multicultural foods.

Not many people have. Environment does tend to be a limiting factor.  
But there's a difference between not being familiar with something and  
it being "just not right".

> To my Estonian
> friend fried pork skins are just gross and not right,

This actually surprises me. They're very popular all over Eastern  
Europe. Also fried poultry skin. Is it possible your friend has an  
aversion that is not culturally based?

> but to me they are
> yummy, yet some of her dishes made me shiver. Bottled Herring in  
> some kind
> of sauce.

Well, why does that make you shiver? Is it the herring itself you have  
issues with, the glass jar, or the sauce? Or just the combination of  
all three characteristics? Now, of course, there may simply be no  
logic to it, and there doesn't have to be, but logic's all we've got  
if we were trying to anticipate what you might *like*, so questions  
like this can be helpful.
> The only thing that I strike straight off my list of ok have to try  
> it once
> is bugs.

Yeah, you got me there, not a fan. I am aware, intellectually, of all  
the myriad arguments in favor of people eating bugs. I just don't  
especially want to be one of them.

> Though my uncle is rather fond of a few.  As someone who grew up in
> a multicultural family with dishes ranging from American to  
> Vietnamese and
> everywhere in between, I find your reply to be in poor taste.

Again, I'm sorry to hear that and it was not my intention, but the  
fact that you may not fit the profile I was referring to doesn't  
really change or weaken what I said. If I'm talking about people who  
think, say or do X, and you're saying Y, then I must not be talking  
about you.

> I am not
> knocking them for having this dish,

No, but many people do. Surstroming's really funny, too.

> but for me it is unusual and like I said
> I was wondering if this helped to permeate the myth about the rotted  
> food of
> the past and heavy spices.

Hakarl is probably increasingly unusual in Iceland, too, and I'd bet  
that in 25 years it'll be largely extinct, which will probably make  
some people, including some Icelanders, happy. It'll be a shame,  
though. As for the rotten meat myth, there's probably not much  
pressing need to look far beyond the more simple explanation that  
somebody wrote a book containing the statement in 1784, and it wasn't  
properly debunked in time to keep it from spreading.

> Corned Beef is done in a brine, which I have done
> as well as smoking and drying.

Corned beef is either placed in a brine or subjected to a dry-salting  
process that creates a brine from the meat juices and the salt. Once  
the brine is present the controlled fermentation (ick! ;-)  ) begins.  
It's why the meat is pink and tastes somewhat sourish, instead of just  
tasting like meat and salt.

> Hell technically fish sauce is rotted in the
> process

Some is, much is not. If you think about all the foods that are  
heavily salted to keep them from rotting (ham, some cheeses, fish,  
etc.), you have to wonder what the intent of the processor is.  
Obviously if the goal was just to have rotten fish it would be silly  
to salt it, no? In fact, a lot of commercial fish sauces that used to  
be made with allowances for some fermentation (unlike, say, patis,  
which is heavily salted and tastes of fish and salt, but not of lactic  
acid) are now being made with vinegar. Even the some of the rotten  
fish sauces aren't rotten anymore.

> and in Andrew Zimmerman's defense he likes a type that cant be sold
> here in the states and one my Uncle likes though he can not get it  
> either.
> Though how they make it was rather fascinating. Cat Hai was the name.

Yep. We don't have any squid-based fish sauce (or even Squid Brand  
that contains no squid), but we do have a jar of shrimp sauce in the  
fridge. I prefer patis, myself, but my lady wife is more familiar with  
the shrimp paste/sauce.


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