Sweetbreads. How Sweet It Isn't. Gaucho Grill. Woodland Hills, CA.
Where's the sweet?
When Army Ranger Pat Tillman, the celebrated and tragic casualty of the Afghanistan War, first had his death reported, it was a grand tale of military valor, selflessness and sacrifice. The US Military described Tillman’s last moments as a hero charging up a hill and taking the battle to the enemy while defending his soldiers. A month later this recounting would be drastically altered. The truth was that Tillman was killed by one of his own soldiers. But that doesn’t sound good. According to the US Military, Tillman is officially a victim of friendly fire. Yes, military euphemism at its finest—friendly fire is a much warmer and fuzzier way to die.
Back in the early days of my working life, I was “let go” for budgetary reasons. One colleague explained that the company was downsizing. A supervisor said the firm was rightsizing. Still somebody else told me that I was being unassigned. The only way I could really figure out what had happened to me was the tone in all these conversations. Also, I asked my boss point blank, “Am I being fired?” He replied euphemistically, “No, you’re being uninstalled.” Cool.
George W. just can’t seem to accept it so he says we are in an economic downturn. I think he’s even called our current recession a slowing of economic growth. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how President Bush tries to soften this recession. Downturn or slowdown, euphemisms still won’t help people buy gas or groceries…and, uh, lame duck just seems to be getting more expensive by the day.
Recently I had dinner with my family at Gaucho Grill, a chain of Argentinean barbeque restaurants in and around Los Angeles. After a few seconds of glancing over the menu my eyes began to glaze over at the uninspired choices of grilled sausages, steaks and chicken, that is, until I spied the mollejas appetizer. I’ve never before heard of mollejas. It turns out, thanks to the concise description on the menu, mollejas is sweetbreads. Too bad, though, when these sweetbreads arrived to the table, they looked more like a mess of grilled and flattened pork chops rather than the dainty, delectable and delicately dulcet sweetbreads found at higher end eateries like Noe and Ford's Filling Station. Gaucho Grill's grilled thymus glands were unfortunately bitter and tough.
Still, I was curious about what uninformed diners might think about the rare sweetbreads when they come across it on a menu. They may ask, "Why isn’t mollejas found in the dessert part of this grilled meats menu?" Well, because sweetbreads isn’t really sweet nor is it actually bread. It most definitely isn’t a dessert. Sweetbreads is beef, lamb or pork thymus gland—an organ meat. But I was already in the know. The waiter asked me if I was aware of what I was ordering, just to be sure (a wise waiter). I said, “Yeah, isn’t this the Argentinean dessert that’s sweet and made of bread with whipped cream on top and cherries?” He frantically replied no and began to explain, sputtering his desperate description, pointing at his throat where a cow’s thymus gland would generally be. I stopped the impromptu game of menu charades and told him I know what it is and was just kidding with him. He forced a smile and asked if we wanted anything to drink.
Sweetbreads is by far the most insidious word in the world of food euphemisms. It reads and sounds nothing like what it really is.
All euphemisms in general pretty much have one purpose: to soften the impact of a difficult or offensive subject. However, food euphemisms in particular have a much higher calling: to con one into putting whatever it is into one’s mouth. It’s specious, invasive and sorta funny.
Imagine someone offering you cowboy caviar. Sounds intriguing, right, perhaps tasty? But after one juicy bite, you’d find out what you really sank your pearlies into was a bull’s testicles. Then you’d think, “Wait a minute. I just knew fish eggs couldn’t be this big!” Haha, too late. You ate it. You put a bull’s ball into your mouth and even swallowed. Even worse, you have to pay for it now. Thus, the food euphemism has done its dubious job.
How else do you expect restaurateurs, chefs and wait staff to move the nasty bits? Marketing wizardry! Just wave the wand, say the magic words “digestum euphemism” and, ta-da, bull’s balls become cowboy caviar or maybe Rocky Mountain oysters. It’s that simple. But, inventing a really good food euphemism requires more talent, and coining one that goes down in history really takes imagination.
Black pudding. It has been around for ages. This delicacy is referenced in literature as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. However, there’s nothing sweet, goopy or Jell-O-like about it. It’s really a blood sausage, but if you didn’t know what it really was, you might consider ordering it, and that’s just the idea…sucker.
How about lamb fries? This one comes really close to telling you what the dish involves. It’s something lamb and it’s fried. Can’t figure it out? Just eat one. How is it? Need a clue? Does it remind you of testicles? That’s because it is. Here’s a napkin, you can spit into it. What a difference a word makes.
In the Philippines, chicken feet are charmingly dubbed Adidas. In the southern US, intestines are called chitlins. How about using a foreign language to describe a delicacy not of mainstream tastes? The French word escargot for snail dishes. Even more esoteric, why not use formal names to name a hard-to-sell dish. Tartare is raw ground beef or horse. The name comes from a Central Asian people who apparently didn’t have enough time to cook so they put meat under their horses’ saddles for tenderizing. Tartare could’ve just as easily been named “saddle steaks”. Another raw beef dish that is thinly sliced rather than chopped is Carpaccio. This one is supposedly named after Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio and invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice. However you slice, chop or name it, it’s still raw meat.
I’m a fan of the food euphemism. I think it makes the dining experience more colorful. Deep End Dining is a world of food euphemisms. Almost everything I’m telling you is couched some way in euphemism. How else can I convince some of you fence sitters to try kopi luwak or fugu? (These two items are also a great example of food euphemisms á la a foreign language.) But, please, don’t call me a liar. Food fabulist would be nicer and much more euphemistic.
Now, who’s up for joining me for a plate of friendly foie gras, collateral durian or downsize fries? Pssst, they're not really fries.
6435 Canoga Ave
Woodland Hills, CA 91367