Mutant Food book chapter (writing)

Mutant Food book chapter (writing)

I was asked to write a chapter for this fun book.

1995

From the book, The Happy Mutant Handbook

Food serves many purposes, but to mutants there is only one that is most important. While all foods should be tasty and nutritious, mutant food is primarily conceptual. Mutants play not only with their food, but with the entire concept of food, and which foods are appropriate for which occasions. We have outlined several categories below to help spark your creativity in planning, preparing, and eating like a true mutant.

The Conceptual
Think of food as a source of learning–not just one of nourishment. Buy gummy ABCs and Alphabits cereal and use to play Scrabble, Hangman, or Wheel of Fortune. Gummy ABCs are especially useful since they will stick to most surfaces if you lick their backs a little. Keep plenty around the kitchen in case you need to leave a quick note for someone on the fridge.

Just about any food can be disguised as something else. Meat and vegetable patés (purée and mix with cream cheese) can be molded into any shape. Cover with frosting for a surprising Birthday Cake. Fruit peels can be arranged into flowers.

The Exotic
Besides Jell-O, few things are still exotic in our culture. Red Bell Peppers and Cilantro are passé now that every Safeway on earth carries them. However, fear not. You can still find ways to amaze your friends. Look to other cultures for hints. Ants and other insects are not only nutritious and crunchy (especially baked), but you can’t even order them at the most chic restaurants (not yet, anyway). Ants, crickets, and beetles are the best. Arrange them on a plate around black bean dip for a La Brea Tar Pits scene. Place them on a hunk of cheese or submerge them in honey for the Jurassic Park, fly-in-amber look.

Snakes are another possibility. Fill something not-poisonous with fruit and herbs and grill on the barbie with the skin still on. It tastes just like chicken! Serve coiled around a baked pig or gerbil for maximum effect.

The Sacred
Every religion has its holy food. Start a revival of your favorite style, or go Unitarian and embrace them all. Ritz crackers and Wheat Thins are good enough alone and much better than the Eucharist. Serve with a dry Zinfandel or anything from Manischewitz.

Other candidates for revivals include: Matzo, Gefilte Fish, Latkes, and fish on Fridays. Remember Passover, the religious holiday centered around the dinner table? Why not have Passover any time of the year. You can even turn a party into a scavenger hunt trying to find sacred symbols like the shank bone off-season. Try cooking with Myrrh for the taste of wisdom.

Another category of sacred foods includes the trinity of Meat, Eggs, and Milk, presided over by the Beef Council, the Diary Board, and the Egg Board. Each of these organizations is at least as conservative as the Vatican–and just as wealthy, active, and dangerous. Why not pay homage to these daily (or at least weekly) with a chorizo omelet, a bacon cheeseburger and shake, or a pepperoni pizza. It may not be good for your health, but it’s good for your country.

The Profane
It doesn’t often seem that there are limits still uncrossed, but a little careful creativity and you can blaze new trails in the edible landscape. For starters, there are the obvious taboos: bodily secretions and unacceptable sources. Now, we are not suggesting anything truly disgusting, but only the playful appearance of taboo. For instance, Michelle Compton of San Francisco baked brownie mix into little cigar shapes (instead of a pan) and brilliantly served them at a party in a kitty-litter tray filled with Grape Nuts. This sets up a playful and useful dilemma in your guests, who KNOW that it just the same food they eat everyday, but the form and appearance suggests something uncomfortable–and fun! Remember, paté in a slightly altered form is already almost indistinguishable from vomit, so have some fun with it.

Kid’s candy is already crossing these boundaries. Witness last season’s Snot liquid sugar that squirts out of one nostril of a clear nose. Another is Band-Aid bubble gum. Now, you would be grossed-out if you found a real Band-Aid in your food, but a bubblegum stick shaped like one is another story. The latest entrant in this competition is Wormz & Dirt, another brilliant compilation of Gummi worms in crushed chocolate cookies.

For advanced readers, try cooking standard dishes with unusual, exotic, taboo, but perfectly nutritional alternatives. For example, dogs and horses are routinely part of many culture’s diets, but Western Worlder’s just can’t seem to work up an appetite for them. Besides, we hear they taste just like chicken. But, no matter how much that whining poodle next door bothers you, don’t bother. There probably isn’t much meat on it anyway. Likewise, any happy mutant would identify roadkill as an opportunity (as long as it is fresh).

The Young
Anything from your youth (or anyone else’s) can be a fun diversion from your normal diet. PEZ dispensers, red rope, Incredible Edibles, and ANY sugar coated cereals can bring back memories and form the core of a retro-childhood party. Particularly nice are the cereals based on Saturday morning cartoons (or visa versa these days) in which you can collect and interact with the characters in multiple media: the cereal, the dishes, the cartoon, the action figures, the comic books, and the bedsheets.

The Old
Anything reminiscent of ages past can be fun. Eat like the knights of the round table did. Come in costume, and have servants bring HUGE racks of lamb or rump roasts on the bones. Eat with your hands and drink from large goblets of wine–no, from the bottles themselves. Make lots of noise. Try cooking mutton (if you can find a recipe) or blood pudding, unfortunately NOT what it sounds like. Another attempt might be a Classic 17th Century French meal or a Roman Food Orgy. For the former, there is no limit to how elaborate things should be. For the later, temporary slaves are a must. Finally, a reason to study history. Grab a book on your favorite time zone and start planning a party your friends will be talking about into the next century.

The Strange
The grocery store is full of bizarre things that seem more appropriate to a Star Trek set. Witness star fruit and horned melons. When sliced, star melons are a beautiful garnish. How do they taste? Who knows? Who cares? They look too good to eat. Horned melons look best uncut, but there must be some way to preserve the effect and still eat the fruit. Broccoli is a fractal fantasia. Explore.

Especially strange are fruits and vegetables that look like celebrities. Squash and melons are the best pickings for odd shapes. Who knows, if you can find a Jesus or Madonna and child (or for that matter, a Michael Jackson and child), you could make a fortune from the National Inquirer. There are small towns in Europe that subsist off of the tourism generated by travelers who come to see the Jesus face in the window, the Old Supper scene in the asphalt, etc.–even long after these things have disappeared. Your home could be next.

Gummi anything is strange by definition. The texture is perfect for unexpected experiences (like biting into a cake or jello mold only to find, a chewy, translucent treat). Gummi bears can be cute in individual jello molds while the worms can be fun in bigger objects (like cakes).

Anything that comes in layers or wiggles is wonderful. Ward Parkway reminds us that foods that change form while eating are a plus (melting, getting hard or soft, or turning into a gas, etc.). Likewise, “food that can be sculpted, configured, or arranged in such a way to render it appealing or repulsive, is a good thing. Happy Mutants like to make little faces or configure little beings out of their food.” Mashed potatoes and gray (served with peas) seems safe enough until in reach of a mutant. Remember that scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Now, THERE was a mutant. See The Profane above.

Blue Food.
Blue is one of those colors rarely found in nature (other than the sky) and almost unheard of in food. This makes it even more special when you find it. Blue sodas are especially strange (something about blue, translucent, liquid with bubbles makes me want to jump for joy).


The Absurd
V-8, Clamato, and Beefamato. Need we say more?

Hybrids
Don’t let these categories structure your thinking too much. They are merely a departure. Wonderful innovations can come from a mix-and-match attitude. The best example of this is Rachel Olsen of Seattle’s Wonderbread Sushi. Take thin-sliced Wonderbread, cut off the crusts, and roll flat. Now, spread the fillings of your choice along the top, leaving a border. Next, roll the bread into a Ho-Ho shape and slice into 3/4″ sections. Voilá! My favorites are peanut butter and jelly maki, and Underwood deviled ham and Dijon mustard (with sprouts), but as you can imagine, just about ANYTHING can be rolled into these low-brow mutant hors-d’oeuvres.

Theme Parties

Parties just seem more festive when everyone has a common goal in mind. Picking a theme is the party equivalent to choosing a wedding’s color scheme, or an election’s subtext. Not only will your guests appreciate the warning, but their preparation and participation will reach new heights, extending to costumes, food, and attitude. Anything can become a theme but the unusual, unexpected, or unrecognized are, or course, the best. Try a Yukon theme. You can serve unusual entrées like moose, bear, deer, or rabbit, and conceptually linked ones like baked Alaska. Ice cream would be an appropriate climate food. For that matter, however, ice-anything would be.

Another popular theme is the Astronaut dinner. Everything is served in tubes and packets. You can easily find dehydrated food of all types wherever hiking and backpacking supplies are sold. Dehydrated ice cream is especially bizarre and if you can find digestible toothpaste, you have really completed the scene.

Army themes are always appropriate no matter what your stance on the military. A friend in the military can get you K-rations or you might find them in an Army-surplus store. During the Dessert Storm Bowl, Hershey’s made specially formulated chocolate bars that withstood higher temperatures and the army bought tons. We are told they tasted mostly like PowerBars, but this is unconfirmed. If you can find some of these truly mutant foods, they are a rare collector’s item.

Surgery and anatomy have been themes at Amsterdam’s famed SupperClub restaurant. Chef Debra Solomon once created a meal of meats and other animal parts and served them in a specially built table, cum surgery room. You can do the same with liver, patés, gizzards, and sausages. Remember those animal parts normally thrown out (feet, knuckles, organs) and the ones you don’t know are there (in balogna, SPAM, TREET, and hot dogs). You can even construct an alien entity to be dissected and devoured by your guests.

Generic foods can be the theme for a fine party. While the diversity of generic foods and items are not what they were in the mid-80’s, there are still plenty of possibilities. The only rules: no brand names, all generic foods, and no labels of any kinds allowed (including on clothing). The antithesis to this, of course, is the Convenience Food party. Here, ONLY brand names are allowed. Name brands from the heyday of brand names (the 50’s) earn extra points. This is another of Rachel Olsen’s innovations and her most legendary party. Chex Mix, Cheese Puffs, and anything else ending with a or ® is ideal.

A close cousin to the generic and convenience food parties is the White Trash party. This unsung American culture was best immortalized in an episode of Saturday Night Live, entitled, White Trash Bed and Breakfast. We mean no disrespect here. Instead, we are in awe of the many culinary innovations pioneered by this segment of Americana. Jell-O anything, but especially filled with crumpled potato chips and pretzels, are a classic. Pork Rinds and fried balogna are others. Just about anything can be made the White Trash way if you use lard and/or mayo. Try these ingredients in places you wouldn’t otherwise think of. For example, Jell-O molds, cookies, soups, and punch. Jeanne Stack of San Francisco reports many odd masterpieces whenever she returns from visiting her relatives in Tennessee, including (if it’s a special occasion): potato chips and pretzel sticks.

Lastly, try paying homage to the office or dorm cafeteria. Remember that Chef’s Surprise? So do most of the people you know. Any kind of casserole is fair game as is anything made with tuna (out of the can only). Use the word “Mystery’ or “Surprise” whenever you aren’t sure what to call it or what is in it (just like the chefs in your dorm did).

Serving Suggestions
The food itself is but half of the culinary equation. Great chefs and Diner waitresses know, that the presentation can make or break the meal. Happy Mutants are supremely aware of the serving needs of any food and any meal. They enjoy playing with the presentation on all levels. Ward Parkway suggests air-charged fire extinguishers to dispense punch and the PlayDoh Funtime Extrusion Machine to dispense cream cheese, paté, or dips. “A cheese ball being extruded as hair on a Play-Doh barber set would be nifty!”

Anything that comes in a squeeze tube is fun. In Europe, EVERYTHING comes in a toothpaste tube. Just putting mayo on your white bread is a transformed experience when using a tube instead of a jar and knife.

Ward also reminds us that playing with your food is the best part of eating. He suggests foods that can become impromptu actors or finger puppets like crawdads. He also reminds us that food play need not be juvenile or amateur. His favorite plays to reenact include Harold Pinter’s “The Dumbwaiter” and anything by Checkov. “Any food that you could get to actually come out of your nose would be simply superb.”

Sensual Food
Mutants do not believe in aphrodisiacs or foods with mystical powers (except Jell-O, of course). However, any food can be sensual and erotic–if it is eaten correctly. Foods that are already on their way (those that almost force themselves to be eaten erotically) include melons, oysters, and string cheese. But, don’t despair. Remember that ANYTHING you are about to put in your mouth at any time can be made into an erotic display with sufficient desire. Pull gently at your food. Eat with your fingers. Suck out the centers. Play it upon your lips. Lick up the juices sensually. Never lose eye contact with your dining partner(s).

Mutant Food Hall of Fame:

Jell-O
Pure Alchemy! Talk about a transmutation of matter. From bright and colorful unassuming powder, to wiggly, squiggly ecstasy. You can use just about anything for a mold, try auto parts or condoms (non-lubricated, of course). If you have the patience, let the Jell-O set in small quantities and create layered masterpieces.

Jell-O is infinitely flexible. Think of it as a medium rather than as matter. For example, use only half the water and create extra-sturdy Finger Jell-O. Use three times the water to make a fun soup for dessert (add in maraschino cherries and canned fruit for stew). Use the required amount of liquid, but make half of it the alcohol of your choice (vodka and gin work best). Voilá. Jell-O shots. Be careful; though, these can be unexpectedly powerful. For Electric Jell-O, use Tangerey gin and watch them glow under a black light!

Aerosol Cheese
I would have loved to be at the pitch meeting for this one. I don’t know who thought of it, but they have guts. Who knows how it got through the market testing? Who cares? It’s here to stay (apparently). These easy cheeses come in several flavors, but you can always mix. Use it wherever you would use cheese (and everywhere you wouldn’t). Besides making innovative designs, try filling manicotti–or even macaroni. This one deserves extra credit since it allows you to eat a whole meal standing at the fridge without ever dirtying a dish or utensil.

Cranberry Sauce
Ward Parkway nominates cranberry sauce. “The way it slurps and slides it’s sensually gelatinous way out of the can, retaining the can marks, is simply sublime!”

PEZ
The original projectile food.

Unsolved Food MysteriesLight-Brown Peanut M&Ms
This may sound dumb, but why are there no light brown peanut M&Ms? Every other color M&M comes in both peanut and plain but this one. It can’t be by accident. Someone in M&M/Mars has made a deliberate decision. But what is it? It can’t be that they would look too much like mouse droppings, because the dark brown ones do that already. So? What gives?

New (clear) Fresca
Fresca was one of the hip sodas of our youths. It always had that mysterious cloudy, translucent consistency. A few years ago, Fresca was reintroduced as a new, clear liquid but with EXACTLY the same taste. The mystery? What was in it originally that made it cloudy? It obviously wasn’t necessary. What could it have been? Mayonnaise? Lard? Dare we suggest….?

Top 10 List of Jello Mold Fillings:

10. Grated carrots and celery chunks
9. Pretzels and crumpled potato chips (we are not kidding)
8. SPAM (OK, here we are kidding)
7. Mini-marshmallows
6. Canned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup
5. Nuts of any kind
4. Breakfast cereals (Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles especially)
3. Chocolate, butterscotch, or peanut butter chips
2. Gummi anything
1. Sliced olives and bleached cocktail onions

Many of the suggestions in this chapter were given by Ward Parkway, Drue Miller, and Jeanne Stack.

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