Many, many years ago, a man named Peter Zenger defended the rights of a free press with such vehemence that the idea became sacrament. In the Gulf War--and today--the media chafed under censorship restrictions. Reporters protecting sources for a sensitive story occasionally end up in prison.
But the Burning Question crew is beginning to rethink the public's right to know.
You see, we dedicate ourselves to ferreting out answers to your questions about Dallas nightlife. When you asked us about the classic martini, we spent a weekend downing vodka and gin concoctions. When you wanted to know the best bars for people looking to get laid, we devoted ourselves to weeks of research. When you inquired about the correct spelling of whiskey, we not only consulted a dictionary but downed shots of almost every etymological variation as well.
This week's Burning Question, however, challenges our journalistic devotion to freedom and inquiry. Sometimes, we reasoned, public safety concerns outweigh the public's need to know. So what if some sick, twisted reader wants to know if Dallas restaurants serve organ meats? Do we know anything about this reader? Is this person likely to misuse the information we provide? As Americans we bravely shouldered our way into the editor's proletarian office and stood up for our nation's security. If we squelch this story, we argued, the Dallas Observer might save thousands of innocent diners and our cherished way of life.
As a result of our gutsy stand, we learned the value of obedience, of humble deference, of inglorious defeat. This week's Burning Question remains the same: Does anybody in Dallas serve organ meats?
Actually, dozens of European, Asian and Mexican restaurants cook up organ meats, blood dishes and other body parts--not merely liver and kidney, mind you, but brains and glands and stomachs. "These are old classic dishes in France," explains Francois Forte, chef-owner of La Mirabelle. "But chefs don't learn them here." There's probably a reason for this, of course. Note, for example, that Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and other bloodsucking, skull-crushing figures from history and literature come from Europe. The mere thought of marinating a brain overnight in the fridge just bugs most people in this country, and childhood memories of food typically revolve around Popsicles or chocolate-chip cookies rather than a dripping plate of intestines. An old recipe for blood soup--one pint of duck's blood, duck meat, rye bread and a bay leaf, as if that would obscure the taste--required cooks to "remove scum as it forms." We shuddered to imagine Old World mothers shouting, "Kids, who wants to lick the scum from the pot?" and the ensuing arguments ("but Heinrich got the scum last time").
Other equally disturbing foods hide behind deceptive names. Sweetbreads are actually the thymus gland from a calf, cooked up to resemble neither bread nor anything sweet. Tipperary Inn serves "black pudding" on its breakfast menu. This dish is made with blood, innards, bread crumbs and barley, hardly a pudding at all. Perhaps the Mexican dish menudo would be less popular if it bore the name "chopped stomach lining soup"--although we imagine any chef who slaughtered and cooked up the former boy band of the same name would earn quite a bit of applause. Headcheese contains no cheese, just head parts.
"There's a different mentality here," says Forte. "You have to do a hell of a sales job to get people to try certain things. I just don't tell them what it is; people love it and you tell them afterwards." Joe Lynch of Tipperary agrees. "Irish and English customers love it," he says of his blood pudding concoction. "Others enjoy it, too, but we never tell them what it is. We just set it on the table and go."
No wonder nouvelle cuisine restaurants serve such small portions. No one wants to chow down on a heaping pile of innards.
Still, restaurants carrying brains, blood, guts and such on their menus attract a small but steady flow of aficionados. "People come here specifically for the organ meats," claims Seth DeWit of Watel's. "Those are things we can't take off our menu." Forte orders about 10 pounds of frozen sweetbreads at a time. "You can't find sweetbreads fresh," he complains. "In France you can, but here it would spoil before we could sell it all." Teppo on Lower Greenville lists beef tongue and chicken hearts on its menu. "The tongue is really good," claims Eri Freeman of Teppo, although chefs must saw through the tough outer layer and peel it away. Watel's and La Mirabelle serve brains and sweetbreads.
Brains arrive in the kitchen whole, by the way, and chefs must strip off the membrane then blanche the gray matter inside before cooking. La Mirabelle sautées it in hazelnut butter with vinegar and capers.
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We spent an entire evening haunted by an image of Dallas chefs scooping up fresh brains, peeling them and cutting them into fat slices.
Yet Americans are not as timid as in years past. "They used to look at fresh fish and say, 'How can you eat that?'" says Freeman on a crowded night at Teppo. "Now they try it and it tastes good." Indeed, local chefs say that people must try items before judging them, and the more adventurous diners agree. Bruce Crawford, for example, downed a pig brain sandwich on a dare. Actually, we told him it was a fried tofu sandwich when we issued the dare, but we needed someone to taste the thing. "I'd eat one again," he claims. "I did it once and survived." Jenny Frederick, in an even more extreme example, recalls knocking back a plateful of testicles.
"Alcohol might have been involved," she explained as we backed away, slowly.
The Burning Question crew, however, could only manage to nibble a bit of tongue--peeled, of course. It wasn't bad, but we've had better tongue.