IT'S A SATURDAY MORNING and I'm learning the finer points of eating insects.
In a small, crowded classroom on the Goose Hollow campus of the Oregon Culinary Institute (OCI), I sit with about 12 other students; all of us have come to learn how to cook and eat beyond our borders. For the next five hours we'll indulge in silkworm larvae, crickets, mealworms, python, chicken feet, ostrich, testicles, sweetbreads, and blood. This is the Extreme Cuisine class at OCI, and I am hungry.
The class is the brainchild of 35-year-old OCI instructor Melinda Casady. Inspired in part by the rise in offal cults and foodie extremeophiles, there's also a deeper purpose for Casady. "It's important for people to think outside the box as to what's available to them," she told me. "Americans in particular. As a middle-class country we've been very picky about what we eat and the rest of the world isn't like that."
After a quick classroom orientation, we are asked to choose one or two recipes from the syllabus before heading into the kitchen. Having been raised in the rural American West, I was introduced to the concept of Rocky Mountain oysters at an early age, but I'd never actually experienced the delicacy, made of deep-fried cow or pig testicles. So, when it came time to pick a recipe, I knew exactly what I wanted. Like a resourceful drunk in a bar fight, I go straight for the balls.
Once in the kitchen, Casady turns the class loose. This isn't necessarily the way most cooking classes are run. But Casady feels it's important for students to watch and learn from each other, gaining a broader understanding of the food, rather than hustling to make sure all of the dishes hit the table at the same time. The result is an ever-expanding buffet of warm oddities.
First out are toasted mealworms. Though quite dead, their slick shells lend a sensation of movement when held between the fingers. It's a bit off-putting. But when popped in the mouth, the worms are distinctly nutty—a surprising amount of flavor from such a small creature. I'd happily have a jar full in my pantry for healthy snacking.
Making sure the bizarre offerings were more than edible was a priority for Casady. "I wanted to make really good-tasting food," she explains. "You don't want to introduce something new to someone and have it taste awful."
I snack on worms while preparing the quarter-inch-thick oblongs of sliced pig's nuts, marinated in beer overnight. After dipping them in egg and popping them in a simple dredge, they're put in the deep fryer, where they bubble and bob, turning golden brown. Suddenly, I realize why they call them oysters; while frying, the breaded balls have taken on the look and shape of oyster shells.
Once the "oysters" are properly drained, my classmates and I dig into the testicular bounty. I'm surprised at how good the meat is—tender, with hints of liver and a good amount of porkiness. They're quite popular.
But now the cricket cookies are done and I'm distracted from the testicles for a moment. On the stovetop, sweetbreads are being simply sautéed, and a kangaroo meat curry is simmering away. Everything smells so good; it's almost impossible to be disgusted.
I turn my attention to the next dish, as new foods hit the table. I find that sweetbreads, though delicious, are just too brain-like for me to truly enjoy and that boudin noir (blood sausage) is a new favorite. And that's the point.
Casady hopes that the class will take the extreme out of extreme cuisine and open up new ways of cooking and eating for her students. "I know people aren't going to go home and start making these recipes all the time," she says. "But I would like to think they'd do it again."