Turn on any channel along your cable dial, and you’ll notice a lot of people eating things we might find disgusting. What most of us don’t realize, though, is that a variety of foods that are now labeled “bizarre” or “gross” were crucial to the survival of our ancestors in the U.S., especially in times when money, resources, or both were scarce.
What did the distant relatives you’re looking for on Ancestry eat back in the day that would make our stomachs churn now? (FYI, much of this food can still be found in specialty stores and on restaurant menus, whether it’s the neighborhood diner or a trendy bistro. We just don’t commonly eat much of these foods today.)
Tongue – Many cultures eat the tongues of various animals, but the most common found in America was the taste for beef tongue that European Jews brought to this country when they emigrated here in the late 1800s. Not considered one of the “noble cuts,” it was praised for its fatty tenderness and had an honored place in delis in the eastern half of the country.
Scrapple – If you’ve ever sat in a diner in eastern Pennsylvania and wondered “What is that?” wonder no longer: The Pennsylvania Dutch and other German immigrants had variations on this recipe, which took pork scraps, chopped them into a mush, formed them into patties, then grilled or fried them. What scraps did they use? Everything but the squeal, as Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle. If it was good enough for James Buchanan, it’s good enough for your eggs, right?
Calf’s Head Soup – Americans didn’t just use all of the pig, either. It didn’t matter what animal you killed to eat, back in the day, you never wasted a bit of it. Which leads us to a recipe for calf’s head soup, which was still commonly eaten into the early years of the 20th century. The head was “mashed thoroughly” and boiled until the meat fell off. Yum!
Squirrel – Still hunted and eaten in parts of the country, especially in the east, country and city folk alike ate the little fuzzy guys all the time during the 18th and 19th centuries, and their ready availability likely made squirrel a common sight on Depression-era tables as well.
Clabber – Like yogurt but much more disgusting in concept, it was made before the days of pasteurization. It’s basically raw milk left to curdle and sour at room temperature. In the South, it was eaten much like yogurt, but it was also used as a leavening ingredient in baking until the advent of baking powder.
Jellied Moose Nose – Apparently, wherever moose would roam into the hunter’s sites, the nose wasn’t wasted, whether it was in Montana, Alaska, or elsewhere up north. According to one recipe, you have to make sure you “pull out all the hairs” first. But once you boil and cool it, you should be able to slice it thin and enjoy!
Muktuk – Eaten by our friends in Alaska for centuries, it’s made of frozen whale skin and blubber, often served raw. Speaking of Alaska, the indigenous Alaskans also eat …
Fermented fish and other meats – They don’t call it “stinkfish” for kicks. Eskimos would bury salmon or other fish, or meats like seal, underground, then dig them up months later, eating the pungent result. Maybe it’s no wonder Discover magazine noted that Alaska still is among the world leaders in incidents of botulism.