Wednesday, April 23, 2014



Today’s word on food is Blood

I walked into our restaurant kitchen and I inhaled an aroma I’d known before I knew it’s name. It was blood. It spiraled me back in time to a grocery store where my mother shopped. She carried me in there before the age of three and slung me from hip to hip while she selected our food and put it in the cart. By the time I was five I knew the owners names; Mr. and Mrs. Petersen.

Though small the store was pretty amazing for the time. They had a full butcher case that Mr. Petersen personally manned. He had a box of sawdust that he used to toss like chicken feed onto the wooden floors to sop up the blood that fell off his knives. A vibrant produce section lined one whole wall of the store. It relied on the area’s farms and orchards. Though the fish choices were few they were fresh Great Lakes fish. There was even a baked goods cabinet by the check out area. Mrs. Petersen added in her own home-baked Greek specialties that lent a sense of exotica to the rural store in our town. We were up in farm country, just fifteen miles south of the Wisconsin border. It was close enough to a bigger town for my Dad’s auto business to be viable … but also close enough for him to speed home each night in the summer to walk my sisters and me up and then down two steep, hills for a swim in our lake before it grew dark and the mosquitos came after us. The blood smell in my restaurant’s kitchen took me back to all of that. And then… it hurled me forward … to Spain.
Saturdays in markets all over the world bustle with energy. At Barcelona’s famed ‘La Boqueria’ market on a sun-drenched September morning my wife Janet and I felt as alive and excited as we might have if we had been walking into Woodstock in 1969. 

We entered under the archway of the market and soon confronted a meat case. It was a jaw-dropper. It was called “Despojos Selectos” and it was all about the “off cuts” of meats. A pretty young woman … no more than 22 … attended the stall. She looked South American and I asked her where she was from. 

“Ecuador”, she smiled, pointed at her chest and said, 'Ana’. We took in the view in the stall. It was hard to grasp the totality of it at first. Each item in this otherwise ordinary meat case held products you simply do not see in most of America. 

It was as if a butcher took apart whole animals, saved the familiar cuts we see in meat cases back home for some other purpose, and arranged these cuts in that cold case. They were raw, fresh, and a carnal as meat has ever looked. From there my eyes scanned…EYES…still in a bony head, and huge testicles, (maybe not for a cow but by human standards, huge!), bulbous kidneys and a whole, deep-royal burgundy colored liver hanging on a sharp steel hook. 

A sign hung over that. It read, “carne cula”. Anna smiled again and even did a half turn and pointed demurely to her own. I hid my smile. There were intestines, cheeks, and what seemed to be wide arteries that were attached to a heart. I asked a woman about them and she pointed to various parts of her small, old body to help me understand where on each animal the parts came from. She made the animal’s most typical noises to clarify the species. 
I asked Anna what the square block of muted red “butter” was in the case...knowing the answer before it exited her full lips. 

Sangre”, she uttered...adding, “blood”. 

And smiled once more.

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.

© 2014 Norman Van Aken