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Organ Recital

The sun was coming up when I finished reading Thomas Harris' Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. The third leg of his trilogy of wildly popular psycho-thrillers featuring the supergenius, psychologist and cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a crazy and maddeningly uneven book--sometimes brilliant, sometimes pedantic, sometimes moving, sometimes jaw-droppingly bad. There are unintentionally funny passages, and at times--especially in the daringly tongue-in-cheek epilogue--it's funny on purpose, with a grimly ironic wit.

There are flourishes that recall Jim Thompson and Stephen King at their pulpy best, and maybe a hint or two of Melville, and there are moments that reek of routine crime potboilers. But the book is never less than entertaining, and somehow its baroque, hyperbolic plot--which involves a scheme by one of the not-so-good doctor's surviving victims, whose face has been shorn from his skull, to take revenge against Lecter by feeding him alive to man-eating pigs bred especially for the occasion--feels right. Harris' decision to plunge his characters, and his readers, down into depths of the soul so grotesque that they become almost as amusing as they are appalling makes Hannibal a good deal more memorable than it would have been if he had chosen to make it one more expertly turned FBI procedural.

The book had one more effect on me, one that worries me a little: By the time I finished it, I was ravenously hungry.

I must attribute this in part, of course, to the fact that I had been up reading all night without a bite. But it must also have been partly because of the loving descriptions of Dr. Lecter's own peculiar epicurean interests. Dr. Lecter--like Harris himself, reportedly--is a gourmet cook, although, unlike Harris, hopefully, he uses his fellow Homo sapiens as meat.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter boasts of having eaten, "with fava beans," the liver of a census-taker. In the same novel, we learn that he once served the pancreas and thymus--the "sweetbreads"--of a patient at a dinner party he hosted. And in Hannibal, he dines on human brains. As I read all of this, I found myself thinking "mmmmmm."

Don't misunderstand--I have no desire to eat on the putative high end of the evolutionary scale. Chilled monkey brains, a delicacy in the East, would be a toughie for me. The idea that I may ever have unwittingly ingested dolphin meat in my tuna sickens me. For that matter, after Babe, even ham and bacon seem to spike the sentience meter a little too high for my taste.

But I do appear to be among that minority that enjoys organ meat. In common with Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses, I have been known to eat "with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls . . . thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod's roes."

I come by the taste honestly. I'm of Scottish descent, and I'm the only person I know whose mom made a splendid haggis for his high school graduation party. I know Robert Burns' poem "To a Haggis" by heart and will recite it for anyone foolish enough to ask me. My mom also tells me that one of her father's favorite dishes was scrambled eggs and brains, and that she herself, growing up in Depression-era rural Mississippi, used to shoot squirrels and regarded their brains as a particular treat. "I got so that I could nick those out of there in nothing flat," she says, with justifiable pride.

Thanks for the image, Mom.
A Polish emigre friend of mine used to feed me pan-fried chicken hearts. I once had a pickled lamb's tongue--delicious!--although I suppose that counts as a muscle rather than an organ meat. I love the classic-style liver and onions available at, say, George & Dragon, among other area eateries.

Yet, somehow, all of this seemed a bit, well, working-class after Hannibal. Even the plate of barbecued chicken livers at the Bamboo Club, probably my favorite meal in the Valley, seemed a little on the trendy side for a true gourmand like Dr. Lecter. No, to be really decadent, I would have to eat innards the old-fashioned way, the way that Martha Stewart or Julia Child might prepare them. So, armed with some suggestions by the usual occupant of this column, Howard Seftel, I set out on a tour of this Valley's finest and classiest vitals. My first two stops were on East Camelback, which I now affectionately refer to as "Organ Alley."

Follow me--if you have the guts:

First I went to Vincent Guerithault on Camelback (3930 East Camelback, 602-224-0225) for the highly touted plate of pancreas and thymus. Both the dish, which is better known by the deceptive euphemism "sweetbreads," and the restaurant were new to me, and both were a revelation. I showed up in the early afternoon asking for the sweetbreads, which, it turns out, aren't on the lunch menu, and the server graciously went to the kitchen and checked to see if the chef could fix me some. I was told that it would be no problem, asked for a lunch-size order, and, after one transporting bite, wished I had asked for the dinner size.

The four small pads of soft, chewy, elusively flavored meat in a delectable gravy were as yummy as any dish I've ever eaten in a restaurant. Accompanied by lightly cooked, exquisitely seasoned veggies and mashed potatoes topped with wild mushrooms, it's utterly sensational. But for my purposes here, it's also disappointingly short on grossness. Though the taste is unlike anything else, sweetbreads just looks like good old meat--eating it doesn't require any psychological leap.

So, to see how far I was willing to take this, I went across the street to Harris' Restaurant (3101 East Camelback, 602-508-8888) for the calf's brain.

When I asked for some brains at that venerable steak house, I learned that cooked cerebrum isn't on the menu--it's a special order enjoyed by a few regulars who know to call ahead. Among these, the waiter told me, are radio raconteur/curmudgeon Paul Harvey and his wife.

Once again, I put the poor waiter to the trouble of asking the poor chef if he would mind terribly. And once again, I was kindly told that it would be no trouble at all, though perhaps my wife and I might like to split a salad during the extra 10 minutes or so it would take "to thaw them out." Did I want the brains, I was asked, mixed with scrambled eggs, or did I want them in a lemon caper sauce? After taking a second or two to consider what Dr. Lecter would prefer, I opted for the latter.

I was surprised and--as I've always thought I had a fairly adventurous palate--more than a bit shamed by what a challenge this dinner was for me. Make no mistake, this was plainly cranial cuisine of the first water, expertly prepared, and I ate every bite of it. It was delicious, actually--the flavor was rich yet delicate, the texture something like very firm scrambled eggs.

But it was a brain, for heaven's sake. There were my mashed potatoes, and there were my vegetables, and next to them was a big honkin' frontal lobe in a lemon caper sauce. It looked to me like the waiter had thoughtfully arranged my side dishes to form a sort of wall, so that my wife would not have to look at my main course while she enjoyed her nice, safe, excellent filet mignon. When I at last finished the lightly browned gray matter, I said, "It's okay, you can look now. No more brains on this side of the table."

As unmistakably top-drawer as the brains were, I have to admit that, unlike the sweetbreads, it will be a good long while before I tuck into a heap of them again--I could just barely overcome the boomer-era sci-fi connotation of a brain as something icky. I even found myself hoping that mine had come from the jar marked NORMAL, not from the one marked ABNORMAL.

And though Dr. Lecter would probably disapprove of the vulgarity of the observation, later that evening I learned a new meaning for the term "brain fart."

After brain and sweetbreads, liver brought my organ tour to a stress-free close; I've always liked liver. But, as I noted above, the Luby's Sunday special wouldn't do this time. There's a long section of Hannibal set in Florence--probably the best part of the book--so some Italian-style organ meat seemed warranted. The Fegato Alla Veneziana I ordered at Scottsdale's Veneto Trattoria Italiana (6137 North Scottsdale Road, 480-948-9928) was Venetian, not Florentine, but it isn't worth quibbling--not over a meal this good.

Apart from a side of grilled polenta, the dish is really just liver and onions, but the meat is seasoned with an Italian flair, appetizingly diced and cooked just right, not beaten into leathery submission. And the onions, by contrast, aren't allowed to rebel--they're rendered down to a tasty, lacy mush over the liver.

If you're a lifelong liver-phobe, but wish to partake of the meat's storied health benefits, the Fegato, followed by one of Veneto Trattoria's fine desserts or excellent coffees, might just prove to be your introductory course to the world of organ meat--Internal Anatomy 101.

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Vincent's Market Bistro

3930 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018

602-224-3727

www.vincentsoncamelback.com


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