Valerie Neff-Rasmussen // Ann Arbor, MI
It is 7:30 in the evening. I am seated alone at a small table draped in a red and white checkered tablecloth at a bouchon, a traditional bistro in Lyon, France. The restaurant is still mostly empty. It will not really fill up until closer to 9, when the more fashionable locals will come out to dine. I am not fashionable; I am an American tourist, and I am hungry now. I spent my day traveling, by bus, by shuttle, by train, by metro and finally, up what I am sure is the tallest hill in all of France, by foot, all while lugging a suitcase with a broken wheel. This is no time to delay a meal.
Luckily, I have just ordered six courses. I could have stopped at three, but it only cost a few Euro more to have six. And, after all, I am now one week into a month-long trip around France to taste as many regional cuisines as possible. How can I say no to more food?
My first course comes quickly: a pig’s trotter, split in half, breaded, sauteed until brown and crisp.
Growing up in the Midwest, I was a picky eater. I wouldn’t touch seafood. I ate a very limited selection of vegetables. And, though I ate meat, it was always in standard American cuts: chicken breast, hamburger, pork chop. Never the organs, and certainly never the feet. In college, I slowly started eating new things. I learned to like fish. I discovered I enjoyed peas after all. But the closest I ever came to eating feet was the one time I bought a ham hock for soup.
Before I began my trip across France, I told myself I would eat anything. The more local the specialty, the better. Ratatouille was easy in Aix-en-Provence. So was bouillabaisse in Marseille. Now, in Lyon, the pig’s foot is the first real test of my culinary bravery.
Hesitantly, I begin to cut. My knife slips through the flesh like butter. I slip a small bit into my mouth and close my eyes. The flavor is rich, like the most delicate, superb bacon I have ever tasted, but more subtle. The silky smooth meat practically melts into a creamy puddle on my tongue, while the crispy fried breading provides a satisfying crunch. I take another bite, then another. Although I know I have five more courses coming, I all but lick clean the tiny bones. This is exceptional.
When I return home in a few weeks, I will be asked “What was the best thing you ate?” The answer will be easy. My Midwestern, picky-eater friends will make faces to show they don’t quite believe me, but I will just smile. And salivate.
Val Neff-Rasmussen works and writes for Zingerman’s Mail Order.