Jon Emanuel is on a quest to convince people that offal isn’t actually awful.
The founder and organizer of the Denver Adventurous Eaters Club, Emanuel sets up dinners with restaurants and chefs who aren’t afraid to eat anything. Their last dinner, at the Sons of Norway Lodge in Denver, was an experience with lutefisk, cod that’s cured in lye (the main ingredient in soap) for a few months, until it’s got the texture of jelly.
Yes, the DAEC was excited about getting to try lutefisk.
Just like they were excited about balut, what Emanuel considers the “Mount Everest” of adventurous eating. It’s a hard-boiled, fertilized duck egg, about 17 or 18 days old, that actually has the duckling inside. It’s popular in the Philippines, but not so much here in Colorado. That’s what gets Emanuel excited about the club.
“We’re not just an eating contest. We look for cuisine that uses challenging ingredients, things that are outside of our culture. And then we have a discussion and fun events around it,” he says.
Mike Paige, a Boulder resident who’s been part of the club for three years, likes that he’s getting to experience things out of his comfort zone.
“Chinese food was exotic for me growing up,” Paige says. “I grew up in a sheltered food world in the South. Now I can actually try some of these really bizarre and strange foods from all over the world.”
And yes, he tried the balut. Some of his other experiences with the DAEC have let him try durian, a Southeast Asian fruit with an aroma that has been compared to socks, onions or rotting flesh.
“I see [the smell] as closer to a petroleum product,” Paige says. “But the flavor’s not so bad.”
Most of the club’s eating ventures are centered around offal categories, though. Offal food is the parts of a butchered animal that are considered inedible by humans. Not by the Adventurous Eaters.
“You can’t just throw something away or turn it into dog food because you think it’s gross,” Emanuel says. “Put yourself in the animal’s place — gee, thanks! You’ll eat my tenderloin but you won’t eat my tail? I like my tail!
“You should make maximum usage of a harvested animal. That’s another driving factor behind the group. From a responsible omnivore’s perspective, you shouldn’t discount parts of an animal simply because you might consider them undesirable to your palate,” Emanuel says.
He’ll be teaching an offal cooking class, in fact, on April 10, at the Project Angel Heart kitchen, where Emanuel is a chef. The menu includes head cheese, grilled lamb hearts, Bolivian-style beef tongue and veal sweetbreads (the thymus gland or pancreas).
Information on that event, and others, like the tentatively scheduled March 27 potluck, also to be held at the Project Angel Heart kitchen, can be found along with reservation details online at www.meetup.com/denver-adventurous-eatersclub.
Though the menus might make stomachs turn, Emanuel says that’s not — and has never been — the goal of the club.
“We’re not trying to gross anyone out. We’re looking at it as cuisine, above and beyond anything else,” Emanuel says.
Cuisine that comes from around the world, which is what Paige appreciates.
“All these foods that we try have a basis in other cultures,” Paige says. “It’s a way for me to explore the world.”
One of the member favorites was a dinner at Parallel 17, hosted by Chef Mary Nguyen. On that menu, ant larvae, anchovy spawn, silkworms, blood sausage and sea urchin cheesecake were featured.
Both Paige and Emanuel, though, hope to feature a Boulder restaurant in the club’s repertoire.
“Boulder has some really great cuisine,” Paige says, listing The Kitchen and The Pinyon as favorites, “but as far as really out there, exotic foods, it doesn’t seem like a lot of places here are doing that. They’re not serving intestines or eyeballs.” And if they’re not, it will not impress members.
“We went to an Ethiopian place once, and I had thought that maybe just something being from a different culture might be considered adventurous,” Emanuel says. “But I was very wrong about that. We have to make [members] say, ‘Wow, I’ve never had that before!’ Just going to a sushi place is not going to cut it.”
Members are only impressed by the wildest culinary experiences, like duck tongues, pig intestines or a pork brain lettuce wrap. Or by the wildest cultures, as a way to travel the world, and appreciate places they’ve never seen before.
“But you don’t have to like it,” says Emanuel. “All we want to do is get people to try and enjoy new things. We’re not intimidating, even though the menus may look that way.”