Squid Ink: Thanks for talking with us, Val.
Valentino Herrera: I hope you weren't grossed out!
SI: Not at all! Even when you eat bizarre foods, the blog doesn't sensationalize them. It's very matter-of-fact, even when you're eating deer penis soup and roasted iguana.
VH: People on Fear Factor say, "I can't believe I have to eat that!" But somewhere in the world, people eat that on a daily basis without batting an eye. Did you read my article on iguana? One thing I hate doing, as someone who writes about food, is to compare things to chicken. But you couldn't help doing it with iguana. It seriously tastes like chicken. Somebody said to me, "Why not just eat chicken?" Well, if Frank Perdue started raising iguanas instead of chickens, we wouldn't even be having this discussion. It's just what we're used to. [Perdue is widely credited with revolutionizing the poultry industry by creating a nationally recognized chicken brand, Perdue Farms.]
SI: When did you start the blog, and why?
VH: I started it about two and a half years ago. I've spent most of my adult life traveling and eating unusual things. I would go on a trip to Colombia and come back with fried ants. Someone said, "You have all these great stories, why don't you share them with people on a blog?" That prompted me. If I go to my grave without having shared my experiences, it's kind of pointless. Any unusual, different experience should be shared with other people.
SI: You seem very knowledgeable about your topics. Is it from personal experience? Or do you do research?
VH: I have an obsessive curiosity. I want to taste everything that I haven't tasted, see everything I haven't seen. Like the article on nutria. If someone mentions nutria, and I don't know what it is, I'm going to find out. For years, I had wanted to eat it. [Nutria is a large, semi-aquatic rodent.]SI: Sounds like you should be a journalist! What's your day job?
VH: I'm a technical support engineer for Tektronix -- they do cable broadcast monitoring, for clients like Time Warner and Charter. That's what I do for money; the blog is for love.
SI: How did you become interested in food and cooking?
VH: There are things you can get in a restaurant, and things you just can't. Like iguana, grunion, and pig penis. When you can't, I go out and find them, and then figure out how to cook them. I guess it stems from my childhood. I was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Massachusetts. My mom was of Italian descent. She would eat things that were popular on the East Coast, like scrapple. It's the scraps of pork you can't sell, that a butcher grinds up with buckwheat. You eat it for breakfast. Some people are shocked, but as a kid I remember eating that all the time. I remember eating head cheese. My mom cooking pig feet. I remember being at a party at 18 years old with raw oysters, and no one was eating them. I thought, what's the big deal?
SI: You've kept up that philosophy, it seems.
VH: Even with my own children. If I eat something, and they say, "Dad, that's disgusting," I say, "What, you've had this before?" And they say "no." Then they're not allowed to say it's disgusting. If they take a bite and don't like it, then it's OK. Sometimes, they say, "Hey Dad, this is actually pretty good."
SI: When you're eating bizarre things, like deer penis soup or a glass of blood, what's the appeal? Do they taste particularly good? Or is it about something else?
VH: If it's something people eat in other parts of the world, that we're not accustomed to, it's a great way to become familiar with other cultures, and make the world a smaller place. In the West we've gotten so used to eating beef, pork, chicken -- things raised by mega-farms. We're missing the boat with a lot of other foods. Like I said, if Frank Perdue had decided to raise iguanas instead of chicken, we'd be going to the store and getting iguana. It's a matter of getting people to change their mind about things they think we should be eating.
I think we should try everything at least once. But there are some things where I've thought: I've tried that, and I'm never going to do it again.
SI: What's an example?VH: Beondegi, silkworm pupae. It's a Korean specialty. In silk factories, they would un-spin the cocoons, and leave the developing insect inside. Because they would do this for hours without a break, eventually they would just eat the insect when they got to the end. It became a cultural thing. I fried them and ate them with rice, and they weren't so bad. I told a Korean friend, and he said, you're not supposed to fry them -- just heat them in a pan on the stove. So I did that, and they were the nastiest thing I ever ate! Literally tasted like a little bag full of rotting leaves.