They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.
There are few things that disgust and terrify me as much as a rat. Anyone who has lived in a city knows the sight: that revolting tail, dragging in the filth, disappearing just seconds after that fat, wriggling body behind a garbage can or scrubby clump of weeds. They signify suspicion, paranoia, spoilage, disease, sneakiness, thievery and uncleanliness. (Sure, your pet rat doesn’t — shudder — but I’m talking wild Norway rats here.)
So I was thinking, for my Halloween post, what could be truly, personally scarier, what could be more American Gothic, than a recipe featuring rats?
When I lived in SoCal, we had (still have?) a rat epidemic, which was treated in that cheery, dismissive way so many social issues are in Orange County. I once threatened the housing office in my graduate ghetto apartment with notifying the Health Department and the Regents of the University of California if they didn’t do more than just put a notice in the weekly flyer with a cute drawing of a squirrel asking residents not to leave birdfood out “or critters might be attracted to it.” When I lived in Baltimore, one of the last straws in our decision to leave the city was seeing a dead rat in the street a block away from our house. When I was in Vietnam, I remember sitting blearily at a café one morning for a tour of Halong Bay, and looking up behind me, and seeing a rat clinging to the picture frame next to a railing, slipping, falling…
I blame this almost irrational loathing on a book my mother would read to me when I was little, a book I loved. It was The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Robert Browning’s poem, which is quoted above and can be found in its entirety at a site through Indiana University. (The cover image you see here is also from this site.) If you’re unfamiliar with the tale, it’s about a German town called Hamelin in the Middle Ages that is overrun by rats (boo!), then a mysterious Piper comes and seduces them all away with his music into the ocean, where they drown (yay!), but then the greedy town council won’t pay him (boo!) and so he lures away the town’s children in a similar fashion (um, boo?). The graphic description, done in iambic tetrameter singsong, of rats infesting the kitchen was one horrific image that I’d study over and over, thinking about how awful it would be.
So as you might imagine, me being of the perverse persuasion and all, I was thrilled to find a recipe prepared in the German town of Hameln called “Rattails,” a pork fricassee with vegetables and a sweet and sour sauce. It seems to be a preparation for tourists, mainly, and it features a very complicated sauce of apple brandy, two kinds of wine, “brown gravy,” dribs and drabs of mustard, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and other things. The whole thing is flambéed (and you know how I feel about that), and served over rice. It tastes like a fancy, more subtle, ten thousand times more complicated version of sweet-n-sour pork.
But here’s the gross part: the pork loin is prepared in strips, so it looks like rat tails, and cut up chunks of baby corn and red peppers resemble spinal column chunks and sinews, and button mushrooms look like joints, and the green olives with pimientos are nothing more than rat eyeballs.
Quite frankly, the sauce is too complicated for weekly meals. And even with the flambé, the writhing, dismembered-body-parts-in-brown-sauce look of the final dish is not, um, fancy enough for guests. But if you want to try it, check out the recipe in the extraordinary Culinaria Germany cookbook, or by clicking this link.
I’ll be cowering in the corner with my cell phone, trying to 911 the Pied Piper.
Happy Halloween to all!