Let's get something out of the way right up front. When I chose to title this "Fringe Foods," there was no intent to marginalize or insult the food items about which I will write. Instead, what makes them fringe-y is that there are big chunks of people who don't know about them, but should.
So when I write about some dish, let's not get hung up on the many, many people who find it awesome, or eat it every day, or have a cherished family recipe for it. You are welcome to comment on where I should go for a better version of your favorite dish, or quibble with the condiments I used, but please don't feel demoted to a lesser class.
Speaking of class, there will be much discussion of status and poverty in this column, as hardly anything produces curious cuisine better than having to make do with less. Whether wealthy landowners withhold the best cuts of meat, or the rich monopolize available resources, those given the nutritional short-sheet are forced to think outside the major muscle groups.
Exhibit A: menudo. The necessity of poverty in Mexico resulted in the invention of this stew made of a spicy broth (often thickened with hominy), calf or sheep's intestines, and the occasional foot. You know the saying: When life gives you lemons, you cut out the guts and feet and make menudo.
My local encounter with menudo took place at a fine place by the name of Antojitos El Toril, an east side eatery whose co-owner was interviewed in Isthmus last month. Other Madison joints offering menudo include Taqueria Guadalajara and Juanita's Tacos. I knew that I could at least fall back on an established level of quality at El Toril, and have faith in the palatability of their menu.
Necessity and invention and the need to eat something are all well and good, but this stuff looks definitively odd. The tripe has a honeycombed inner lining, and the cilia -- cilia! -- are not something often found on my plate. I did a little research (sadly, I didn't get the chance to discuss my menudo's provenance with the owners), and it seems very possible that my menudo was made with a portion of the stomach rather than intestines.
Regardless, I will concede that $7.99 is a heck of a deal for a specialty dish, considering the quantity I was served. Menudo is only served on the weekends at Antojitos El Toril, and the same is often true at other restaurants offering it.
The cooking time for tripe is substantial, lest it come out overly chewy. Chewiness never quite goes away, though; most of my menudo was slightly rubbery, but never to the point of a Superball.
Traditional accompaniments include cilantro, diced onions, limes and hot sauce. The limes and cilantro that were served alongside my dish (as well as plentiful corn tortillas) helped to open up what was otherwise a very monochromatic, intimidating wall of tripe flavor. I think onions would have been a good addition; menudo is known as a hangover killer, and a strong oniony kick would serve that cause well.
At the end of my meal, I must admit that the majority of my menudo went unfinished. The unctuous flavor of tripe, and the unsettling visual element, was too much for this menudo novice.
But for the adventurous, or the familiar, or the just plain hungry, there are definite pluses to menudo. The broth is great, warming and spicy. The cost is unimpeachable, and the quantity of food is nourishingly large.
But make no mistake: there is courage involved when the unaccustomed diner orders menudo. Try telling your brain you're not eating a bowl of guts.