Fugu, or Risk

Ankimo, a silken Japanese small-dish prepared from the scarce monkfish’s hefty liver, gives up a rich, accordioned delight that we usually associate with love or art and rarely with death. First, there’s the elegance of its miniature presentation. Then, with the slightest pressure between mouth and tongue, the steamed morsel becomes something neither liquid nor solid and takes hold in two places at once: your fragrance-poised inner nose, and your texture- and temperature-sensitive mouth, which is beginning to be fretful about when the luscious visitor will vanish.
As you fear, without warning, it melts and is gone … to be replaced by a quiet, ghostly version of itself (a pedestrian term, aftertaste), which, if you don’t nullify the process with a bite of something else, joins with the brand-new brawny memory of your first, swooning impression. Those two sensory partners will circle and circle, moving ever farther away, until in a day or two they leave behind nothing but words such as these.
pufferfish.jpgI can only imagine that the potentially fatal liver of the blimpy blowfish, fugu, makes ankimo seem like tinned sardine. (Actually, I love certain brands of sardines and believe the modest fellows possess a formidable pleasure-soul.) Fugu liver has been described in gastronomical terms so hyperbolic that it leads anyone to question my constant assertion that serious pleasures are found in frivolous places. There’s nothing frivolous here.
Japanese Roulette
You know fugu: it’s Japanese roulette. When caught wild and not properly butchered (can you butcher fish?), the toxin in blowfish, especially in the reportedly delectable liver, will paralyze you and, with all your senses still active and screaming, retard and then halt your breathing and heartbeat. Imagine yourself as a pallid star in some Poe-pretending Hammer film, with a queeny Vincent Price gloating over your motionless demise.
Not all fugu has the same amount of toxin, and licensed chefs in Japan gain reputation through their skill in purifying the beast, especially the toxin-riddled liver, occasionally leaving just enough poison to create the sought-after tingling of the lips. But accidents will happen. In 1975, a fugu treat killed kabuki actor and gourmand Bando Mitsugoro VIII, who until that moment had been a “living national treasure.” What a ruckus, national art murdered by national novelty. Sale of fugu liver was henceforth forbidden, which made its macho charm all the more potent.
You may have had your fugu memory refreshed by the news that it can be farmed in a manner that results in a toxin-free product, the poison being bred by what the fish eats. Because of this, old-time fugu masters have hit the ceiling, fearing that if risk is diluted, even the wild stuff will lose its social potency, and they their jobs.
Death by Theater
Restaurant critics are supposed to eat everything, even foods we may not like, but I have never eaten fugu liver, or the safer fugu sashimi — and both have been listed on menus in my hands. Does that make me a culinary coward?
Hard to say: I was once almost done in by a Santa Monica curried oyster, and never forgot. There’s risk in anything that goes into one’s mouth, just as there’s risk in whatever goes into one’s mind. I had always thought that arts critics, especially theater critics, were cultural “king’s tasters” or, even better, lifeguards (with a footlight tan) who would warn me of Broadway undertow. Really bad theater — bad art of any kind — can paralyze one’s heart just as effectively as will an errant piece of fish. Yet Grease et alia do their damage slowly, without the thrill of personal jeopardy or any exceptional commensurate pleasure .
Relativists of the “I know what I like” breed may object to the bossy finality of critical judgment. But I have seen the harm done to those who have exposed themselves again and again to poorly trimmed theater and film scripts numbed by clichés, moldering musical warhorses, and cutesy, whatever’s-available “thematic exhibitions” of art.
Should we critics continue to eat our fugu so that others may be safe? Yes, of course, but reviewing opportunities are fewer and fewer, just like wild fugu itself and its brave, though diminished, clientele. Most art, and criticism, fail not by taking risks, but by avoiding them. If we’re not prepared to put ourselves on the line, we critics, and what we criticize, may just as well be farmed and neutered, too.
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