Every region of the world seems to have a local critter dish liable to raises visitors' eyebrows — think boiled lobsters in Maine, dried grasshoppers in Mexico, snails in France and sheep stomach in Scotland.
In Amsterdam, two artists are trying to widen their city's list of local tasty creatures — and expand minds, too — with dishes like the My Little Pony Burger, Peace Pigeon and Bambi Ball.
Their project, The Kitchen Of The Unwanted Animal is a food truck and specialty food provider featuring animals that are, generally, considered pests and almost always considered inedible.
"I think there is a kind of block in your head because it's a pet or [an animal that's not typically eaten]," says Rob Hagenouw, 55, one of the founders of the Kitchen. "Here we have pet, pest and eating animals — and we don't mix them." But he and his partner, Nicolle Schatborn, 51, are trying to show their neighbors that these animals can be delicious, and shouldn't be wasted.
It all started five years ago with a wild goose stew Schatborn and Hagenouw made for an art fair as part of a larger installation. The stew got them wondering about what happened to geese and other animals that were considered "unwanted" in Holland.
"For the past 50 years, it has not been normal to eat the goose in Holland because in the [1970s] the goose was a rare animal," Hagenouw says.
European laws enacted in the 1970s to protect the rare geese remain in place — the geese cannot be killed unless considered a danger and cannot be sold for profit. In part as a result of these laws, the population of geese has grown to the point of becoming problematic, especially at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport. Hunters are hired to shoot geese, in a very regulated way, to curb the dangers the birds pose to the engines of flying aircraft and to farmers' fields. Now, some 400,000 geese are shot in Holland each year and then discarded, often being sent to factories to be ground into pet food.
Schatborn and Hagenouw started talking to some hunters, discovering that the hunted geese were "wasted," and finally developed the idea to start a food truck. Their first product? Schipol Geese Croquettes.
The croquettes are prepared by boiling the meat, then adding butter to make a thick sauce and, eventually, rolling them in breadcrumbs. It's an easy entre into the edible goose.
At first, the Schatborn-Hagenouw team made a workshop out of cleaning and preparing the geese, with friends helping out. (They discovered it's pretty tedious work, so they now bring the geese to a butcher that specializes in birds.)
And how have the croquettes gone over? "Everyone likes it," says Hagenouw. But more importantly, he says, it's a conversation piece. "It was a start – a way to talk about what else is wasted."
Initially, Hagenouw says, the plan was to wrap up the project after a year. But then they found out about the muskrat.
The semi-aquatic rodent is not indigenous to Holland; one legend has it that a duke brought them in from Hungary for fur in the 1870s. Some escaped and today, 150,000 or more of the invasive critters have made their homes in holes dug into Dutch canals.
Fortunately for The Kitchen For The Unwanted Animal, they're also tasty.
"Muskrats are plant eaters, so they are really, really delicious when you cook them," Hagenouw says.
Restrictions on hunters can sometimes make planning for the Kitchen tough. The Kitchen For The Unwanted Animal hosts a five-course "Big Pest Dinner" with a local restaurant twice a year. At a recent dinner, coot, a medium-sized water bird, was on the menu thanks to a hunter who was required by the government to catch enough that it should have supplied the dinner. But, at the last minute, he was told by government regulators that he was not allowed to catch any more.
"We had to find something else," Hagenouw says. "[Hunting of these animals] is really restricted, it's very bureaucratic, which is a good thing. We don't like it when the animals are just shot for fun."
The "Big Pest Dinner" menu — and that of the food truck — changes based on what's available at the time. Which brings us to, maybe, the menu item that draws the most attention: the My Little Pony Burger.
Many people in Holland have horses as pets. But as Hagenouw tells it, during the economic crisis in 2011-2012, many families had to give them up because of the high cost of taking care of them. The sale price for a horse dropped by 80 percent.
There were a lot of horses on the market — and many ended up at the butcher. The Kitchen started buying meat from one of a few butchers that specialize in processing horse meat. The food truck now sells about 100 burgers a day at festivals.
"It's nice meat," Hagenouw says. "'Ah, they have My Little Pony burgers,' little girls will say. Most of the time the girls eat the burgers; it's the mothers who don't like it."
He does say that not all the feedback is positive, especially in the case of the horse burgers. Long ago, horse was eaten in Holland (it's still a delicacy in some parts of Italy and elsewhere), but only the older set remember, Hagenouw says. But Schatborn and Hagenouw say they try use it as an opportunity to educate people – asking what they eat, suggesting they think about how eating something like chicken differs— from eating goose or horse. They hope that people will recognize that eating horse, for example, is no different than eating cow.
Their "Peace Pigeon" roll – made by baking white breast of pigeon to rare, to prevent it from getting chewy — gets a lot of comments like, "pigeons are disgusting" or "they have diseases" from passersby. But, Hagenouw says, all of their food is prepared by providers under European food safety regulations. So, like with all of their offerings, they try to tell its story. They tell the story of pre-WWII times when pigeons were eaten more frequently. And how in WWII pigeons saved men in war by acting as messengers. And they write poems, like this one:
this is the kitchen of the undesired animal
the continuing polluting beast
the ones we see as an infestation
that bother us in our movements
those birds that ruin our safety
the rats are undermining the dikes
for economic reasons or
fun meat or fur
eventually escaped and
without enemies they live free
and get loads of small ones
and we !!!
we are disturbed !!!!!!
the kitchen of the undesired animal says
no needless waste
we shall eat!!!!!!
The Kitchen intends to take their truck on the road, starting this summer, to Belgium and, possibly, France. Next up, they hope to bring the fallow deer and the black crow to people's plates — both of which are overabundant in Holland. They've also been working with crawfish, not native to Holland, and parakeets, considered invasive. And, Schatborn and Hagenouw have started researching unwanted animals in places as far as Korea and Australia.
The Kitchen Of The Unwanted Animal has also begun selling its geese croquettes to restaurants and pubs. And their food truck has been the inspiration for hunters, who've begun selling their own croquettes.
Hunters Martijn van de Reep and Tom Zinger say that the Kitchen was an inspiration for starting their Gebroeders de Wolf charcuterie — a butchery focused on goose about six months ago. They make rillettes, patés, smoked breast and dried sausages, selling them to other specialty stores, restaurants and supermarkets.
Maybe, a few years from now, the goose will not be so unwanted.
Meghan Collins Sullivan is a journalist based in Bratislava, Slovakia. She is a former supervising editor at NPR and edits the 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.