In Siena, there are 17 contrade, ancient civic organizations that are linked to specific neighborhoods but whose members may be scattered all over the city.
Visiting Siena, I was fortunate enough to be shown around one of those contrade by author Dario Castagno, a member of Il Bruco, the caterpillar contrada that was once composed largely of people in the silk trade.
Every summer are horse races, the palio, that take place in Siena's central piazza. This is a highly emotional event for all contrade; if you've seen footage of any of these races, you've seen men weeping and hugging each other and screaming with either rage or ecstasy, depending upon whether their contrada's horse won or lost.
After we'd been given our tour of the House of the Caterpillar, I asked Castagno what the men in his contrada ate on the morning of the palio. I was curious if there was some kind of ceremonial meal…and indeed there was.
"We eat tripe," said Castagno, and smiled.
"Why tripe," I asked.
"Because that's what we always eat," Castagno shrugged.
Now, I had some excellent tripe in Italy, but there are few who would say that they generally prefer tripe (cow's stomach) to, say, meat of any other sort. Tripe is, after all, one of those ignored meats, and it's ignored because, generally speaking, it's not as tasty as many other cuts of cow.
I would not say that tripe is especially weird, but there are some things that men eat that are definitely in the weird category. Some women also eat these things, but usually it seems to be men who are responsible for the largest consumption of, for instance, balut, fertilized duck egg, which is a favorite Filipino drinking food, particularly among men. I had this bar food once, and found the experience of eating a tiny bird, bones and all, to be unusual, interesting and probably not necessary to repeat. All the guys I ate with that night seemed to share that feeling – but it was only the guys who were eating the balut.
Checking through some pictures from last year's Turkey Testicle Festival in Byron, Illinois, I noticed a few women; mostly, predominantly, the eaters of balls were male.
Ditto eye ball tacos at Maxwell Street Market: random women will sometimes eat them, but it's more likely to be a dude shoving ocular tissue into his grinning maw.
So how does this happen? How is it that it's usually guys eating the weird stuff?
There are no doubt many plausible theories, but the one I'm most comfortable supporting is that somehow, men bond over eating outrageous (or, in the case of tripe, just slightly outré) food. Maybe there's an "I dare you" element there, but for whatever reason, guys seem to go for the weirder food. I'm guessing they don't always like it, but they eat it, because they're guys.
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