Originally published on the LA Weekly food blog, Squid Ink.
Valentino Herrera abides by two philosophies: Try everything, at least once. And share unusual experiences with others, especially when it comes to travel and eating. Both ideas are evident on his blog, Trippy Food. Don’t expect hallucinogenic mushrooms. For Herrera, “trippy” means unusual items, ranging from pork spleen to deer penis soup and nutria to iguana. He eats it all, and with gusto. In our interview, Herrera explains the appeal of bizarre foods, declares a fondness for gallina rellena and comments on the local food blogger scene.
Squid Ink: Thanks for talking with us, Val.
Valentino Herrera: I hope you weren’t grossed out!
SI: Not at all! Even when you eat bizarre foods, the blog doesn’t sensationalize them. It’s very matter-of-fact, even when you’re eating deer penis soup and roasted iguana.
VH: People on Fear Factor say, “I can’t believe I have to eat that!” But somewhere in the world, people eat that on a daily basis without batting an eye. Did you read my article on iguana? One thing I hate doing, as someone who writes about food, is to compare things to chicken. But you couldn’t help doing it with iguana. It seriously tastes like chicken. Somebody said to me, “Why not just eat chicken?” Well, if Frank Perdue started raising iguanas instead of chickens, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. It’s just what we’re used to. [Perdue is widely credited with revolutionizing the poultry industry by creating a nationally recognized chicken brand, Perdue Farms.]
SI: When did you start the blog, and why?
VH: I started it about two and a half years ago. I’ve spent most of my adult life traveling and eating unusual things. I would go on a trip to Colombia and come back with fried ants. Someone said, “You have all these great stories, why don’t you share them with people on a blog?” That prompted me. If I go to my grave without having shared my experiences, it’s kind of pointless. Any unusual, different experience should be shared with other people.
SI: You seem very knowledgeable about your topics. Is it from personal experience? Or do you do research?
VH: I have an obsessive curiosity. I want to taste everything that I haven’t tasted, see everything I haven’t seen. Like the article on nutria. If someone mentions nutria, and I don’t know what it is, I’m going to find out. For years, I had wanted to eat it. [Nutria is a large, semi-aquatic rodent.]
SI: Sounds like you should be a journalist! What’s your day job?
VH: I’m a technical support engineer for Tektronix — they do cable broadcast monitoring, for clients like Time Warner and Charter. That’s what I do for money; the blog is for love.
SI: How did you become interested in food and cooking?
VH: There are things you can get in a restaurant, and things you just can’t. Like iguana, grunion, and pig penis. When you can’t, I go out and find them, and then figure out how to cook them. I guess it stems from my childhood. I was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Massachusetts. My mom was of Italian descent. She would eat things that were popular on the East Coast, like scrapple. It’s the scraps of pork you can’t sell, that a butcher grinds up with buckwheat. You eat it for breakfast. Some people are shocked, but as a kid I remember eating that all the time. I remember eating head cheese. My mom cooking pig feet. I remember being at a party at 18 years old with raw oysters, and no one was eating them. I thought, what’s the big deal?
SI: You’ve kept up that philosophy, it seems.
VH: Even with my own children. If I eat something, and they say, “Dad, that’s disgusting,” I say, “What, you’ve had this before?” And they say “no.” Then they’re not allowed to say it’s disgusting. If they take a bite and don’t like it, then it’s OK. Sometimes, they say, “Hey Dad, this is actually pretty good.”
SI: When you’re eating bizarre things, like deer penis soup or a glass of blood, what’s the appeal? Do they taste particularly good? Or is it about something else?
VH: If it’s something people eat in other parts of the world, that we’re not accustomed to, it’s a great way to become familiar with other cultures, and make the world a smaller place. In the West we’ve gotten so used to eating beef, pork, chicken — things raised by mega-farms. We’re missing the boat with a lot of other foods. Like I said, if Frank Perdue had decided to raise iguanas instead of chicken, we’d be going to the store and getting iguana. It’s a matter of getting people to change their mind about things they think we should be eating.
I think we should try everything at least once. But there are some things where I’ve thought: I’ve tried that, and I’m never going to do it again.
SI: What’s an example?
VH: Beondegi, silkworm pupae. It’s a Korean specialty. In silk factories, they would un-spin the cocoons, and leave the developing insect inside. Because they would do this for hours without a break, eventually they would just eat the insect when they got to the end. It became a cultural thing. I fried them and ate them with rice, and they weren’t so bad. I told a Korean friend, and he said, you’re not supposed to fry them — just heat them in a pan on the stove. So I did that, and they were the nastiest thing I ever ate! Literally tasted like a little bag full of rotting leaves.
SI: What about any unusual foods that you did think were particularly tasty?
VH: There’s a village in Colombia just north of Bogotá called Ubaté. A section of town is filled with open-air stalls. One, La Chata, makes a dish called pescuezo de gallina rellena — stuffed chicken neck. They cut the chicken neck off at the base, take the beak off, and leave the cockscomb and skull. But they take out the bones and the meat. Then they stuff that with chicken blood, rice, tiny chopped potatoes and peas. They sew the end, and roast it. Essentially, the chicken neck is used as sausage casing. The taste is incredible. But you look at this thing, and it’s a chicken neck on a plate! It scares people to look at.
SI: Perhaps the pig penis was also like that?
VH: When people hear “pig penis,” they say: “Not going to happen.” But actually it did have a really good taste. If something doesn’t taste good, I don’t pretend it does just for effect. If it does, I’ll say it’s delicious.
SI: You also write about less exotic dishes, like doughnuts. Or your first taste of the classic pastrami sandwich from Langer’s.
VH: A lot of bloggers like to be the first one to discover something. But sometimes, even if hundreds of people have already written about it, I’m still going to get a completely different perspective.
SI: It’s certainly an interesting time for the L.A. food writing scene. There are so many people putting out their ideas and opinions, with varying levels of experience and expertise.
VH: I’ve tried to find the most unusual things to eat while traveling, and I’ve been doing that since the early ’80s. But still, I don’t say that makes me an expert. As I say in some of the cooking videos, “I just want to remind you that I have no idea what I’m doing.” I make stuff up as I go.
SI: How do you choose which topics to write about?
VH: I do things I’m personally curious about. I don’t write about things that are hyped up, like LudoBites. Everybody is writing about it, trying to get a reservation. Because of the hype, I might be disappointed. Even if it’s excellent. And I try not to write too much about stuff that’s not accessible to everybody. If I write about LudoBites, and someone thinks it looks amazing but doesn’t have the money, or can’t get a reservation, I feel like it’s a disservice.
SI: You’ve said you envision an international audience for the blog. That seems appropriate, because each article is in-depth and thoughtful, not just a list of places to visit, or a collection of photos.
VH: I call that “caption blogging.” Bloggers take a bunch of pictures, and have one or two sentences. It drives me nuts! Nice food, but what does it taste like? I want to know what it smelled like, the texture in your mouth, how it was made. Something is lost with caption blogging.
SI: What are your favorite food blogs?
VH: I like Eat Me Daily, Nose to Tail at Home. And locally, Let Me Eat Cake, from Nastassia Johnson, who used to run the Manila Machine food truck. She blogs about desserts. I don’t know if it’s her pictures, or the way she writes, but you smell cookies coming out of the monitor. Deep End Dining, of course, because Eddie and I are similar in a lot of the things we like to eat.
The Minty does a lot of food crawls. Indian food, bahn mí, pupusas. I like them because they’re accessible. She gets a lot of people together, and people either chip in, or someone buys this and that, and shares it. There’s a loose, friendly environment.
SI: There seem to be so many ways in L.A. now for people to get together around food and share their experiences, whether online or in person like that.
VH: There’s an irony about that. The PR dinners can be pretty miserable. You have a bunch of bloggers together, and most spend the whole time typing into their BlackBerry or iPhone. Some of them have the attitude that, “This is business. I just want to come here, eat this, write about it, and leave.” But to me, if you’re sitting at a table with eight or nine other people, it’s a social thing. You should go, “Do you taste the ‘something’ in this?” Or “What does this remind you of?” But some bloggers say, “Can we just not talk?” Maybe they think you’re going to steal material, or they don’t want you to know what they think until they write it. I honestly don’t know. Other people do talk — but only within their own group of friends.
SI: That’s interesting, especially since food bloggers are becoming so popular and influential in how people learn about food in L.A.
VH: It’s interesting to look at someone like Jo Stougaard [of My Last Bite]. Now, Jo doesn’t blog very often. I don’t even know if I could tell you what her blogging style is. But she has something close to, if not over, 100,000 followers on Twitter. She has chefs seeking her out because they know all she has to do is mention them in a tweet, and the restaurant will be booked for the next several weeks. So she absolutely has influence in Los Angeles as far as the food scene goes, but it’s an unusual type. She doesn’t have to write anything in-depth — all she has to do is tweet “love this place,” and all of a sudden it’s packed.