Jessica Helfand | Essays


Raw rooster combs. From Ideas in Food: The Great Cock's Comb Adventure.

The American writer Calvin Trillin used to tell a story about one of his daughters who, upon being invited one day to accompany her father to a new restaurant, inquired meekly if it would be all right if she "took a bagel just in case." This tale was repeated to me frequently as a child, as this was the role I played in my family: I was the worrier, the apprehensive and non-adventurous one, the child always wary of novelty — especially if it meant eating something weird.

As it happened, I married the opposite personality type — someone who, on a recent trip to Spain, did what he always does when we travel: he went native.

And then he ordered rooster comb.

rooster comb
Sautéed Rooster Comb. (Day 1, left. Day 5, right.) 2007.

Rooster comb is a Catalan delicacy, and has been compared to chicken feet: it's flaccid and tan-colored, with diaphanous skin and a wobbly texture. Poke it with your fork, and it has the consistency of fatty flesh: it's rubbery, like the glove the evil penguin wore on his head in The Wrong Trousers. Bizarre, but then again, eating is often a springboard for such associations, which helps to recast the whole idea of food as entertainment. (Which in turn leads to things like Iron Chefs and extreme cakes.) Like breathing and sleeping, we eat to live. It's hard to imagine a television program about the dramatic highs and lows of oxygen intake, but food is something else altogether.

Where food is concerned, the relationship between what things look like and how we respond exists at its most primal level: what is a gut reaction, after all, if not something that attacks your gut? Food preferences are personal, idiosyncratic, and odd. They're also framed by things like appetites, religious preferences and allergies; swayed by things seasonal, products regional, and palettes likely to be unpredictably mercurial. And no matter what it is or how picky we are (or aren't) — the fact remains that what food looks like has a huge bearing on what we taste.

Personally, where anthropomorphic meets edible is where I draw the line.

And while there was perhaps something eerily beautiful about that floating, disenfranchised fan of rooster muscle — beautiful, that is, in the most abstract way possible — I couldn't get past its unsettling resemblance to Foghorn Leghorn. (I am sure that the sandwich spread known as Goober's is just as horrifying to most people, but it doesn't look like a body part.) The fact that this curious delectation was ordered as a side dish for a meal consisting of foie gras and octopus is enough to make even the most intrepid epicure reconsider the virtues of a vegan diet.

Of course, the discussion and visual documentation of weird food is something well-represented by a host of websites maintained by foodies and the people who love them: from 1970s Weight Watcher's Recipe Cards (thank you, Bethany Johns) to Musk-Flavored Life Savers, here's a sure-fire way to drop those extra pounds. Then again, who am I to disparage rooster as a menu item? Alaina Browne praises a New York restaurant that offers up this dish "braised to gummy brownness," while critic Andrew Zimmern describes them here as a "gelatinous delight."

This summer has dawned with a host of food-related films, from Ratatouille to No Reservations the pink dougnut of an "O' in The Simpson's Movie logo, reminding us that audiences don't only like to eat food, they like to look at it, too: in cookbooks and on television, in magazines and in retail establishments, in markets and on restaurant tables all over the planet. Which, in the global world of anything-goes culinary inclusivism, just happens to include rooster comb. Mercifully for the less adverturesome among us, it also includes bagels.

For more on the intersection of design + food, pick up a copy of The Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 3: The Food Issue.

This essay was originally published in July, 2007.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [21]

some unanswered questions:

1) did bill like it?
2) do you eat it with your hands or with a knife and fork?
3) did it taste like chicken?
4) are there rooster-specific dishes? (like what happened to the rest of the rooster?)
5) is it one of those delicacies whereby upon consuming it, one feels extra virile? (like shark's fin - possibly related to a rooster comb in impulse)
6) you omitted adrianne shelly's "waitress" (2007) from your list of foodie-films - how come? (it was a pie-extravaganza)
7) did you try any of bill's rooster? did it cause one of those uncomfortable couples' situations that ended up in an evening of silence only to be revisited over dinner tonight via today's blog post?
8) is there "rooster-comb" jerky?
Gong Szeto

Then there's the taste visualisations for Pixar's Ratatouille. Strawberry does taste like that.
Andrew Haig

I had a few questions about the Rooster - but Gong Szeto asked them ALL. And gets extra credit for conceiving of "rooster-comb" jerky!
Stephen Macklin

All excellent questions, Gong.

In a small village in the hills about two hours north of Barcelona, was this restaurant. We had been told the food was "special, worth a detour." The snails around the walls reminded our daughter of the Dali Museum we'd seen the day before: a repeat pattern of dog shit on the exterior of the building. On a beautiful day, when we would have preferred a lovely garden, we were inside of a dark bistro of delight.

Anyway, the menu was a problem, none of us speaking Catalan. I worked my way through orders for foie gras and octopus, and then there was this chicken dish that sounded intriguing. No, not chicken. A bunch of hand gestures described something on the top of the waiter's head, and then we were asking ourselves, what do you call that thing? A cock's comb? How could I not try it? True gourmands might object to my selections in combination. And, as our meal progressed, most of the clientele seemed to be ordering some sort of communal fish stew or a specially designed plate that held about 50 escargots. It seemed as if we'd missed the boat.

But the rooster comb was the highlight of the lunch. Mostly because of the way it looked. (Hence this post.)

It tasted like rubber (i.e., it had no taste), although the sauce was tasty. I don't remember Jessica or our son tasting it, but our daughter, always a culinary trooper, did try it. "It tastes like rubber" was her second opinion. Now, of course, it's didn't taste like rubber: it felt like rubber in the mouth. Four were served is a bowl. We ate three and took one home in a napkin, a special memento of our time in Spain. I can't say what happened to the rest of the rooster, and that afternoon, I don't remember feeling especially virile. Weeks later, though, we are still talking about our rooster comb. Unlike most meals which are only eaten, and which fade later into the mist of memory, taking the physical object home was one concrete way of taking a bit of Spain home with us.

William Drenttel

Nice post for a summer day.

My wife and I never like to turn away from a culenary challenge. Well, that was more true when we were quite a bit younger. I think some lessons were leaned along the way.

Like Duck's feet.

Don't order the duck's feet.

> We ate three and took one home in a napkin, a special memento of our time in Spain

Somebody at U.S. Customs needs to be fired.

Armin, yes, customs...every parent's nightmare.

So I'm filling out the customs form, checking "no" next to plants, "no" next to toxic waste, "no" next to FOOD. My daughter, sadly still awake next to me, says, "But Daddy, what about the rooster's head?"
William Drenttel

Bill, do you remember feeling more limber after the meal?

Hyaluronic Acid, which is extracted from said Rooster's Comb claims to provide support for joints.


BTW, Jessica, this extract also claims to improve your complexion. Although I don't think I'd recommend rubbing the leftovers on your face.
J. Douglas

I'm back.

to ask; was it really that shade of green?


is there "rooster-comb" jerky?
Next best thing: I remember when Victor Vicente of America (author of apocalyptic poetry, art including odd coins and the Topanga!, the breakthrough dirt bikes that were betamaxed by 26" wheeled mountain bikes from Gary Fisher and his Marin County gang) found a dead owl along a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains. He made jerky out of it. (I don't know if feathers from the same bird got braided into his beard.

Chicken feet can be wonderful. I'll always intend to ignore Russell's advice about duck feet but dim sum places always seem to be out of them when I'm around.

I was asked in Taiwan if we eat a lot of sea slugs in America. When I said that we didn't eat them and that if you wanted to get Americans to try them you should call them sea hares because nobody would eat something called sea slugs they rolled their eyes (implying, I think, "stupid doa pia don't know what they're missing.") They're fairly rubbery and don't taste like much of anything, in case you haven't had the pleasure.

Kangaroo isn't worth traveling half way around the world for (it tastes a bit like beef liver but with the texture of beef muscle meat), especially since lamb is cheaper than chicken in Australia, but lamb doesn't give you an entry for the "Oh, yeah? Well here's what I ate" list.

If you find yourself in Iceland or anyplace where they serve whale, it is what beef wants to be when it's reincarnated. I do suggest passing on the puffin, however.
Gunnar Swanson

I think everyone over at PETA just fainted.

Three apropos:

One of my favorite movies scenes occurs in Albert Brook's "Defending Your Life." In the movie, the food in heaven is the most delicious, most colorful, most fresh ever. And yet, the most intelligent and advanced denizens (in this case Merryl Streep) prefer to eat the most awful looking glop. Smart people there prefer to eat things that look awful and taste awful (to other people).

For those of you in New York: Casa Mono on Irving Place serves Cocks Combs, try it for yourself.

For those of you in New York who like getting adventurous with food: About a year and a half ago, a few of us started the Gastronauts, a club for adventurous eaters. We meet monthly in different restaurants to savor delicacies like sweetbreads, goat's eyeballs... you name it we've tried it.


curtiss calleo

hey, I just ate fried ants with huge butts on my trip to Colombia. they´re definately worth a try!

I feel so sorry for the roosters.


If you ever find yourself in New Orleans, the sweetbreads at Galatois are wonderful.

(I suspect you'd want to start at the voodoo museum if you wanted to track down goat eyeballs in N.O.)

I feel sorry for the pancreas.
Gunnar Swanson

Rooster comb is indeed similar to chicken feet, in terms of texture and taste. My grandma used to make chicken soup and always used the chicken in the most efficient way possible (she killed it single-handedly as well). The comb was my favorite part. Then, of course came the feet. Never really cared for the dry, white meat.


Please! A new article/new picture soon! I can't stand to look at this rooster comb anymore! Makes me gag!

i thought the objects on the side of the Dali museum were a type of a typical spanish roll very popular there--how did i miss the dog reference?

ummm... I love sweetbreads more than anything. And I am from spain but never tried rooster´s comb.
felipe gil

Galatois for sweetbreads. Thank you, it's duly noted.
Re the Voodoo museum... The club has had goat's eyeball on a toothpick already. Yummy.
Curtiss calleo

Couldn't you have been more polite and used the Latin for this offering? like coccus for cock as to not seem so demotically male.

or even refer to the old English cock's comb: kam/ kamm (germanic)

Or is that forbidden on this colloquium? I got censored and deleted for using my Latin too cunningly? Yet others carry on otherwise.

Jobs | July 12