Happy Bloomsday!

Nothing rings in Bloomsday like a lamb kidney with mustard gravy, boiled potatoes, and sliced tomato.

Nothing rings in Bloomsday like a lamb kidney with mustard gravy, boiled potatoes, and sliced tomato.

For those who are not Modern literature enthusiasts and/or residents of Dublin, Bloomsday is a celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Notorious for being banned for obscenity in multiple countries (including the U.S.), Ulysses is ironically recognized as the most influential but least read book of the twentieth century. All of the book’s events take place during the course of a single day – you guessed it – June 16, 1904, a day that gained personal significance to Joyce when he went on a first date with his wife, Nora Barnacle, on a June 16.

The first few episodes of the novel are narrated by Stephen Dedalus, an intellectual utterly trapped in his own mind. The novel picks up with Dedalus where Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man left him, but Joyce shifts the narration to a Jewish Dubliner named Leopold Bloom in the fourth episode. Bloom is the antithesis of Dedalus: where Dedalus’ language is elevated, Bloom’s is plain; where Dedalus’ thoughts stew in memories, Bloom’s are saturated with sensory details of the present.

You’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the photo I posted above, so with that background information out of the way, I can explain. Since 1954 (50 years after the events in the book take place), Dublin has brought Ulysses to life by celebrating Bloomsday, a unique literary holiday during which visitors and residents of Dublin relive the events in the book by traveling the route Bloom and Dedalus take as they wind their way through the city and knit their experiences together. I plan to visit Dublin during my time abroad in order to make my own pilgrimage, but in the meantime, thousands of miles away in Charlottesville, I needed to find another way to immerse myself. My encounter with Bloom, I decided, had to be sensory. Specifically, gustatory.

We meet Bloom as he’s preparing breakfast:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

I’d never eaten kidneys, but I’m an adventurous eater and was up for the challenge. My search for kidneys began two days ago and took me to six different butcher shops, my path criss-crossing through Charlottesville. At the second Kroger I visited, the butcher eyed me curiously. “I’ve been here since the 1980,” he told me, “and when people would hear about us getting a lamb carcass in, they’d be here first thing in the morning to make sure they could get the kidneys if they were still attached.” He shook his head. “That’s the last I’ve seen them, though.”

He sent me over to the Carriage House, alternately called Anderson’s Old Fashioned Butcher, a dimly lit, linoleum floored building perfumed by the slabs of fish resting in glass coolers ringing the room. “You need help with somethin’ honey?” a grizzled woman called out to me as I peered at a fleshy white plank of halibut. Her eyes bugged out when I asked about my kidneys. “We don’t have anything like that here,” she said. “But I used to work at Food Lion and I have some connections. Hold on.” I waited patiently as she dialed her friend.

“No? You don’t have any? Okay. Thank you, baby boy. You take care.” She hung up. “You might want to try Reid’s. They usually have weird — ” She glanced around. “Pardon my French, but weird shit like that.” I thanked her and drove to Reid’s. “No, we don’t have any. A lady had us special order some a few weeks ago, so we could do that if you don’t need them right away.” (I did need them right away.) “She fed them to her dogs,” the butcher added.

For such a rare find, the kidneys were surprisingly cheap. It makes sense -- they're rare because no one seems to want them any more.

For such a rare find, the kidneys were surprisingly cheap. It makes sense — they’re rare because no one seems to want them any more.

Finally, Foods of All Nations came through with a shelf full of frozen lamb kidneys. (Bloom actually eats mutton kidney, but finding any kidney at all was so difficult that I was satisfied with settling.) By this point in the day, I was really enjoying the odd looks I was receiving. Kidney isn’t in high demand, but especially by my demographic (early 20s American female).

Having never cooked kidney before, I needed to do some research before I dove into cooking. I thawed the kidneys overnight in the refrigerator and rose early the next day so that I would have time to cook before I had to go to work. A thread ominously entitled “Kidney Fail” suggested soaking the kidneys in a salt water and white vinegar bath to help reduce the kidneys’ tell-tale whiff of urine, so I set them up in a bath and added some ice cubes to keep them fresh while they soaked for an hour.

Everyone thought the kidneys looked like little fetuses bobbing gently in the water.

My mercifully non-judgmental housemates thought the kidneys looked like little fetuses bobbing gently in the water.

Meanwhile, I picked out an audiobook recording of Ulysses on YouTube and began my breakfast with my version of the Gorgonzola and mustard sandwich Bloom enjoys for lunch. Bloom visited Davy Byrne’s Pub, a restaurant still frequented today. Until I make it to Dublin, my version of Bloom’s sandwich would have to make do, and it actually turned out to be a startlingly delicious combination of flavors.

I've found my new favorite sandwich.

I’ve found my new favorite sandwich.

The Gorgonzola was creamy and salty, and the Dijon mustard I used blended with the tang of the rich blue mold that marbled the cheese. Thin leaves of arugula added texture and a refreshing pepperiness that balanced the richness of the cheese. With no soda bread (and actually no bread at all, since I don’t eat bread – Laura, if you’re reading this, I owe you a slice), I ate a half sandwich on wheat. I decided against port wine, the other vital component of Bloom’s meal, since it was only 9 o’ clock in the morning. This is a sandwich I will make again, Bloomsday or not.

As my little kidneys soaked away and Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus annoyed each other on the audiobook, I nervously Googled for recipes and instructions. Although Bloom eats his kidney plain, with only pan drippings for dressing, I opted for a recipe that called for a red wine vinegar/Dijon mustard cream sauce, hoping that the strong flavors would soften the kidneys’ peculiar flavor. Additionally, I stumbled across this incredibly helpful video:

After cleaning the kidneys as the video described, I dropped them into the pan, where they happily sizzled away in a pool of butter.

After cleaning the kidneys as the video described, I dropped them into the pan, where they happily sizzled away in a pool of butter.

That white membrane is no joke. I ended up having to wash the scissors from my desk because they were the only ones sharp enough to snip through the slippery white spines of gristle.

I know I cooked the kidneys correctly because the texture was just right — the bite was juicy with just the right amount of resistance, like a firmer version of a scallop. My taste buds had been primed by the smell of the soaking kidneys, and I waited curiously for their conclusion. They buzzed skeptically as I chewed, waiting until I swallowed to offer a verdict. “That is not food,” they said in unanimous agreement. “Do. Not. Eat. More.”

DSCN1800

The kidney didn’t taste like excrement by any means; don’t be fooled by the horrified reviews you may find online. Unfortunately, the “fine tang of faintly scented urine” lingered in my palate for the rest of the day, a briny, bitter-saltiness paired with a rich meatiness unlike anything I’ve tasted before. Uncharacteristically, I couldn’t bring myself to finish the rest of my kidney and made a bowl of oatmeal instead. However, by the end of the day, the taste had settled comfortably into my palate, tinging the rest of the foods I ate but not unpleasantly.

I think on some level I always knew I'd end up eating oatmeal for breakfast.

I think on some level I always knew I’d end up eating oatmeal for breakfast.

Leopold Bloom is drawn to the most pungent flavors available, a sensory dimension to his character that can’t fully come to life from the page alone. He takes pleasure in his food, giving great thought to planning and obtaining his meals. Ulysses is a daunting book, and there are still entire episodes that I missed as I followed the sporadic but thoughtfully chosen stabs my survey of Modern literature took at it. But after spending this Bloomsday exploring Bloom’s particular tastes, I’ve found a new way into a book that continues to captivate me.

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