Food with Its Head On

Dragon Star Oriental Foods
633 Minnehaha Ave. W., St. Paul; (651) 488-2567

When I was little, my mom used to work some fairly strange pets-or-meat excursions into our weekly routine: We'd drop by the neighborhood live-chicken market and feed the birds through their cages, or stop by the little trout farm off the highway and feed the trout food pellets sold at the farm just for zoo-starved kids like me. Boy, I tell ya, those fish could jump!

I think those markets are where my lifelong ambivalence about the whole pets-and-meat thing began: You just wouldn't believe what a maudlin, sentimental, ravenous carnivore I can be. One minute I'm all about who fits into which pot, and the next I'm ready to set my appetizers free in the Mississippi. Well, not the Mississippi, because that would cause who-knows-what harmful species interaction. But somewhere. My bathtub, maybe. Or a carefully contained free-range appetizer preserve.

So it went in the aisles at Dragon Star, to which I was initially drawn for its remarkable selection of live crabs--Dungeness, soft-shell, blue, even king--and where I then couldn't get past the live turtles. Me, who was eating turtle not three months ago! Me, who was so intrigued by Joseph Mitchell's 1939 essay about a freshwater turtle farm ("The Same as Monkey Glands") that I read it a dozen times. But there among the live tilapia--bony, firm-fleshed fish famed for standing up to heavy sauces and getting on well in captivity--were half a dozen dark green turtles, swimming around in one of Dragon Star's large aquaria, cutely sticking their snouts out the top of the tank. Really, they looked for all the world like a Como Zoo exhibit.

Dan Ford, an insurance agent and crack Asian cook whom I met in the aisles of Dragon Star, says I should have been there for the frogs: "They were these big green frogs. I looked at them and just put on blinders and went past them. I was trying to imagine how to serve them--put them on a platter and put parsley around their feet? Maraschino cherries in their mouths? Mmm. No, let's not do that."

But Ford has a healthier attitude toward the pets-or-meat dilemma than I do: He is quick to point out that just because you trim off a critter's head and tail doesn't make it tofu--and doesn't even necessarily make it tasty. "We've somehow sanitized and insulated ourselves from the origins of our food," muses Ford, "I think it's so funny. Good cooks will tell you that you get flavor from the heads and the bones--but you never see them on the plate. At least not where I'm from. It's like if you can't see the head, it was never there."

In fact, Ford is proof that curiosity and taste will set you free, at least from the world of sanitized protein slabs. He grew up in the little Minnesota town of Lindström, whose cuisine, he says, was based largely on cream of mushroom soup. But living in Europe he got to be friends with a group of Asian women who taught him to appreciate fresh, spicy, and identifiable foodstuffs; back in Minnesota he's made Dragon Star a part of his routine, scoping the aquariums and the nearby ice counters for the freshest water critters. And no, he says, his mom still doesn't understand how her nice boy could have grown up to love cuttlefish: "I'm thinking, Mom, if I can eat lutefisk--and you know, some people serve it topped with bacon grease--if I can eat lutefisk, I can eat anything."

"Anything" can get fairly adventurous at Dragon Star. Recent visits brought me face-to-face with mounds of fresh-frozen smelt piled up like golden ice chips ($1.99/lb), bright-eyed, strawberry-red snapper ($3.99/lb), beautiful California-farmed striped bass as plump as bolognas ($3.99/lb)--and, one rare day, a pair of king crabs, which simultaneously suggested some deluxe aquarium exhibit and the best dinner ever. These crabs were bigger than basketballs and must have had wingspans of 6 feet. They looked like pebbly spike balls with eyes visiting from Mars, poised on legs of tastiest joy. They were also $12.99 a pound and looked to be at least 10 pounds each. They made me frantic for a special occasion, and mad that I hadn't taken my camera grocery-shopping. Forget pets and meat: These were chimeras and meat.

Another day saw a tank full of those geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck) clams--these are weirdo meat, in my book. They're shellfish with thick necks that can be a foot and a half long. I wish I could tell you how much they cost, but the men behind the counter started avoiding me after I kept pointing at the crustaceans and then frantically waving my hands to indicate I didn't actually want to purchase any.

Language is a complicated matter at Dragon Star. Imagine Chinese, Pakistanis, and geoduck-eschewing reporters on one side of the counter, Latinos and West Indians on the other, and multilayered conversations built out of nothing but pointing, nodding, good will, and an appreciation of lively, edible varmints.

Sometimes the whole scene can get thrillingly chaotic. Picture a late Saturday morning when all the blue crabs have been picked through. Customers poke at the remaining dead ones with tongs and sigh. Suddenly, a man emerges from the back room with a fresh box held over his head and people surge from the aisles, forgoing tongs and just grabbing the clawing critters with their hands, dropping them into plastic bags as quickly as they can snatch them. "It's just like the State Fair," notes Ford. "Everyone's looking for their cheese-curd equivalent." And to the mighty go the spoils: "I've had these 4-foot women push me right out of the way," says Ford. "It's like: Don't even think about touching that crab, fella--it's mine."

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