boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
Tom Parker Bowles
(Jennifer Taylor for The Boston Globe)

A day of eating dangerously

From ant egg salad to anise-scented spleen to jelled blood, Tom Parker Bowles has a taste for the unusual

NEW YORK - Tom Parker Bowles is standing in front of a sign covered in Chinese characters. Two English words have attracted his attention: HOT and SPICY. Outside it's pouring, a perfect day to curl up with a cup of tea and a book. Instead, Parker Bowles is hungrily prowling the fluorescent-lit aisles of the J&L Mall in Queens, home to an assortment of stalls selling noodles, dumplings, and much more. It's the "much more" Parker Bowles is interested in. He's here in search of dangerous food.

Parker Bowles is the author of a new book, "The Year of Eating Dangerously," which cheekily chronicles his adventures consuming everything from ant egg salad to hot sauce so scorching it should be illegal. The book offers more than "he ate what?" sensationalism; it also prods our culinary preconceptions, asking why "one man's insect is another man's garni," as Parker Bowles writes. Perhaps these stalls will yield something new for him to taste, or at least something interesting.

Back in his native UK, Parker Bowles, 33, writes about food for Tatler and the Mail on Sunday and cohosts a TV show called "Market Kitchen." He is also the son of Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall, who is, he says, quite a good cook. Currently, Prince Charles's stepson is poking at his stomach and grinning goofily, attempting to mime what he wants to a friendly vendor. "Tripe?" he asks. "Belly?" A crowd of curious Chinese diners gathers behind him; the British bloke with the tousled hair, Miles Davis T-shirt, and red, white, and blue Adidas is causing a stir.

The man hands him pieces of organ meat on a toothpick. Parker Bowles eats a chunk of tripe, then some spleen, fatty and anise-scented. "That's good!" he says politely, chewing and chewing. This is child's play for the man who drank cobra bile in China, tried to dine with Mafiosi in Sicily, and choked down dog in Korea.

That last was a difficult one for him. "I'm a dog lover," he says, "but it's another form of protein - it's just meat. We have no problem with eating factory-farmed chicken and pigs. They live short, wretched, horrible, horrible lives. It's hypocrisy. So I went to eat dog, and it wasn't much fun. How it's raised is unbelievably cruel."

Parker Bowles is motivated to write about food in part by politics. He continues impassionedly, "We should eat meat that's reared humanely. A happy animal tastes better. In Spain or Italy, they understand a good piece of meat is going to cost more. In Britain, cheap food is the mantra, but there's a cost to our health, our environment, our economy."

Here he's on common ground with Prince Charles. "He was talking about sustainable, organic food way ahead of his time," Parker Bowles says. "He's a huge supporter of the British farmer. He knows his stuff - he knows lots more of the politics than I do."

Parker Bowles's main motivation for writing is appetite. "Smelly tofu?" he asks a man behind another counter. He tastes a bite of bean curd - not smelly. This food court isn't yielding much in the way of culinary danger. "Mm mmm," he tells the tofu man. He rubs his belly and smiles.

"That's what food does for me, that sharing," he says. Even if you can't speak the language, "you can still make the right noises."

We move down the street, still hoping to pick a fight with lunch. There must be menace somewhere in the restaurants and food stands of Flushing. Our mouths are numb from eating Sichuan noodles, but we haven't come across anything with aphrodisiac properties, no silkworm pupae or blowfish sperm. Then again, we are looking for something new.

The problem is that Parker Bowles has already eaten a good many of the world's dishes. He can't help himself - he's obsessed with food. How long has he been this way? "Straight from the start," he says. "It's always been love. Greed, really."

It's good, then, that nothing at the Golden Shopping Mall, our next stop, costs more than $3 or $4. "It's cheaper than McDonald's, and so much better," Parker Bowles says.

At first Golden looks like more of the same. Then, toward the back, we find a man selling fresh noodles, spicy, springy between the teeth, and studded with meat. They're delicious.

The stall operator approaches our table and sets something down. "Chinese hamburger!" he announces. It's a bun filled with ground lamb, greasy and laced with cumin seed. "It's ultimate drunk food," Parker Bowles says, sighing with pleasure.

"This is the food of Xi'an," says a voice behind us. It belongs to a mischievous-looking fellow wearing a pink striped shirt and a white visor. "It's royal food, from the first empire city in China. It dates back to the Qin dynasty." The stall operator nods in agreement.

"Mmwrfff," Parker Bowles says. His mouth is full. He hasn't been to Xi'an, hadn't sampled the region's hearty cuisine, centered around flavors spicy and sour.

Next up is a plate of dark red, gelatinous cubes, nestled in a field of shredded cucumber and bean sprouts. The guy in the visor looks concerned. "Can you eat that? I can't eat that." The gelatinous cubes are blood.

Of course Parker Bowles can eat that. The blood is milder than liver, and the dish swims in a sauce of puckery vinegar and chilies. "It's so rich," he says.

"Your mother will see your picture!" says visor man, eyeing the photographer's camera. "She will call you and say, 'Son, what are you eating?' " He laughs.

But soon we can't eat another bite. The stall operator won't let us pay for a thing. Parker Bowles thanks him profusely, and we waddle off to find the car.

As he lolls in the passenger seat, Parker Bowles reflects back on what was most interesting about the day. "The regionalness," he says. "The Sichuan, the Northwest. It was properly Chinese as well. It was like going into a different world. It wasn't the haute cuisine of the Cantonese. It was proper comfort food, wasn't it?"

Perfect for a rainy day, but not very dangerous. Parker Bowles will head back to England the next morning, to his wife, Sara, a fashion editor. They're expecting a baby any day now, their first. For a while, Parker Bowles may not have much time for adventuring.

But there's at least one more terrifying meal ahead of him. "Airline food," he says, "is probably the most dangerous."

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES