Sheep eyes are considered a delicacy in certain parts of the world, including many areas of the Middle East. A friend of mine from Sicily said his mother actually used to eat them all the time. But sheep eyes are not so easy to come by here in the U.S..
For starters, I tried calling several restaurants in LA specializing in Moroccan, Ethiopian, Lebanese, Greek and Tunisian food.
One by one, they told me that their meat providers did not supply heads and that they would not be able to prepare any sheep eyes for us.With some gentle nudging-make that a lot of nudging--the manager of one Ethiopian restaurant finally broke down and said he'd try to round up some heads for me.
So, without further ado, we decided to test the eyes by removing them from the head with a spoon and boiling them in a pot (the restaurant had recommended that we reheat the eyes to make sure they would be safe to eat). By the time we finished boiling the already-cooked eyes, we found they shrunk down quite a bit. That's when I decided to cut out the Ethiopian middle man, find some raw sheep's heads of our own, and try boiling the eyes directly. That way, hopefully, the eyes would be a little bigger when we served them. I called sheep farmers and agents at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to find out more about obtaining and cooking sheep eyes. I started learning more than I ever cared to know about sheep. Did you know that sheep have four stomachs? Did you know that the flesh of mature sheep is called mutton and that of immature sheep is called lamb? One shepherd in Indiana made a point of telling me he never ate sheep eyes before but that brains tasted real good. The problem with eating sheep brains, he said, is that they're just so darn hard to get out of the head. Experts assured me there would be no danger in eating boiled sheep eyes. One top University of California professor who teaches a food safety course told me that many fears surrounding food simply involve subjective perceptions and fear of the unfamiliar. He said the late Sen. Bobby Kennedy once had to eat sheep eyes on a trip to Africa to keep from offending the locals. The U.S. ambassador accompanying him told him to just pretend they were oysters. A couple of California sheep farmers eventually pointed me in the direction of a downtown meat company that would be able to get us some heads. I called and asked if I could just buy some eyeballs. They said they couldn't sell me the eyeballs separately but they could sell me a box of USDA-approved frozen heads (complete with eyes) that would be fit for human consumption. Typically, the heads are sold to vendors in Mexico. They told us to just slip fingers into the socket, pull out the eye, and cut the cord. Yuck. While removing the eyes, we had to be very careful not to break the membrane. Two of the membranes actually did break during the process and black fluid oozed out. Some of the heads still had eyelashes on them and you could see the dirty teeth and tongues hanging out of the mouths. Put simply, it was pretty gross.
Once we removed all the eyes, we placed them in baggies and kept them refrigerated overnight for the big day. On the day of the big shoot, we found a hidden corner of the barn to serve as our makeshift kitchen. We filled a big pot with water, brought it to a boil on a portable stove, and boiled us up some eyes. They gave off a putrid smell as they boiled and shrunk a bit as they bobbed around in the pot. After about 45 minutes of boiling, we poured them out into a Mason jar and served 'em up.
Mission accomplished. They didn't go down easy. Our contestants found that the smell, the rubbery texture and the fluid inside the eyes did not make for a particularly appetizing dish. At least not in this country, anyway.
by RICH BROWN