Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Ick Factor

For strictly research purpose, I've been watching old episodes of Julia Child's The French Chef show. Needless to say, its amazing. As RX (R's new title on the blog), once pointed out, "She could not get on television today." And its true. She couldn't even get on television in Britain back when she was a star (they thought she was drunk on camera). What's wonderful about her show is all her quirks and the overall lack of polish (except when it comes to the food, of course)-- she's out of breath halfway through the episode, she drops things, and she often forgets what she's going to say and glares directly into the camera. I'd like to think the sheer amount of butter and oil she pours into everything would make modern cooks blush but then Paula Deen, or as I like to call her, Satan, does unfortunately exist in this world. (Deen is the inventor of the Lady's Brunch Burger.)

But what blew me away about Julia's show is her embrace (girly as it is) of what I've dubbed the Ick Factor. She starts off the Boulaibasse show with a close up on a giant fish head which she then rips the gills out of to show why you shouldn't cook with them (they're full of "impurities"). In the same show she tosses whole fish into broth and continually refer to them as cute. When a live lobster protests against being boiled alive by slapping Julia's fingers with its tail she turns it into a little goof by adding sound effects-- pampampampam! Yes, adorable. In the age of icanhascheezeburger and Hello Kitty, cute as edible wouldn't exactly fly on mainstream television and neither would putting a face to what you're eating. At least not for your standard American audience.

For years regular, middle-class Americans have stopped looking at what they're eating in the eye. That's more of a rest-of-the-world thing but thanks to globalization its inching its way back to US waters. One of the many criticism rained upon Big Food-- the industrialized food system that is sucking the life out of the earth, according to most-- is that the neatly packaged, brightly colored, shapeless animal parts that Americans consume belie the animals they once were (and, in the majority of cases, the suffering they underwent). In a way, its a lack of respect and a denial of reality and I know I've been guilty of it.

Last year I criticized my mom for not wanting to hear about the pictures of cute little lambs eating pasture on the website for Mitzvah Meats (or Mindful Meats as they are also known)-- a farm that specialized in the "ethical kosher slaughter of healthy, grass-fed, non-factory raised meat!"-- from where I ordered 10 lbs of lamb (my official reintroduction to meat eating). But at that time, I forgot why I became vegetarian in the first place-- beyond the ethical mumbo jumbo and health stuff.

I was in Budapest and my Hugarian friend invited me to see a movie called Taxidermia. It was based on the short stories of famous Hungarian writer Lajos Parti Nagy and followed three generations of utterly disgusting men doing incredibly grotesque things with food. (I actually highly recommend it, its incredible, just don't eat before or after watching it.) During the first part of the film a Hungarian Mangalista pig is slaughtered, has its fur burned off, and its carcass split open down the belly. Other, more horrendous and unnatural things happen during the movie but let's hang on to this one because I sure as hell did.

Growing up, my family (and every other Puerto Rican family) always ended up going to at least one party where a whole hog was slow roasted over an open fire, a pole sticking out of its mouth and rear. In those more innocent days, that pig looked delicious and the men who attended to it would cut off pieces of the crispy skin and give it to us kids. We loved it! Even now when we go to Guavate, a town devoted exclusively to the production and cooking of pork in all its glorious manifestations, you see three or four pigs at a time rigged similarly, mouths open wide and eye sockets staring out emptily.

But, as an adult, after watching that Hungarian film and the slaughter of that pig, I could not bring myself to eat pork that Christmas. And I tried. I would pick up a piece of pernil or lechón and take it up to my mouth but I just couldn't get it past my lips. I set it back down and had more rice. This went on for months until I went to Spain where legs of pork hang from store fronts and where whole suckling pig is served eye-balls still in. My heritage won me over and got me back on pork. Since then I notice that I'm now more hesitant about meat than I once was. Its not something I take lightly as my going on and on about it on this blog will tell you. Watching that pig get slaughtered on film created a certain amount of perspective-- and respect-- for meat.

Because of my own tumultuous transformation into conscientious omnivore (again with the titles), I've noticed a subtle uprising in the food world of people willing to take responsibility for what they're eating and embrace the inherent nastiness of eating animals. On TV (Travel Channel mostly, which says something) you have the cooks-as-rebels like Anthony Bourdaine touting the wonders of offal and nice-guy-adventurers like Andrew Zimmern disarming and lauding the "weird" foods of other cultures. These styles of eating that look beyond the muscle and fat of animals and to less common livestock like goats, rabbits, and frogs, are brought to your kitchen by sites like Serious Eats' The Nasty Bits and Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating cookbook.

The killing process itself is still hard to swallow but people are making the effort. You have autistic author and animal scientist Temple Grandin's book Animals in Translation where she makes the point which that animals kill each other in nature all the time. Its the quality of their lives that really counts and how they are taken to the slaughter. (This also affects the quality of the meat.) Chefs are now more likely to try their hand at slaughter-- take David Chang of the Momofuku empire who adopted a piglet at a pig farm and will watch it grow to adulthood and kill and eat it himself, in part to cope with the amount of pork he uses at his restaurants. Even non-professionals are taking matters into their owns hands and learning to slaughter to avoid the abuse of animals within the current system. Rabbits are particularly popular "gateway" animals for learning to kill your own food.

While I'm not sure I'm there yet, I've definitely become more selective about what meat I choose. Do you think its hypocritical to eat meat if you can't stomach the transition from animal to food? Can you look at your food and call it cute?

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