Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Carnivorous Childhood

I grew up on the Mediterranean diet--the real thing, not the kinder, gentler version popularized in the U.S. by a culinary and nutritional establishment compensating for decades of over-consumption of beef products.  In my Mediterranean diet, we ate animals twice a day.  (Here, I am counting eggs--which we typically ate for dinner--as animals, since my grandmother's hens ran with roosters, which meant the eggs were fertile.  Michelle B. and her legions will applaud me for this, I'm sure.)

Most of these animals appeared on my plate with many of their attributes intact:  fresh little sardines with eyes and heads and fins and tails;  whole baby octopuses, less than two inches long, swimming in my favorite soup;  squid, cut into rings but slathered in a magnificent black sauce made from their ink, which made the serving platter look like something from Goya's black period.  And the mussels, clams, crayfish and tiny lobsters that inhabited the Sunday paella, complete with the black, gray, ecru, or translucent shells in which they had lived.

That was just the first course, for which my mother shopped in Barcelona's fabulous fish markets.  It was my grandmother, from her farm in western Catalonia, who sent us the birds and beasts we consumed next.  My grandparents kept pigs--huge, pink, sausage-shaped beasts--and slaughtered  a couple every autumn.  I was never present at this ceremony, but I loved every ounce of the results:  rich, greasy serrano hams (today one of the most expensive foods in the world);  crisp little cubes of fatback that brought to life a serving of beans;  and garlands of sausages made by my grandmother's hands:  butifarra blanca, butifarra negra (blood pudding), xorisso....

My grandmother kept rabbits--cheap to feed, prolific, and a source of high-quality protein.  In the summer, I would watch her slaughter one in the courtyard of the farm house.  It was like a speeded-up film sequence:  grab rabbit by hind legs, stun with blow to head, cut off same.  Hang body from hook.  Cut circles around hocks, and somehow (my vision was hampered by my short stature) yank off skin in a single motion, like a glove.  Cut open abdomen, scoop out entrails, call cats to feast.

An hour later, a rabbit arm lay on my plate, reddish-brown and transmuted by a sauce made with mortar-chopped almonds.  Next to the arm lay a special treat for me, the single child among twelve adults:  two small bean-shaped organs, what my grandmother called the ouets, the little eggs.  Were they kidneys, testes, ovaries?  I never thought to ask.  Were they good?  I don't remember.

There were chickens, too, and for Christmas, a couple of capons instead of a turkey.  Not a part of these was wasted.  Breasts and thighs and legs were brought to the table, but while we ate them, the next day's soup was simmering on the stove, made up of chicken backs, and heads, and legs.  For some reason, the comb---la cresta--perhaps because of its decorative merits, was brought to the table.  And yes, served to me.  Can't remember how it tasted.

What else did we eat?  Very little beef.  No milk after age two.  Gallons of olive oil, entire braids of garlic, ovenfuls of crusty bread to soak up all that oil and all those sauces.  Seasonal vegetables in moderation.  Every month or so, there was a religious holiday with its own special dessert, which you always bought ready-made:  turrons at Christmas;  tortell for the January feast of the Epiphany;  crema catalana on St. Joseph's day, in March;  la mona de Pascua at Easter....Otherwise, it was fruit and nuts.

If she knew what I eat today, my grandmother would be mystified.  For some reason, I have become reluctant to eat anything that looks like an animal.  Anything remotely anatomically accurate, I'd rather do without:  chicken knees, turkey wishbones, the blood of a cow oozing off a steak.  Is this hypocrisy?  Does it mean I'm o.k. eating meat--say, "chicken tenders"--as long as it doesn't remind me of the death of a living being?  Do I think eating meat is immoral?

I want to make it clear that I don't think eating meat is morally wrong--or I would be a hypocrite for drinking milk and eating eggs, which condemn to death 99.9% of the males of the species.  I do think that consuming the meat (or the eggs, or the milk) of animals that have been kept in inhumane circumstances is immoral for those of us who have the resources to make other choices.

I don't know what's right--do you?  It's possible that some people's physiology makes it impossible for them to thrive without daily servings of meat.  On the other hand, other people's preferences/philosophies/aesthetics make it important for them to avoid animal products.  This is a uniquely contemporary debate:  never before have such choices been available in such abundance.

How do you feel about eating animals?






9 comments :

  1. The older I get...almost 52...the harder it is to eat meat, especially any resembling its former self...I see this with a lot of woman my age and older, and I wonder if it is a preservative measure? Both for myself as a healthier way to live and also, perhaps, a biological/evolutionary reason? (Giving the young ones the meat instead to promote their health, instead of the older generation having the lion's share once we are past our prime.)

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  2. Sending J now to read this. He will respond after contemplation ;-)

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  3. Jaimie, who knows why this happens? I know I now think twice about a lot I used to take for granted in my callow youth. This week's New Yorker article about ancient ruins in Turkey cites the theory that in switching from hunting/gathering to agriculture humans became shorter, sicklier, more sexist, crueler....

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  4. This is an important question for me that I've thought about a lot, but reached no firm conclusions. One part is real easy. Don't consume any animal product from a factory farm. It is only recently that we in Nashville (TN) have been able to avoid the factory farm in animal products, with the "free range" label and with farmer's markets.

    Getting beyond ethics, health seems to be promoted by eating a plant-based diet. A personal statement is hardly a study, but I went vegetarian about 20 years ago and more or less vegan about one year ago, and can't detect a loss of energy yet.

    You're right that vegetarian doesn't take you the full step towards ethical eating if you stay with milk, cheese and eggs. But, taking one step (say going vegan 1 day a week) cuts the slaughter, promotes health, and improves the environment a tiny, tiny amount, and that's not hypocritical.

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  5. I agree completely, John. If you can't ameliorate, mitigate! (But what in the world am I going to feed you the next time you visit? You'll have to send recipes ahead.)

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  6. I will, starting with vegan pumpkin pie. (Hint: it uses cashew nuts instead of eggs.)

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  7. Great. We have cashews, and lord knows, we have pumpkin in the freezer!

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  8. Lali, I too had a carnivorous childhood, growing up on a farm that was all free range, close to organic, and about as far as you can get from a factory farm. I still eat meat. I expect I will continue to do so, even though I also regularly eat vegetarian and vegan meals too.

    (You might have prompted another post here).

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  9. Mali, those diversified farms are coming back into vogue, at least in Vermont. Our neighborhood award-winning cheese maker, Consider Bardwell farm, now pastures cows, goats, chickens and pigs. The chickens clean the pastures of parasites after the goats and cows have moved on, and the pigs grow fat on all the whey from cheese making.

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