Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why Bother?

Why is it that people who live closest to living food sources are the least squeamish about what they eat? I’ve watched moose being dressed, minutes after they were shot dead, with miles of intestines being removed from their steaming stomach cavities by men who were soon as blood-covered as the animals they butchered. I’ve plucked and cleaned dead spruce grouse while they were still warm. I’ve scrubbed my frozen fingers clean after harvesting potatoes shortly before the arrival of the first killing frost, and one summer had the job of keeping a fire alive to smoke the corpse of a black bear. I can make myself irredeemably nauseated by conjuring up the memory of the stink from the guts of freshly caught king salmon.

I should be a supermarket’s biggest fan. I should appreciate packaged food that can be touched as little as possible, that has no odor and is free of hair or dirt. But I don’t and if I had to eat exclusively from a supermarket I would starve to death.

I live in a neighborhood where every morning before daybreak whole, dead pigs are delivered to men who put them into gigantic ovens and roast them at hellish temperatures. Six hours later they cut the succulent flesh into pieces and hang it in the front window of their food shop. They turn the unsalable leftover bits into sausage and sell the cooked ears and feet from heaps in little tubs. It is unspeakably delicious food sold in remarkably unattractive surroundings. I go there almost every day.

There are markets in my neighborhood—housed in buildings and under the guise of small supermarkets, but one deep breath after entering any of them will make it clear that these are not related to Safeway. These are places that smell, where men work at cutting up meat and fish for the entire time that the stores are open, and the odor of raw flesh permeates every corner of the building. The stores may be odiferous but the packaged meat is not. It smells sweet and fresh when removed from its plastic wrapping without a trace of the supermarket slimy feel that clings to the meat purchased in more hygienic and sterile surroundings. And after a few minutes of wandering the aisles of these indoor marketplaces, the odor is no longer noticeable at all.

It makes me comfortable when I smell odors where I buy my food. What bothers me is the sight of refrigerators. When food is chilled it has no smell and that’s when it’s dangerous. That’s when it can kill you.

I was healthiest when I lived in a country where refrigerators were used to chill beer. Food was eaten minutes after it was purchased and whatever wasn’t eaten on the spot was thrown away or fed to the dogs. The only time I ever had food poisoning in that place was when I ate Western food made with butter or cream—things that needed to be refrigerated and were kept beyond the point of no return. When I came back to the States and was presented with leftovers, I excused myself, went to the bathroom and was violently ill. Even now, after seven years of living with a refrigerator, I use it only to keep liquid cold.

One of the most savory and sought after foods in my neighborhood is the Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi, a lovely combination of meat, julienned vegetables, chilies, and cilantro contained between a small baguette that has been moistened with mayonnaise. Made to order and cheaper than a Big Mac, it is a staple for many people in the U.S., threatening to replace the hotdog as the quintessential meal on the run. Yet its popularity may debase it—some entrepreneurial food vendors have begun making their sandwiches well in advance of the noon rush, packaging them in white paper and storing them in refrigerators. I bought one of these premade sandwiches once and ended up throwing it away. The meat tasted stale, the vegetables limp, and the bread was soggy. Banh mi is intended to sparkle on the tongue, crisp and crunchy and sharply flavored. In a refrigerator, all of that loveliness fades away.

And yet after another ten years goes by, who will know what a true banh mi tastes like? Speed and convenience is the American way, along with a phobic distaste for unrefrigerated food. Who has time for freshness and who has the courage to let food stand at room temperature—or worse yet to ripen in the open air?

The biggest delicacy of my childhood was moose liver, thinly sliced and fried with onions within hours of being removed from a fresh kill. There was a clean, pure taste to that meat that I loved, even though I have never completely welcomed the texture of liver in my mouth. The memory of it, and the impossibility of finding it where I live now, makes me wonder about other vanished delicacies—English game fowl that was once hung in a cool dark place until it had achieved the proper taste, or jugged hare (don’t ask me—I have no idea), or sauerkraut, fermented in a crock for months, or the pickled eggs that were once sold in American bars. Malodorous, flavorful, forgotten—what else will be lost and who will remember?

Let’s face it—food is dirty; it smells; it rots. In its original form, it often has hair or feathers or great gobs of earth attached. It bleeds; it all too rapidly turns into the basis for penicillin. It is rarely a pretty sight in its natural state, and when it’s transformed into nourishment, it suffers pain—even tomatoes emit signs of distress when plucked from a vine. It requires skill and patience to prepare. Life would be easier, and so much less hazardous, if we simply swallowed a capsule to get what we need to sustain life. Food in a capsule, safe, convenient, and inoffensive, is certainly on its way.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Quo Vadis?

Quo vadis? Bpai nai? A donde va? (I can't do this in French because I don't know how to do accent marks here.) It's a sure sign of who I am that "Where are you going?" is a key phrase for me in several languages. Somehow I grew up misinterpreting the phrase "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." I don't know how I learned to take that as "Grab your passport and take off."

But there are vague indications that bed bugs may be growing from eggs to maturity in my apartment and my reaction hasn't been "I have to move to another apartment" but "I have to move to another country--one where DDT hasn't been banned." This is probably not a sane response to invasion by vermin, but it is mine.

The irony for me is that this time around I was prepared to stay. I was ready to wrinkle up and write in my little Chinatown apartment for the rest of my days. Unlike other U.S. sojourns when I got comfortable and cozy with the knowledge that it was going to be a temporary state of affairs.

But in this new domicile I have almost no furniture, I am unable to ask people to come over for fear that they will go home packing unseen hitch-hikers, I still have scars on my left arm which was covered with bites two months ago, and in February I spent twelve hours on the street while my apartment underwent fumigation. My landlord and his assistant informed me with gentle raillery the other day that golly gee yes they were fairly sure I was over-reacting when I learned I shared my apartment with bed bugs. I thought of the nights I was awakened by violent itching and tried not to look for something big and potentially lethal to throw at them as they relapsed into innocent merriment. Not funny, suckers, not one tiny bit.

I look on Craigslist and the apartments I can afford are all of the same vintage and ilk as the one I live in now--100 years old. lots of wood--and my inner alarm begins to jangle. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run...except to parts of the world where toxins are essential facts of life. Ecuador? Argentina? Deepest Peru?

Perhaps what is occasionally biting me is a colony of carpet mites--would that make a difference? It would for me. A bite or two every week I could live with. An arm swollen with bites and little fluid-filled pustules on the bones of my fingers--not acceptable.

Very few people react to the saliva of bed bugs. I do. If they are here, breeding and growing, it will soon be no secret to me. Or to any of you, because my screams of outrage and horror will float all across the Pacific Rim. Let us pray...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Book Report

"After living there a month, I could write a book. After a year I could write a post card."

Travel writing is easy--spend a month in a country, write about what you saw, what you did, what you ate. Flesh it out with answers you received to questions, what you thought about what you saw and heard, perhaps augment it with a romance on the road--voila! When done well, it's Dervla Murphy. When done badly, it's Eat, Pray, Love. When done grouchily, it's Paul Theroux. When done thoughtfully, it's Pico Iyer.

But if you stay in a country, your questions become more and more difficult to answer. Sometimes they become unanswerable. Sometimes they become unspeakable.

I've traveled in Southern Laos and was always taken aback by how sparsely populated the countryside is--more like rural Alaska than neighboring Thailand. After making half a dozen trips, I finally wrote about what I saw on a journey there, concluding with what I would never know as a tourist, unless I spent a long time of commitment to the place.

Then I read a manuscript written by a woman who has traveled deeply in Laos for over seven years. Her questions are piercing ones and she uses interpreters to get truthful answers. What I learned from Karen Coates about the countryside I journeyed through is that it's wild and unpopulated because the land holds death beneath its surface.

It's a legacy from the US, unexploded ordinance, UXO, that lurks beneath the ground that Lao people depend upon for their livelihoods. Much of the country's farmland holds bombs of all sizes, waiting to explode half a century after they were dropped. Farmers who traditionally grew food now dig up lethal metal that they will sell for scrap. It's "free"--the only cost is a limb or a face or a life.

The country is filled with death under the soil. Slowly, painstakingly, not fast enough, teams of detectors and detonators comb every inch of the areas they are sent to. One man, American Jim Harris, goes to places considered less risky than others, where people are injured or die from UXO frequently. The places are considered less risky because Laos is graded on a curve and the bar for danger is set quite high.

Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos by Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern is not travel literature, but anyone who is going to travel in Laos should read it, for their own safety's sake as well as to understand where they are and what they are looking at. It will take its place beside Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, Silent Spring and Earth in the Balance as a book that is going to help change the world--if it isn't too late for that to happen.