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.


shaved monkey said...

I would like to see the research (no doubt, it exists) on what effect six months on the space station has on the health of astronauts who have no choice but to eat exclusively freeze-dried and reconstituted food for that long.

janet brown said...

That's a disgusting and terrifying thought.

Dr. Will said...

Nan wanted food to take with her on the long bus ride to Phayao and what she wanted was a bucket of KFC. I tried to talk her out of it but the lady has a mind of her own. I sampled some and it was as delicious and as fake as I remembered it. At least she'll have home cooked meals from the fresh market with mom.

janet brown said...

How does your wife stay slim while snacking on KFC?????

Tokyo Ern said...

You've lived and/or traveled around Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, and China, when are you going to make a culinary tour of Japan?

You can try the really fresh fish (meaning alive) for starters!

janet brown said...

I've seen them flip off the counter in a Hong Kong wet market.

Tokyo Ern said...

Here is another blog that might interest you. Its one I read regularly as well. The title is Rurousha. The blogger is a South African woman who is or was a copy-editor and book lover currently living in Japan. This is her URL, I had recommended your blog to her as well. You will enjoy her latest post as she features a book about Malaysia titled "Malaysian Flavours".

janet brown said...

Thanks, Ernie--I just spent half an hour reading Rurousha--fun!