I swung the door open just as Jeffrey was taking a machete to a disembodied pig’s head.
The other cooks stood around watching, arms crossed over blood-smeared aprons. They looked up when they heard the door and grinned sheepishly. “Headcheese,” Colin said, by way of explanation. “Sorry.”
I looked at the knives and the hunks of pig scattered about the wooden cutting board, and shrugged. “I think southeast Asia has cured me of any squeamishness toward animal parts,” I said nonchalantly. And I tied on my apron and got to work.
It was my third shift back. I’d taken a three-month sabbatical from my waitressing job at a trendy Bay Area restaurant, Boot and Shoe Service, to travel around southeast Asia.
The reverse culture shock upon returning had been profound. Where were all the motorbikes? Why were the streets so clean and well-paved? Why did all the food at the grocery store look so perfect, so sanitized? And why did the store smell like plastic instead of, well, like food?
How a society eats is both one of the most easily accessible and one of the most deeply telling aspects of a culture. Eating in a foreign country is both a lofty anthropological glimpse into a society’s psyche and a visceral adventure that, alas, can send you dashing to the nearest squat toilet.
When you see Westerners walking through a street market in southeast Asia, they often look slightly queasy at the sights and smells: the plucked fowl hanging limply from hooks, the still-alive fish flopping out of their plastic tubs, the women waving fans at the flies that settle on heads, hooves, and chunks of flesh, the ripe odor of raw meat blooming in the humidity. It’s the total opposite of the shrink-wrapped, FDA-approved supermarket culture of the West.
I’m not gonna lie: I, too, was a bit unnerved at first. The literal rawness of market culture in southeast Asia is jarring. Watching a tiny woman crouch down in a pajama suit and hack off a chicken head seems brutal and surreal. Ordering a bowl of soup and seeing a chicken foot poke out of the translucent tangle of rice noodles is startling and, well, not immediately appetizing.
The classic Western attitude is: Yes, I eat meat, but I don’t want to think about the fact that I eat meat. None of us, apparently, want to be confronted with the reality of what meat is.
When I was London a few years back, Marcus the Lamb was the big local controversy. I listened to a discussion of the issue on talk radio blaring through a friend’s basement flat while we brewed morning coffee.
Marcus was a lamb that, as a lesson in the breeding and rearing of livestock, a primary school had adopted. The students had named the lamb and did cute things like bottle-feed him. Six months later, it was time for the lesson to culminate: Marcus was to be slaughtered. But by then, of course, the livestock lesson seemed to have been forgotten. Parents complained, animal-rights activists threatened, the school headmistress was branded a murderer, and some of the pupils were reported to have developed stress-related insomnia.
But the school officials held firm: Teaching children where their food came from was the point of the lesson, and the school wasn’t going to cancel the class. A national debate raged over the issue, centering, it seemed, on the extent to which the urbanized Western world has become disassociated from its food.
I considered this all as I chewed my toast in the gray London light. During my 12-year run as a meat avoider, I’d maintained that meat eaters should know and acknowledge the reality of meat consumption. I wasn’t one of those PETA activists plastering horror-movie pictures of slaughterhouses around town, but I’d always thought, “Well, if you eat the stuff, you should be able to handle a head or a hoof.”
So a year before that London trip, when dietary complications and weariness at the vegan lifestyle slowly led me to begin eating meat again, I held myself to that same standard. If I was gonna do it, I reasoned, I was gonna do all of it: bone marrow, lengua, headcheese. I wasn’t going to hide from the fact of it, and I wasn’t going to be wasteful.
Living in the Bay Area and working in the restaurant industry, it’s easy to make mindful, informed decisions about where your food comes from — to nestle in the cozy, bedtime-story feeling a cruelty-free label provides. But there’s still a separation; after all, I buy sausage from a local ranch at the farmers’ market, but the meat is still packaged. There’s no interaction with the reality of what I’m eating; there’s just an abstract knowledge that it’s free-range, local, and sustainable, and thus presumably guilt-free.
But in most of the world, there are no food labels, and hardly any packaging. Instead, there’s the tiny curled fetus of a Cambodian fertilized duck egg. Or the goat head floating in your bowl of stew in a Moroccan medina. Or the cabeza tacos served at a street stall in Mexico.
When you’re confronted with heads and eyeballs and recognizable anatomy that doesn’t seem so different from your own, you’re confronted with two things: the reality of what you’re eating, and your own Western assumptions.
After a few weeks in southeast Asia, I adapted; what had once seemed weird became normal. I didn’t look twice at the rows of raw meat, and market smells that initially struck me as pungently unhygienic now seemed, if not necessarily appetizing, at least perfectly ordinary.
“You know you’ve been in southeast Asia a while,” a friend told me, “when the smell of fermenting fish makes you hungry.”
And then I came home to the States, and marveled at America’s refusal to embrace meat. At my restaurant, that housemade headcheese hit the menu later that week, but barely sold. People crinkled their noses — one man even shuddered — when I explained that it wasn’t actually cheese but meat from a pig’s head and that yes, we made it here ourselves. (I left out the bit about the machete.)
Not only do us urbanized denizens of the West not know what we’re eating, we don’t want to know. And we certainly don’t want our kids to know. (For the record, interestingly, it was the students themselves that voted to slaughter Marcus the Lamb.)
I’m grateful to have traveled to 30 countries over five different continents. There are some things I still won’t eat, including shark-fin soup, which is cruel and wasteful. But overall, I’ve certainly had the squeamishness beaten out of me, and I’m grateful for that, too.
I don’t think I’m a particularly enlightened eater, nor do I think I’m going to change the world by shopping at farmers’ markets. I just think that I’ve gotten a bit more realistic. Walking in on a cutting board full of pig parts doesn’t make me turn aside; it just makes me nostalgic for another side of the planet.
And, OK — maybe a little hungry, too.
Lauren Quinn writes the blog Lonely Girl Travels. She is currently living in Phnom Penh and subsisting on street food.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
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