Sunday, August 05, 2007

Very Exciting or Too Horrid for Words?

On an impulse, I picked up this DVD set when we were at the library checking out every Thomas the Train book they had in the district.

It's been interesting: I've learned to make croissants, a Buche de Noel, green beans the french way, stuffed mushrooms, and goose. And I've only watched about 1/3 of the episodes.

But today, I learned how to make a suckling pig. While I've heard of suckling pig, it never struck me that it's a pig who's been suckling. In more straightforward terms, a 5- to 6-week-old pig that has only feasted on his mother's milk. That alone seemed inhumane enough, but the way Julia was manhandling the pig as only she can do made me want to become a vegetarian.

Or throw a 60s party and have a suckling pig, with an apple in its mouth, flowers it its eyes, and a wreath around its tender young pig neck. (To get the apple in before serving, I learned, you need to stuff its mouth with a ball of foil during roasting.)

So a poll: Is it unthinkable? Is this something that's fallen out of favor but still would be magnificent? Or is it like some of the 50s appetizers -- like, say, the cabbage head holding a lit Sterno can and skewers of raw meat, in which tipsy guests are expected to cook their own chicken past toxidity -- that is best forgotten?


Blogger mph said...

If I went to a party where a suckling pig was presented, I'd assume there was some punitive pedagogical mission involved, in line with the kind of thinking that causes anti-war Democrats to advocate for a return to the draft, or death penalty opponents to propose televised executions.

4:05 PM  
Blogger amyzeats said...


Well...this is a very interesting and, I think, large discussion, having much to do with knowing the source of your food and being comfortable with that notion.

My sister Laura has an interesting rule: She can only eat something if she can (theoretically or literally) kill it. So, for instance, she knows she can catch and clean fish because she has; a steer, however, she doesn't think she has the inclination to wrastle to the ground and club in the head. A chicken she's never killed, but she believes she could, so it's on the menu.

So, she doesn't eat beef.

In Anthony Bourdain's book A Cook's Tour there is a great chapter called "Where Food Comes From," in which he participates (or, at least, watches) the slaughter of a pig that he will eat that evening, and which the farming family he is staying with with use for months to come. Would they kill a suckling pig? Unlikely, if only because it's a decadent waste of a greater food source. Would that same family draw a line if there was some kind of important celebration calling for eating of a weeks-old pig? I can't say--I'm not from Portugal.

By and large, I think squeamishness about food has much to do with blocking out some origins of food source and fully visualizing others. I find this debate a difficult one at times. My father is a butcher and he fed his family, figurately and literally, by his trade. I am a food writer, and I often don't feel in a position to draw lines. I eat lamb; I eat veal (and buy them and prepare them). I've eaten horse meat and bulls balls and beef tendon and all kinds of other oddball (or, in the case of horse, sweet and pretty) things, and I'm sure there will be more of it. If I traveled somewhere and a suckling pig were placed in front of me would I eat it? I'm sorry, MPH, I guess I'd have to say -- all my anti-war, death-penalty opposing ways notwithstanding -- yes. I'd eat it.

Would I seek it out, buy it, and cook it for a dinner party? No. But now I want to see this DVD set because it sounds fascinating.

5:19 AM  
Blogger mph said...

I'm sorry, MPH, I guess I'd have to say -- all my anti-war, death-penalty opposing ways notwithstanding -- yes. I'd eat it.

No need to apologize to me for eating it for whatever reason you'd apologize. That's your thing to work out for yourself. I don't reject meat that's put in front of me, generally speaking, regardless of which way I'm blowing dietarily at the moment.

The point I was making is that it's a very strange sort of presentation. Strange enough that I'd assume a point was being made in the same way both televised executions and conscription are proposed as ways to rub peoples' noses in the consequences of the policy they advocate when they're comfortably removed from those consequences.

I'll admit that's a generalization, though.

Depending on the host I also might just assume some kitschy sweet tooth was being satisfied, if luridly. I say "lurid" because presentations like that have always struck me as a partial celebration of the death of the creature itself. Combination atavistic trophy and feast. So much care is taken to preserve its form ... to demonstrate exactly what it is that's for dinner.

Which causes me to wonder if I wouldn't have a third way to consider such a meal. I don't read much food writing, and I have only one vegetarian friend who's at all in contention with non-vegetarians. I read through him, though, that "humane slaughter" has become an increasingly popular buzzword. His perspective is that it's a questionable way to claim some sort of moral space that doesn't require total abstention from meat. Or perhaps (my reading of his reading) a way to finally have some scrap of moral space from which to reject the judgement vegetarians are assumed to be passing every time they refuse meat, or ask for an accommodation for their preferences.

With those thoughts in mind, that third possible perception would be one of defiance. A celebration not so much that the creature was slain, but that it's pointedly an animal that is being eaten, perhaps with its humane slaughter held back as a sort of conversational trump card.

From Cindy, I'd call it kitsch and call it a day.

10:43 PM  
Blogger amyzeats said...

I hear you. And I'd say I might agree with your friend about humane slaughter (but not about disliking vegetarians--I like them just fine). For me, it's more about being respectful of a creature, a food source, the general circle of nature and life. And the difference between eating well and demonstrations of pure greed and gluttony (and big Agri-Biz and subsidies and all the yuck and poor human behavior that goes along with it).

I have to say, Fast Food Nation really was a great read for this purpose and getting a view of not only the mistreatment of the animals, but the disgusting conditions of the slaughter houses, and the poor treatment of the workers all the way from the meatpacking plants through to the chain restaurants that serve the food. I'll never darken a McDonald's door again.

But anyway--I also agree with you that the presentation of something like this is kind of equally fascinating, if not potentially gruesome. I tend to lean toward believing that it's more about old-fashioned notions of abundance. A pig sucking on an apple! Woo hoo! Especially because there were points in history when meat (or, at least, good meat) was not only a big treat, but so was fruit. Together on a big platter it seems like a statement of, "Oh yeah, baby--who's kickin' it now?!!" :)

4:52 AM  

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