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April 2017

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Menuplease: On Mystery Meat and Authenticity

You eat meat, Fleischman. Well, say hello to meat. - Maggie O'Connell to Joel Fleischman, showing him the buck she shot, in "Northern Exposure."

Meat is murder. - Morrissey

Femme de Joie has noticed a few comments directed squarely at her for mentioning that she ate horsemeat in France. One person seemed astonished and disgusted that M. de Joie would pass up locally available rattlesnake but dine on cheval. Fact: horsemeat is a common food in much of Europe and Central Asia (though there are recent attempts to end the sale in France, see http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1950375,00.html).

Femme de Joie is a former horse owner, loves them, admires their beauty, personality, and grace. While understanding the anger about eating horse, Femme de Joie poses the question: how do we choose which animals to eat? (Side note: While M. de Joie has great admiration for people who can follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet; she is an omnivore by choice.) Is it based on the adorable factor? The companionship factor? Or shibboleths and blind habit we're not even fully aware of? No matter what it is, somebody somewhere thinks it's disgusting or just plain wrong to eat.

People less blessed with abundance than Americans are accustomed to making do with what is available, and use the entire animal. We eat steaks and chops but retch at kidneys, tripe, testicles, and the other parts, to say nothing of animals not normally included in the "normal" American diet - like horse.

Having said that, someone is going to bring up the cat and dog factor. Femme de Joie has no plans to eat Fluffy or Rover; that is too far outside her personal comfort zone and cultural upbringing. But consider this: It's easy to criticize India for not slaughtering sacred cows while people starve and beg, but is it really any different when Americans go hungry every day while thousands of unwanted cats and dogs are euthanized?

About the rattlesnake: Femme de Joie has written before that she finds rattlesnakes loathsome, disgusting, and completely abhorrent. She is not going to eat any. But if someone else wants to snarf up chicken fried rattler, have at it.

Femme de Joie is not suggesting anyone go out and slaughter their pet horse for a barbeque. She is, however, suggesting we consider our eating habits and ponder if that's all there is.


Authentic or Pandering?

When a reviewer starts explaining how the preparation of a quiche Lorraine at the restaurant he has visited differs from the way one prepared a true quiche Lorraine, I always want to interrupt. "But did you like it?" I want to shout. "Did it make you happy? Did you clean your plate?" ... I was eating some homemade gazpacho and talking about how it differed from the more authentic gazpacho one got in Seville. The more I talked about the difference the faster I wolfed down the gazpacho - until I realized that one way what I was eating differed from authentic gazpacho was that it tasted better. - Calvin Trillin, "American Fried"

When people in the North Valley talk local Chinese restaurants, the highest compliment paid is that a place is "as good as San Francisco." For Mexican, the geographic reference is Southern California or "that place in Mazatlan." Not to disparage anyone's happy memories, but chances are what you ate was still designed for tourists.

Walk into a hole-in-the-wall Chinatown café and you'll likely see handwritten wall signs in Chinese characters: those are the authentic Chinese dishes. Black-bean steamed fish stomach, salted mustard greens with goose intestines, fish-brain soup. Away from the tourist districts in SoCal or Mexico City, find a taqueria serving brain or cow's eye tacos or huitlacoche corn fungus stew.

Yes, the local restaurants tend toward the tame and the expected: they need to stay in business. There simply isn't a lot of call for goat tacos around here; even lamb is a tough sell for most restaurants, ethnic or otherwise (though buche, tripitas, and birria are available at places like Ortega's, El Mariachi's, and Los Gordos; check with each restaurant).

M. de Joie doesn't expect every local ethnic restaurant to serve "authentic" food, so she reviews them on their own merits. Was it good? Was it worth the money? Was a good time had by all? If they do happen to offer a fabulous vuelvealavida (shrimp, oyster, and octopus cocktail), well, that's just icing on the cake. They're making their money through Combination Plate #3.

Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria's mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once. - Anthony Bourdain