This Animal Once Had a Head… And, there it is!

26 Oct

You know you’ve been living in a “developing” country for a while when you see an article titled “Hand-washing Dos and Don’ts” and you assume it’s going to give you tips on washing clothes by hand instead of discussing hand hygiene. Or when you can haggle over prices and only feel slightly embarrassed instead of too mortified to even try. Or when riding your bike through the mud is an regular occurrence (during rainy season) and not an extreme sport. Or when things like a car radio become complete and utter luxuries, things that are so far down on your list of things to buy “someday when we have the money” that you cease to even dream about them. Or when it’s no longer strange to see entire families on a motorcycle. 

But the biggest sign that I am no longer new to southern Mexico is, of course, food-related. Specifically, this long-time vegetarian has a very different relationship to animal products. Granted, I have always been a vegetarian that ate meat while traveling in a different country, because a) I want to try everything, and b) people often offer you, the visitor, fabulous hospitality which may include animal flesh of some kind, and I really don’t like to snub my nose at such niceness unless it’s absolutely necessary. So in Chile I ate beef empanadas and completos (hot dogs, really, with avocado and mayonnaise and other such Chilean-style dressings- only while drunk). In Italy I probably ate my weight in salami (which was one of my favorite meats from childhood anyway) and proscuitto. In Ireland I tried black and white pudding (NOT a sweet treat- it’s blood sausage!), among other things that can be eaten with or without potatoes. In Argentina I ate milanesa galore (totally not exotic- just breaded meat). When I visited Mexico before moving here, I got invited to try turtle stew and turtle eggs (the eggs were good, the stew was a texture I wasn’t thrilled about). A couple days later, I was horrified to find out that what I had eaten was a protected species in the area. But such are the adventures of a traveling vegetarian willing to try anything.

Living here is a bit different. We mostly eat at home, and what I cook hasn’t really changed. Most days of the week my diet is full of fruits and vegetables and eggs and grains and a little dairy. Conan occasionally buys and cooks some kind of meat, some of which I’ll eat bits of and other things I don’t. There are all kinds of “weird” not-vegetarian things I have learned to adore, like chicatanas (a kind of fly-ish insect that you make a sauce from). There are other things that I still haven’t convinced myself to try (like chapulines, these grasshopper-like things they sell lots in Oaxaca City- my friend Corrina swears she was burping “spicy grasshoppers” for days afterwards). 

We do eat some meat on a semi-regular basis. Every once in a while someone gives us a live chicken, for example, or Paulina kills one of her chickens, and I’ll eat the hell out of that (especially if there’s mole sauce involved). That said, I haven’t yet learned how to kill one and clean it yet (or really to cook it, for that matter). Someone else always ends up doing it for us. It was on my list of things to learn this year but I have yet to accomplish it. Maybe for Christmas. I am a chicken connoisseur now, however, in that I can pretty quickly tell the difference in taste and texture between  pollo de rancho and  pollo de granja (de rancho is a chicken from someone’s back yard, that’s been eating worms and table scraps, and de granja is mass-produced and are always fattier, for one thing).

I have learned how to cook fresh fish, though. And you know we’re not in the U.S. because we cook it and serve it complete; head, tail, eyes and all (you do take out the insides first). And it’s funny because it doesn’t gross me out in the slightest. I don’t think it even did at first. Maybe it’s the result of years of preparation, from my mother telling me stories about her childhood visit to Mexico, being served a fish with the eye staring up at her. Or maybe it’s just that I suppose if you’re going to eat an animal, you might as well admit that it’s an animal. So there I am, picking the last bits of meat from the head, leaving the bones like a cartoon version of what the cat pulls from the trash (pretty much the only time we see all the fish bones in Louisville, Kentucky- on cartoons). Most often the fish I’m eating has been pulled from the ocean that morning by Conan’s uncle, and every last bit of it is delicious

Conan eating the whole fish! Can't find my picture of the whole fish I cooked recently : (

Conan eating the whole fish! Can’t find my picture of the whole fish I cooked recently : (

I reassessed my vegetarian-inclined limits again the other day when we went to Conan’s friend’s house for brunch. His friend is a butcher and told Conan he’d be killing a pig that day. For better or for worse, I didn’t eat before leaving our house, banking on the fact that if nothing else I could eat tortillas. We went out back to his open-air “workshop,” where the pig’s head, along with other parts, were still hanging from meathooks. “Yep, definitely pork meat on the table” I confirmed to myself.

We hung out and talked as he continued to prepare the meat. Much of the ribs and other choice cuts, which he’d already finished preparing, would go to a near-by restaurant where Conan and I eat sometimes. As we chatted, he was chopping the skin and other leftover pieces into chunks to fry, a food called buces (maybe kind of like pork rinds, but fresh and thicker? I don’t think I’ve ever had pork rinds, so I can’t be sure). We were going to eat the buces for brunch, so I pretty much resigned myself to tortillas then, since I’d had buces before and the texture does nothing for my appetite. But the company was good and Lucia was in seventh heaven with their super docile chihuahua, who was happy to be picked up and rather roughly handled by my kiddo for long periods of time.

fresh pork meat

fresh pork meat

Conan’s friend was telling us that he doesn’t normally make buces, that usually those parts he uses to make lard. So it was like a special treat that we were having buces. I thought again about perspective being everything in life. But then, when the buces were pulled out of the fryer, he set aside some parts that were mostly meat, which Lucia and I tried. And we both liked it! So as it turned out we had tortillas and avocado and some pork, not to mention a successful visit where I didn’t have to feel awkward and embarrassed about refusing someone’s food.

the giant vat of oil for buces and lard

the giant vat of oil for buces and lard

buces- the finished product

buces- the finished product

Not only that, but I surprised myself by how not-grossed-out I was in the whole situation. I think it actually may help me eat meat when I am seeing where it comes from. I even cooked the chorizo he gave us and ate some of it myself (which, really, is easy to eat because it’s loaded with garlic and chile guajillo, yum). Granted, I’m still never exactly excited about the meat hanging on racks in the market, or the ladies constantly waving the flies away from their grilled salty fish. I have zero plans to try and incorporate more meat into my diet, because I don’t think it’s necessary, really. I like the relationship I have now with animal flesh, in which it’s something special and not everyday, certainly not for every meal. I like that I can look forward to freshly-killed-chicken tamales for Day of the Dead next week. I like that I can eat some fresh chorizo every once in a blue moon and not worry about all the grease and my cholesterol or whatever, because it’s only every once in a while. I like that we spend less money by not buying meat. I like that we use less resources by not consuming much meat. And even though there are some animal parts that you’ll never talk me into liking (such as chicken feet and cow feet, but which I have tried, thank you), I still like that all the animal gets used here, that there is constant acknowledgment of what this is and where it’s come from.

So while some perspective changes are kind of sad, while I’d prefer to still be driving down the road screaming along with some Sleater-Kinney or Against Me, while I wish I never, ever had to think about washing any clothes by hand, other perspective changes are pretty cool. I guess I gotta take the good with the bad, eyeballs staring back and all!

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