Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Confessions of an Ex-Vegetarian

Warning: This blog contains text and images which may not be suitable for vegetarians, or most Americans.

I was a vegetarian for seven years. As a teenager I shunned meat and its insustainablity in reaction to what I considered to be my parents’ bourgeois lifestyle. Like most reactionaries, I took great pride in my heightened consciousness. I took advantage of each opportunity, no matter how small, to point out the perceived social and ecological benefits of my lifestyle choice. I mocked how others lived. When invited to someone’s house for a meal, I refused their unenlightened hospitality with the most enlightened of utterances: I’m a vegetarian.

I was an asshole.

All that changed about ten years ago. My first spring in Argentina, I was invited by Irving, the Peruvian office cleaner I had befriended at work, to spend mother’s day with him and his family. One November Sunday, I took the train heading to the airport and stepped off an hour later in the middle of nowhere. I was greeted by Irving's family and two bicycles, a small one and a slightly less small one. The family of five balanced on the smaller bike with acrobat agility. I teetered alone on the less small one. Local custom dictates that guests have the priveledge of riding unencumbered. They gave me a tour of the town. Finally, they led me to the outskirts where their shantytown began its great expanse to the horizon. We rode down the unpaved streets past the only kiosk, which sold milk and beer, to Irving’s small house, which he had built with the discarded satellite dish crate (he worked in the offices of a telecommunications company). As in most houses in this neighborhood, and the thousands that pepper Gran Buenos Aires, there was no running water. A neighbor had rigged electricity by pinching a cable that led to the town. Lights burned until the electric company disconnected them. But it wouldn’t take long to find another cable to pinch.

I was offered a cola and beer. I accepted with great curiousity. Lunch, I was told, would be ready in about an hour. Irving was preparing chicken, as they often do in his part of Peru. A hole is dug in the ground and lined with hot coals. Potatoes and a whole chicken are added and the hole is covered. An hour or so later, the whole lot is unearthed and served.

Chicken? I choked. Chicken. I could say I was a vegetarian and teach these people a thing or two about social conscientiousness. I could refuse the chicken and just eat the potatoes. (But hadn’t the potatoes been cooked with the chicken?) I could stick with my Coke and beer mixture and say I wasn’t hungry. Analyzing the options, I watched Irving gingerly pull lunch out of his front garden. It became increasingly clear: There was only one option.

The chicken was delicious.

And so, little by little, I reintroduced meat into my diet. The first years I limited myself to accepting meat when invited to dine at others’ homes. In my own kitchen, I kept a strict ban on meat which was only lifted at Thanksgiving.

When we came to Barcelona the ban was lifted for fish. Over the last year and a half I have lifted the ban again and again as I experimented with locally raised chicken and beef in the kitchen.

Spain is surely one of the worst countries in which to be a vegetarian. And if you’re vegan, you may as well not even come here. They do not consider ham to be meat, so it's impossible to know if the waiter’s interpretation of no tiene carne and your interpretation of no tiene carne are the same. Also, the Spanish have a very strange fetish for animal carcasses.

Most American tourists think the local markets are lovely until they reach the butcher’s section.

The butchers’ stalls often look like an animal side show from the exhibition Bodies. Small, firm rabbit carcasses laid out over cuts of meat, their floppy ears and cute little noses skinned and shiny pink. A suckling pig, creamy white and dull eyed looking over the counter, right at you. Many butchers sell cuts of suckling pig, with the head resting on top for decoration.

In most bars and local restaurant, a ham fetish is on full display. Pig legs – from the thigh to the hoof – often line the walls as the establishment’s only decor or, at the very least, sit upon the bar. Borges once commented that there was something almost sensuous about the way Spaniards treated their ham, comparing it to the pin-ups one might find in a mechanics' garage.

Most tourists find it appalling.


Even the fish here is often mildly offensive to most American visitors. The most common way to serve fish is whole. There was the case of the British-American professor who had to change places with someone at dinner because the person next to him had ordered a whole fish. It keeps looking at me.

The fishmonger will ask how you want it cleaned. Head and guts or just the guts. Just the guts, please.

Fish heads, fish heads.

The other day I served up my first attempt at whole sardines, minus the guts, grilled, on a bed of sautéed fennel and red onion sprinkled with lemon juice and fresh dill.

Rolly, polly fish heads.

By the end of the meal, both Andrés and I had each found a fish eye rolling around on our plate. Of the twelve eyes between us, only eleven could be accounted for. Eat them up, yum!

I have a come a long way since my days as a vegetarian. When I first started cooking with fish and chicken, I did so filled with disgust. I got used to fish quickly enough. But the raw chicken smelled. And it felt funny. I could only handle touching skinless breasts. I wouldn’t go near anything else.

I took a big step last Sunday, when I decided to prepare a whole roast chicken for the inauguration of our new oven. I went to the market on Saturday to purchase the chicken and when I opened the package on Sunday I was reminded of yet another curious thing about meat in Spain.

They sell you the whole chicken. Dead and plucked, but with everything else intact. Luckily, they had cut the claws off this one. But the head, the rump and internal organs were all in place.


I had no idea what to do with it. So I did what any of my 21st century American counterparts would do. I googled.

You can imagine how helpful American websites were. America, the land that has managed to sterilize even meat so that it is inoffensive to American sensibilities. There is no skin, certainly no feathers, no fat, or bone, or blood in those cuts of beef, chicken or pork so carefully placed in their plastic packaging. Meat in American bears no trace of the living animal it once was. If it did, people probably wouldn't eat it.

Cleaning a chicken can seem quite scary or put a knot of disgust into someone’s stomach if they have never cleaned store bought chicken before...Once you’re ready to begin cleaning your chicken be sure your sink is empty, then place the package of chicken in your sink. Start by cutting open the package of meat with either a knife or a pair of scissors. Reach your hand inside the cavity of the bird, pull out the bag containing the giblets and set aside.

That was no help. Though it did prove amusing to read the comments:

"If you put the chicken in the sink you will make your family sick."

"I rinse mine off with hose in the backyard. It’s tough in winter but I’d rather be cold than make my family sick.


Another link led me to a headline report in the Sun: I was about to tuck into my dinner and found a whole chicken head in there! I demanded compensation of course! The offending chicken head was apparently found in a package of frozen ribs and chicken wings.

Most websites that came up were warnings to anyone who might happen to stumble unawares into a Chinese butcher's. Make sure you have them remove the head and claws before wrapping it up.

But once I tucked into the job of chopping off the head and carefully cutting around its buttocks without cutting into it, I worked on pure instinct and assumption. This must be the esophagus. I yanked at it. That yellowish green sack must be bile or something. I have no idea what the yellow liquid that oozed out when I severed the neck was. I don’t know if I want to know.
I chopped and hacked and got inside that bird to clean it out. I marveled at how the organs were all connected. I identified the heart, lungs and liver. I looked for the gizzard. I couldn’t find it. I wondered how similar this chicken’s organ placement was to my own. I got my hands gooey, full of chicken body fluids, blood and fat.

It was glorious. I had officially become a carnivore.

And the chicken was delicious.

Grilled Sardines over Fennel and Red Onion

6 sardines
2 small red onions, halved and sliced thinly
1 fennel bulb, halved and sliced thinly
2 tablespoons, plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Lemon juice
Fresh dill
Salt and pepper

Season the sardines with salt and pepper to taste. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium pan over medium heat. Add the fennel and red onions and sautée, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low and cover and cook 10-12 minutes, until fennel and onions become caramelized.

Empty fennel and red onion mixture into a small bowl. Heat remaining olive oil in the pan over medium-high heat. When just smoking, add sardines. Cook about three minutes on each side, until crisp.

Serve the sardines on a bed of the caramelized fennel and onion.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Followed Seth’s mashed potato recipe with the following additions.

Add a bay leaf three peeled cloves of garlic to the potatoes as they boil.

When they’ve finished, drain the water and remove the bay leaf, but leave the garlic and mash it together with the potatoes.

Roast Chicken with Potatoes, Carrots and Onion

Seth has already posted the definitive recipe for roast chicken. This is merely what I added:

1 whole onion, quartered
1/2 fennel bulb
1 lemon, quartered
4 potatoes
2 carrots
1 onion
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven. Fill the cavity of the bird with the onion, fennel and lemon.

In a bowl toss together the potatoes, carrots and onion with the olive oil and sage. Add salt and pepper to taste. Tuck the raw potato, carrot and onion mixture under the bird in the roasting pan. These will cook in the bird’s juices as it roasts.