Friday, June 24, 2016

Hot dogs, pig heads, eating outside the box, and culinary travel.

Hot dog. Photo by cyclonebill from Copenhagen, Denmark. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
An acquaintance on the social networks recently listed many of the ingredients in a hot dog. My sources tell me that a wiener is usually made mostly of pork, and a frank is made mostly of beef, though I can get cheaper dogs made of chicken or turkey. In junior high school the teacher told me with evident pride that the "Indians" did not waste anything of the buffalo they killed, though by contrast, the whites went out to slaughter buffalo by the herd "only for their tongues"—though I doubt they bothered to dismount their horses to cut out a tongue. They weren't killing the buffalo—more correctly, bison—for tongues or any reason other than to wipe out the food supply of Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Blackfoot, and other indigenous peoples of the Plains. In 19th-century America, buffalo hunting was a genocidal act. Now that's the long way to get to my point about the meat packing industry's efficiency, but it's important to remind ourselves of certain facts now and then because the US has never really sought absolution for its horrific crimes or promised that it will go forward and sin no more.

The flesh in the hollow beneath a fish's eye is tasty and sweet.
Hubert Ludwig. School of Naural History, 1891. Public domain.
The meat packing industry is as efficient with its cows as the people of the plains were with their buffalo, and that efficiency includes the animal's head. In the world outside the US it's quite a treat to acquire the head of a cow or a pig—especially for a poor family. Every culture has its ways of making a celebratory feast of a head. The cheek muscles that give rise to the smiles of some animals make for some of the sweetest meat. I don't think cows smile. Pigs, I'm not so sure about: they're so smart that they might. Fish don't smile at all but go blub blub blub, but the meat in the hollow below the eye is still wonderfully sweet.

Menudo. Photo by Arnold Gatilao from Oakland, CA, USA,
1 January 2015. Licensed under the Creative
Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
.
In Mexico the Christmas feast traditionally involves a pig, and particularly in a poor family none of that animal goes to waste. The haunches will make delicious Christmas hams. The belly will make bacon for Christmas breakfast. The pigs feet will be pickled for later celebrations with beer. The organ meat of the abdomen will make spicy menudo. And the tongue, brains, and flesh of the head will be ground up and seasoned to serve as the filling in delicious tamales, which usually get served during Noche Buena, as they call Christmas Eve in Spanish.

Here's a YouTube video of two American guys eating a pig's head. The head is properly cooked and garnished with salad, but this serious eating isn't for the faint of heart. They're in what I suspect is a California Asian restaurant. One of them approaches this meal with gusto—perhaps because of his Asian heritage—and the other reacts more like I once would have. Then here's another group of people in what appears to be a tapas (Spanish) restaurant, and they have ordered a pig's head and with pluck and maturity go about eating it. The two videos demonstrate that aversion comes from a narrow cultural range. And my favorite Smarter Every Day video features a goat's head that's getting prepped for spaghetti sauce.

Primeval culture begins with food: it defines what must be cooked, what can be eaten raw, and what must not be eaten at all. Culture naturally and rapidly grows to include other things, but it begins with food. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan equates culture and language, so you can repeat that statement about language: Primeval language begins with food: it defines what must be cooked, what can be eaten raw, and what must not be eaten at all. Language naturally and rapidly grows to include other things, but it begins with food.

The problem with hot dogs isn't what goes into them. At this point in life I'm eager to eat anything. It's really the chemicals, preservatives, and the fat content that are the problem. I watch Mark Wiens, a YouTuber who travels all over Southeast Asia making food videos. He's a less famous, YouTube version of Anthony Bourdain. He eats all sorts of dishes with many of the same ingredients that go in hot dogs, and they're not ground and hidden inside a sausage but floating there for all to see in a soup or a curry.

Speaking of Jacques Lacan, the French are famous omnivores. At the opening of The French Connection, As I've noted elsewhere, among the world's better known omnivores, both Anthony Bourdain and Mark Wiens spent parts of their childhood in France. And as if providence backs me up on this, I just stumbled into a book called French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters.

In the opening scene of The French Connection we see Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) in Marseilles, apparently waiting for his ship to come in. While he waits, he bends over, picks a mollusk out of a tidal pool, opens it with his pocket knife, and eats it. There's something wonderfully French about being able to pluck a snack out of a tidal pool. I've plucked pears, plums, and oranges out of their trees, but not out of ponds. Charnier, by the way, is the man that Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) spends much of the movie chasing, including the best chase scene in cinema (set in New York, not France, but watch out for Eisenstein's baby carriage!).

In its narrowest sense, American culture seems to be that of a picky eater: there are all sorts of things defined by my picky eater culture as inedible but that have crept back into the diet through the efficiency of the meat processors. And yes, when I look at the ingredients of wieners and franks, I'm often appalled! But after traveling, after years afoot in Korea, Colombia, Ecuador, and Chile, and years sustained by their foods, my cultural, linguistic, and culinary horizons have broadened substantially.

My openness to food started in the 1980s when sushi arrived as a fad but soon became a permanent landmark in the topography of American eating. Before that fish fell firmly in the cooked category and not the raw class of foods. I've always loved grilled fish, and much of that also makes good sushi. But I still wouldn't eat a catfish raw because, as a bottom-feeder, the catfish is the pig of the fish world. But beyond that, I see a sushi master as physician of my cuisine and shaman of my eating, and I love to sit down at a sushi bar and say, "keep them coming," and they seem to like that too because it gives them license to practice their art freely. The sushi master smiles and places a plate in front of me of which he is obviously proud because it tastes great and makes a beautiful presentation—sushi is a graphic as well as a culinary art.

I love to travel and have come to the conclusion that one travels as much by eating as by walking, as much by tongue as by foot, so I'm game to try about anything myself. If I closed myself off to food, then I may as well stay home. Last summer, landlocked and starved for a voyage, I made good on this idea of culinary open-mindedness. I walked a mile to Lucy's Fried Chicken and tried the "calf fries" also known as "Rocky Mountain Oysters" also known as deep-fried bull testicles. They aren't bad at all, especially with a few beers to wash them down.

The strangest variation on a dog that I saw was in Korea. They started with a corn dog, and stuffed it into a Twinkie. It's one of the many mysteries of the infamous Twinkie—to say nothing of the bizarre behavioral anomalies that have been attributed to it—that it was able to receive the corn dog into its cream-filled space without bursting or being wrapped in duct tape. Then the Corn Dog in a Twinkie was dipped into a gloppy batter and finally rolled in shredded coconut before being dipped into the boiling oil of a deep-fryer. This was not the type of creation that I travel to try, but I did ask them for a plain corn dog, and they happily obliged me.

Hot dogs—along with hamburgers and barbecue—are one of the few foods that are ethnically American. Most everything else Americans like to eat comes from somewhere else. I've always liked hot dogs, and I've developed my determination to be open to food even as the air abounds with new nasty rumors about their ingredients. I really should give them up because their preservatives are carcinogenic and now there are rumors of hot dogs with traces of human DNA, but in this one case my openness works against me. Really, writing all this has put me in the mood for one of those Colombian hot dogs on which they pile everything: chili, cheese, cole slaw, chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, crumbled potato chips. So good, and I have an eerie feeling about Colombian meat packing plants.