Thursday, September 1, 2011
Meeting the Meat: Reflections of a Carnivore
I grew up on carnivorous excess, having been raised in a family that has no dietary restrictions. My early memories of fiestas in my father’s hometown in Quezon are pervaded by the panicked clucks and squeals of chickens and pigs being butchered. Baptisms and birthdays sometimes called for whole-roasted calf, and I was always a happy participant in devouring the tender, aromatic meat. There has always been a natural awareness that the meat being consumed was once a living, breathing creature, and there was nothing wrong with that. It was just the way things were.
The catalyst that spurred my musings was the killing of a goat during a trip to our island retreat. The animal belonged to my cousin Vic, whom I discovered has set-up a farm in one of their properties inland which included a growing legion of cattle, roosters and other livestock. It was decided, during the lambanog-laced conversations of the men during our first night’s dinner, that dinner the following night would be Caldereta (a rich tomato-based stew) made from freshly-butchered goat meat. The adventurous foodie in me was excited, having only tried goat a few times in my life.
The following morning, I wake up to sunny skies and go for a quick swim with my five-year-old niece, Nana (actually, it was low tide, so we did more of “wading” than “swimming”.) When we returned to the house, I go to the dining area to grab a piyaya and then I saw it- tied to a tree in the back of the house was a white goat. Its coat pristine, his three-inch horns jutting out of its small forehead, it looks placid and unperturbed, completely oblivious to his fate, I believed. My sister, Queen Bee, thought otherwise: “It knows it’s dying”, she says. True or not, we’ll never really know, but this small proclamation suddenly changes my entire perspective. The animal lover in me suddenly overpowered the unrelenting food lover, and I am suddenly filled with compassion. I cannot even bear to look at the goat, as I imagined it praying its final Hail Mary’s while it stared blankly into space. I turn around to leave as I thought to myself: “We’re all murderers.”
I have always rolled my eyes at most Westerners’ aversion to seeing their food in their original form before consuming it. In developed countries, it seems that people have gotten so used to seeing their meats and fish properly filleted and deboned, that the idea of seeing a chicken or fish head in a dish renders even the burliest man squeamish. This, as Nana would say, is just plain “silly”. I mean, do they really think there is a factory somewhere in Middle America where a giant Steak Machine churns out perfectly-cut rib-eyes, vacuum packed and then shipped to the nearest Wal-Mart? Or that the fillet of sole on their plate was swimming around the English Channel looking like that, minus the beurre blanc? Ok, fine, nobody could be that “silly” to actually think that, and yes, there are also culinary traditions in the West that remain rustic and accepting of traditional butchering and cooking methods. But the question remains: What’s the big deal?
Obviously, most Asians don’t seem to mind. The Chinese are happy to serve a beautifully-steamed Garoupa whole, to be deboned table side and then served (always) with the head intact, showcasing the prized fish cheeks, jaws and eyeballs. In several cultures, whole pigs roasted on a spit or cooked under dirt and coals are traditional festive fare. During Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” tour of the Philippines, foodie/author/restauranteur Claude Tayag and him were happily picking away at a goat’s head swimming in a bowl of flavorful broth at a kambingan in Pampanga.
But, after that chilling encounter with the live animal, there was a little voice inside of me that screamed, “Don’t let them kill the goat!” For the few moments after, I was almost sick to my stomach, wondering if what we were about to do was absolutely necessary- I mean, we brought enough food to feed our group for an entire week. Did we really need more meat? As I distracted myself with other things- a rousing game of Uno, some Spanish Rosado, more piyaya- I see the house staff gathering at the back of the house, and I knew what was coming. I heard the goat protesting at first, and then its agonizing cries as it struggles for breath. And then it was over. Soon, I hear the matador’s machete striking against stone as it butchered the goat by the poso.
Do not get me wrong- I am not about to go vegan, or any level of vegetarianism. But, there is a sudden reverence for animal life that was not there before. I have always loved animals, but the fluffy kind, or the ones you find at the zoo. To me, livestock was different, and they were meant to be in my belly. But, seeing that goat before it was butchered truly struck a cord, and I am somehow less jaded and callous. I still think people who cannot eat fish with heads are silly, but at least I know now not to scoff at those who cannot slaughter their own dinner.
After the goat-killing drama, dinner set me back to my old perspective- which is, meat is awesome. The calereta- cooked by the butcher himself- was exactly what I imagined it to be: a spicy, robust sauce perfectly complimenting the tender and mildy-gamey meat. The little bones are easily picked off the soft tendons and the meat is juicy and tender. It was excellent. Being the drama queen that I could be, I declare with mock conviction, “The goat did not die in vain.” My dad gags at the joke, rice kernels almost shooting out of his nose, but I was only half kidding.
There were no (more) goats harmed during the writing of this entry. The photo of the live goat is from true-wildlife.blogspot.com and is not the actual goat butchered for the caldereta. It looks like it, though.