I've mentioned before on this blog that I used to be a vegetarian.
So how did I go from eating a diet of rutabegas and wheat berries to finding myself staring down a strip of bacon flanked by two nuggets from that part of the bull that, to put it politely, makes him a bull rather than a cow (third picture in post).
In my mind, there is a straight line that I can draw between my veggie days and my seat at the table of Incanto's Third Annual "Head to Tail Dinner" 3 weeks ago (where the only vegetables were a few capers and a sprinkling of herbs). I'll attempt to describe the connection between the two eras of my life here in this post and you can decide whether I am in fact full of another product of the bull (which thankfully was not part of this particular feast).
Like many who are vegetarian by choice (as opposed to by their upbringing), my decision to stop eating meat was made consciously and was based on personal ethics. I was and still am sickened by the treatment of animals in the industrial system that currently exists for raising the majority of the animals that we eat. (If you haven't yet, view The Meatrix now). Well, er, maybe that's only part of the story. The other reason was that, as a good little rebellious twenty-something, I enjoyed causing my mother grief during holiday feasts.
Once I chose to return to my omnivorous ways (it turns out vegetarianism has a way of curtailing the options of aspiring chefs), I sought some system of ethics that would support my decision.
I enthusiastically latched onto the ethical standards of Alice Water's "Delicious Revolution" and, later, those of the Slow Food Movement. I intentionally sought out local ranchers and farmers who raised animals more humanely, like Bill Niman (cattle, sheep, and pigs), Bud and Ruth Hoffman (chickens and quails), Jim Reichardt (ducks), the Straus family (dairy cows) and others.
Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that ethics costs a premium. On the pennies that I earned as a novice cook and the nickles N earned as a teacher, we really couldn't afford these pricier meats. But we were both committed to the cause, so we shelled out a shocking portion of our incomes to shop at farmers markets and support the efforts of these pioneers.
One way I learned we could save money was to buy less expensive cuts of meat. I happily mastered the art of slow cooking and braising tougher cuts like lamb shanks, beef short ribs and cheeks, pork shoulder and belly, and duck legs. In fact, these are some of my favorite cuts of meat to this day.
Unfortunately, every other penny-conscious chef and home cook in the area came to the same realization at the same time as I did. As demand rose, so did the price of these once less desirable cuts. Slow-cooked meats became a hot trend and "comfort food" became a buzz word.
The next logical step was naturally to find out which of the even less desirable cuts were the tastiest. I had eaten many interesting parts - like pig's ears and bull's "whip" (another euphemism) - during my year teaching English in Sichuan, China, but I honestly had little idea how to cook them.
That's when I (and again, many others) discovered the little book by the British chef Fergus Henderson entitled Nose to Tail Eating: a Kind of British Cooking. As Anthony Bourdain says in his introduction to the American edition (retitled The Whole Beast): "You could make a good argument that Fergus Henderson's early and unpredictable success in a plain whitewashed room on St. John Street in London made it permissible for all of us - chefs as far away as New York, San Francisco, and Portland - to reconsider dishes and menu items [such as pork belly, marrow bones, and kidneys] that were once the very foundations of French, Italian and, yes - even American cuisine." And I would certainly add Spanish cuisine to that list.
There is more behind my choice than mere economics. Although, thus far, it seems like I have argued that I eat offal because I'm a cheap skate (and that it tastes good), there is another deeper layer of reasoning.
Years ago, I read something by the Beat poet/philosopher Gary Snyder that provided me with the ethical framework for my choice to eat every part of the animal. Snyder, a Zen Buddhist who has taken a vow to "not cause harm or kill," has, to the dismay of some critics, written much poetry about hunting and the food chain. He defended himself by writing in an essay: "The larger view is one that can acknowledge the simultaneous pain and the beauty of this complexly interrelated real world....So far it has been the earlier subsistence cultures of the world, especially the hunters and gatherers, who have - paradoxically - most beautifully expressed their gratitude to the earth and its creatures."
Although Snyder surely never intended these statements to be used to justify the killing of animals, he did remind me that there is a way to eat meat that will "express gratitude to the earth and its creatures."
When I decided to abandon vegetarianism, I looked to the example of the indigenous peoples of the Americas (and frankly, as Henderson and Bourdain pointed out, my own European ancestors). I made the commitment to eat every bit of the animal and not waste any part of those animals whose death, by eating their flesh, I was supporting.
So that's the story of how a former vegetarian found his way to the table at Incanto's dinner celebrating the gustatory delights of the usually discarded "fifth quarter" a few weeks ago. And you know what? I savored every bite. What better way is there to honor and respect the animal that has, in a way, provided its flesh to you?
My favorite dish of the evening was the "balls & bacon" that I referred to at the beginning of this post (albeit more delicately). I learned that the reason these bits of manhood (bullhood?) are called "mountain oysters" is that cajones del toro (no relation to Benicio del Toro...well, then again...) are as surprisingly tender as fried oysters. Who knew?
One last observation. Mark Pastore, the owner of Incanto, told me that he had an unusually high number of cancellations in the two days prior to the dinner. In fact, after selling out at a rate faster than Valentine's Day and turning people away, the restaurant was faced with 20% of his customers taking what we used to call the "chicken exit" (which in this case is apt in more ways than one).
The funny thing about American diners is that we tend to be very squeamish at the table. We think that eating offal and other odd bits is just plain Yuck! "Ew! Like totally, ya know, gnarly and gross." Yet, at the most American of sporting events, the baseball game, nearly every fan happily tucks into a hot dog. What do you think lurks inside those neat little tubes?
The pictures scattered throughout my post were taken from my meal at Incanto. The pictures are in the order they were served. If you missed the menu in my previous post on Incanto, here it is again (with a little more detail):
- Fried lamb and veal tripe
- Beef heart tartare puttanesca
- Marin mountain oysters with pancetta afumicata and capers
- Finanziera, Piemontese market stew of cockscombs, sweetbreads, and sanguinaccio (blood sausage)
- Spring lamb trio of Roman haggis, kidney and tongue with spicy lentils, lemon and mint
- Suet pudding with chocolate blood gelato
More pictures and witty descriptions of the Head to Tail Dinner can be found on the BunRabs' site, Daily Feed (about halfway down the page).
1550 Church St.