We'd just about finished lunch, when I thought of an e-mail I'd received from my youngest son, Ben, who is teaching English in South Korea. He'd gone on a trip with a Korean family and had had lunch. After they finished the meal he was asked what he thought of the soup. He answered that it was very tasty. It turned out to be dog-soup. No, not soup for a dog, but soup made with dog-meat. It is apparently a traditional Korean dish. Dog-meat looks like beef, he said, and it tastes like very tender pork. He also mentioned that there's no trans-fat in dog meat.
So I told Jack.
He didn't seem surprised. "About that trans-fat," he said, "that could turn the SPCA into a money-making operation."
I pointed out a few cons. Jack agreed that it was probably a non-starter in a society that holds pets in higher regard sometimes than it does children or the hungry or destitute
Then Jack asked me: "What's the strangest meat you've ever eaten?"
I said: "Well, when I was a kid during the war I once ate heron.
It tasted kind of fishy, and I didn't like it. Also blood pudding and headcheese, at pig-butchering time. Pretty disgusting when I think about it now. Another time at a buffet type party in Aruba I scooped up what I thought was a helping of chicken, but turned out to be iguana. Tasted like chicken, though. If I had known it was iguana, I'd probably not have taken any. I've also had rabbit, and pigeon, come to think of it. But that's about it. Oh, before I became a vegetarian, I used to really like smoked eel. That's about the range of my experience in eating strange meat. How about you?"
Now, as I've mentioned before, Jack is a great one for travelling, and he's been in a lot of strange parts of the world. He also isn't very finicky about what he eats.
"I've had dog-meat," he recited, "cat-meat, and monkey-meat. I've eaten fried grubs, chocolate-covered grasshoppers, haggis, bull penis and Chinese birds-nests..."
I interrupted: "What's a bird's-nest made of that you can eat it? Do you have to chew the twigs or do you spit them out?"
Jack said: "Actually, the edible birds-nests don't have twigs in them. They're made of the spittle of some kind of swallow. The one I had tasted like jelly."
I said: "What other kinds of meat have you eaten in the course of your peregrinations around the globe?"
"Roasted snake, very nice," said Jack, "Frogs' legs. Seal flippers. Boiled rats. I've eaten possum and squirrel. In North Africa I had sheep's eyes and camel. Out West I ate Prairie oysters -- bull's testicles for your information. That's about it. If I think of anything else I'll let you know."
I said: "It's funny what people will and won't eat by way of meat. Depends on the culture, I guess. One of the great Dutch delicacies is raw herring. From June on when the first herring boats come in, there are stalls on the streets everywhere. The herring is cleaned, head chopped off, spine removed and ready for purchase. You take it by the tail, dip it in freshly chopped onion ... it makes the saliva come to mouth to think of it. When I first came to Canada and mentioned it as being one of my favourite foods, people used to shudder -- raw fish! "
But attitudes change
Now sushi is all the rage." Jack too seemed bewildered by mankind's capriciousness in this matter.
"Oh," I said, "and there is a kind of thinly sliced smoked meat you can buy in Holland, and when you order some, the butcher always asks: which kind: beef or horse. Horse meat is a little sweeter. Nobody would buy horse meat here. You'd probably cause an uproar if you even suggested that horses could be slaughtered for meat."
Jack said: "I guess we divide the animal world up into two classes: pets and non-pets. You don't eat pets, but you can theoretically eat anything else."
I said: "I don't think it's as simple as that, Jack. Would you call a horse a pet? Besides, most Canadians wouldn't venture much beyond eating cattle, pigs, chickens and seafood. I think it's much more arbitrary."
Jack said: "How about if the animal is also cute? Like baby seals. How many people would give a damn if they looked like toads?"
I said: "Maybe it's a mix of several factors -- whether you're dealing with pets, whether they are cute, whether we've always eating that kind of meat... Maybe it's just sentimentality. Not reason, just sentiment. Anyway, it's all academic to me, now that I've discovered the culinary delights of tofu."
"Well," said Jack, "if I only had a choice between tofu and 'walkie-talkies', I'd let you have the tofu."
I asked: "what are walkie-talkies?"
Jack said: "I knew you'd ask: in South Africa poor people often can afford no more than the scraps left over at the butcher's. The 'walkies' are the feet -- and I mean the feet not the drumsticks -- of chickens and turkeys, and the 'talkies' are the heads -- and that doesn't include the neck. It's all barely edible, and you really have to pick and chew. But on my menu it still ranks above tofu."
I said: "Jack, have you ever had my tofu? The way I prepare it, it's really, really good!"
Jack said: "We all have to draw the line somewhere. You don't eat meat, I don't eat tofu. If it ever walked, or crawled, or swam or flew, and it doesn't move anymore, I'll eat it. Hell, maybe I'd eat it even if it wiggled a little." Jack began to smile.
I knew where Jack was heading with that smile, so I cut him short. I said I had to go do some shopping; I read Jack some items on the list I had in my pocket: tofu, tempeh, seitan, textured vegetable protein, soy burgers, miso ....
Jack was shaking his head as I left. As I was about to turn the corner on my way out, I glanced back and saw Jack looking speculatively at a little wiener dog that was wandering around ....
"Nah, I was just imagining things. "
Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.
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