Saturday, October 5, 2013

Lessons in Zoological Anatomy

Even before coming into the Peace Corps, I had accepted that being polite and culturally sensitive in the context of Central Africa would probably mean breaking my several-year vegetarianism.

I never anticipated, however, whipping up a batch of fried intestines on a daily basis.

First, a word about intestines: people here eat them.  Not washed and stretched and turned into sausage skin, just straight, grilled on a skewer.  They’re a cheaper piece of meat, like liver, so they’re sometimes mixed in with better cuts; but if you want to save money, or just prefer the taste, you can request them at any streetmeat stand. 

I’ve tried pig intestine, once.  While out for beers in the regional capital with a few friends, one colleague ordered a plate from a pork vendor.  They were heaped into a pile, folded in on themselves in shiny pleats, like flowers made of dirty rubber. My Swiss friend, Alissa, speared a piece with a toothpick.  She chewed thoughtfully.  “I’m trying to tell if I can taste poop,” she remarked, a question one might argue should never be asked of food. 

Although I generally avoid meat when I’m the one directing my diet, I was intrigued, and felt compelled to try.  After all, I thought, when am I ever going to be served intestine again?  My friend Jeff, grinning widely, selected a massive lump from the remaining pieces, and handed it to me along with a plastic bag—“in case you want to spit it out,” he warned, hardly encouraging words. 

Deciding to go all in, I popped the entire chunk in my mouth.  It was the consistency of an inner tube (which makes sense, really), and had a strong flavor—not of poop, nor of grilled meat, but something all its own.  It tasted squiggly, somehow, to risk allowing my description to slide into synesthesia.  I suppose my face must have mirrored my ambivalence, because Jeff and Alissa started laughing, and Jeff urged me to use the bag if I needed.  I shook my head, chewing steadily, determined to force the unfortunately large piece down.  I finally managed to finish it, and washed the taste out of my mouth with beer, glad to think that that was the end of the intestine experiment.

How little did I know what awaited me in the days to come.

My dog, Scipio Africanus, has almost doubled in size in the two months that I’ve had her, and should get about twice as big again before she stops growing.  In some ways, this is good; as she gets larger and stronger, she can accompany me on longer and longer hikes and runs without becoming exhausted, as she did as a small puppy, requiring me to carry her in my arms the last mile or so. 

On the downside, her caloric needs are rapidly increasing, and the diet of milk, scant eggs, and occasional sardines that I fed her as a pup is no longer sufficient.  I got by for about a week allowing her to gorge on rice and beignets, but felt guilty that her diet was hardly equilibrated—so I bowed to the inevitable, and visited the butcher stand across the public square from my house. 

Despite the heat, flies, and charnel stench, this is for some reason a popular hangout spot for teenage boys and young men, who spend afternoons slouching around the stand, blasting a radio and tinkering with their motos.  With Skip at my heel, I made my way to the bloody table, where two young men were hacking up meat with long, dull knives.  I asked if they could save out any of the bad bits—the parts not fit for human consumption, which is a much shorter list of parts here than it would be elsewhere—for me to feed my dog.  They laughed at this, as my devotion to my dog (normal by the standards of any dog owner I know, but bizarre and unwarranted in Cameroonian eyes) is well known in my quartier, and the subject of much mystified headshaking.  But after a little ribbing, they agreed.  Just then, one of the butchers started shouting and shaking his knife at something behind me.  I wheeled to see little Scipio with her teeth buried in a cow hide that had been laid out to tan in the sun, trying absurdly to drag the entire thing, many times her weight, in the direction of my house.  Realizing that she had overstayed her welcome, and all too aware that the butcher probably intended to send her packing with a dent in her skull, I quickly gathered her up and made tracks for home.

But we have an understanding now, these butchers and I, and every day or two a child arrives at my house bearing a greasy brown paper parcel.  Inside is a disgusting mélange of bovine anatomy, which changes slightly by the day; some days it’s almost all gristle and fat, other days stretches of lightly furred skin feature heavily.  Once I’m pretty sure there was a cow nostril, although out of the context of a face, I can’t be sure.  A few times it’s been intestine—although those days I pay more dearly, as this, again, is a legitimate cut.

I tip whatever’s in the package into a pot of oil and fry it all up.  Although I don’t often eat meat, I am able to recognize that a steak on a grill, or a roasting chicken, objectively smells good.  This fry job never smells good.  The odor of the abattoir, along with floating particles of grease, lingers in the kitchen air even after I’ve cut off the gas.  It also doesn’t cook the way an actual cut of muscle would: gristle turns into hard lumps; connective tissue curls in on itself; intestines, studded with microvillae, pucker and become almost floral in shape.  The whole mass tends to turn grey, giving me the strange but vivid illusion (particularly with batches heavy on the fur) of stirring up a pot of baby mice. 

Scipio is happy with whatever I put in front of her, though, gnawing on lumps of gristle, pieces of hide, and the rare bit of actual meat with equal abandon.  Despite her bumpy start with the butcher, I think he might have developed a soft spot for her; every now and then she goes trotting out of the concession and returns with an enormous bone, which she proceeds to drag around the house in fits of deeply contemplative chewing, depositing these prizes in corners and under furniture.  I’ve never seen this happen, but I suspect during her jaunts the butcher is quite literally throwing her a bone. 

I’m getting less squeamish, too, as the days go by.  This whole past year has been an extended lesson for me, forcing me to rethink what and why and how we eat, not to mention the fairly picky standards I held myself to back home.  This is another lesson for me, in humility and practicality. 

I do go through fits of guilt—despite the low quality of her food, is my dog eating better than my neighbors’ children, who only get meat once a week, if that?  But even if she is, is systemic poverty any excuse for negligence on my part?  Dogs need protein; I could afford real meat daily, if it came to that, and certainly can afford a few pennies’ worth of offal; and in accepting a puppy, I took on a responsibility to care for her.  These are all questions that probably never haunt dog owners back home, who I assume buy enormous bags of Purina Puppy Chow with a clear conscience and no second thoughts. 

And who also, presumably, never have to visualize what a nostril would look like flying solo.

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