Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Trying it once: On relationships with food

Jumping off a cliff.

Stepping on a kitten.

Cheering for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

These are all things I don’t need to experience to know that they are galactically unfortunate ideas. But everything else? Worthy of at least a try.

Of course, this is an easy philosophy to both invent and uphold when one lives in Halifax, and the most outlandish activity one could possibly engage in would involve somersaults down Citadel Hill.

But there’s nothing like travelling precisely halfway around the world for encountering an unidentifiable food or two; globalization or not.

The roughly 8 billion different types of fruits here are not particularly frightening – no one ever won an iron stomach competition by holding down an entire papaya.

The meats are a different matter. Some are identifiable: the Filipino practice of cooking and eating whole fish generally makes them visually traceable, upon consumption, right down to the underwater neighbourhood in which they were spawned (“The Mariana trench? Me too!”). On the flip side, some meats are not so easily attributed back to the source ruminant or barnyard fowl.

There are two schools of thought on whether one should know what one is eating before consuming it. I generally belong to the group that would prefer to know, but my boss – a man with an evidently questionable sense of humour – delights in refusing to tell me what I’m eating before I eat it. It is, however, when he won’t tell me what I ate even after I eat it that I start to fear I’ve consumed something particularly egregious. Still, I’ve stuck to my policy of trying everything once, which has thus far taken me a good chunk of the way through the rather impressive roll call of “Filipino foods that would bring an abrupt halt to a first date back in Hamilton”.

I've thus far ingested chicken embryos, parts of the goat that I didn't even know existed and a variety of unidentified dishes from a cow-like animal called a Caribou (pronounced: care-I-bow). Also, bile.

Complaining – or worse, condescendingly laughing – at the unfamiliar foods in a foreign culture is a trite and inane activity, and I won't engage in it. What I would like to do, however, is to suggest (somewhat paradoxically) that eating unidentified foods is a great way to connect with one's food sources in a way that often eludes us while eating processed ham and frozen pizza.

Fish provides the best example. I conducted a bit of an experiment during my time in Hamilton, wherein I would ask the seafood worker to identify for me the species of tuna to be found in steak form behind the counter.

“Tuna,” they would announce, after a few moments thought. Further prompting led, on my most successful excursion, to the confident answer, “sushi grade”.

Compare and contrast: Last week I came face to face with an enormous Yellowfin tuna. I know it was a tuna because its big, stupid tuna eye was still looking at me as I dug into it with a fork. Also because the guy who caught it was spitting out bones from the other end of the beast. Does this connection make my tuna any more sustainable? I don't know. Am I at least acutely, unavoidably aware of what I'm eating and where it came from? Absolutely.

Similarly, when chewing part of a goat, it's well-nigh impossible to dismiss from one's mind the fact that one is eating a goat part. Happily, Filipinos generally delight in volunteering this information as one is mid-chew.

Since I believe that a lost connection to our food is a major hindrance to efforts to increase food sustainability in the Global North, I'll be looking for ways to export the food-connection I've found here. It will ideally involve a new animal or experience that forces people to think about what they're eating. For sustainability's sake, it should be relatively cheap and otherwise valueless to society.

Deep fried Toronto Maple Leaf, anyone?

You've got to try it once.

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