Monday, June 23, 2008

Food Thinking, the beginning--

Back when I tried to unscramble my thinking on why and how I eat animals, I ended with a promise to explore the way I eat more generally. I've read more than one book published recently on the recent history of food and eating (Omnivore's Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, Animal Vegetable Miracle, In Defense of Food, Common Ground: Essays by Wendell Barry), and still have some more I want to read that go way back to the English guy who termed the phrase "Organic Farming" around the turn of the last century, when fertilizer was first being developed and introduced into agriculture on a mass scale (with some pretty startling socioeconomic effects on rural areas, but more on that later). I think the British guy's name is Sir Albert Howard, but I could be wrong--I know he's a Sir, which I love to visualize as a suit of armor on a man riding a tractor out to field.

So that's where I'm coming from in terms of books. In terms of life, a few years back, living in Southern California, I discovered Farmer's Markets. They were cheap, close, and the fruits and vegetables were not only abundant but tasted way better than what I found at the supermarket. I didn't make the choice to "go local" ever in my life; nor did I consciously go out of my way to learn to cook so I'd be less wasteful or reduce my carbon footprint or whatever. My family on my dad's side owns a restaurant my now dead grandfather started, so I grew up around kitchens and then, when we moved way from the town in Maine where the restaurant was, my dad taught me how to use a knife. Then when I graduated from college my folks gave me a set of knives on my own, and now I have a framed picture of gramps hanging on the wall of our (tiny) kitchen in Brooklyn. Along the way I cooked in college, my senior year, when I had an apartment of my own and thus broke free of the chains of the dining hall. I couldn't WAIT to start cooking, then when I moved to california to go to grad. school I lived with a bunch of yahoo volleyball jocks whose major dinner decision consisted of jack in the box, in and out, or el pollo loco, I cooked for one in the pots and pans I homsteaded out there on a u-haul truck stuffed with what was left of my youth, and out back of which I towed a 1986 toyota tercel station wagon that was rust-colored where it wasn't rusted out.

Once in california I not only discovered farmer's markets but Mexicans as well. And, more particularly to our story here, Mexican food. Mexican food is the best thing in the universe. And I wanted to learn how to cook it. That's when I went "local" in a very basic way: I learned what the people native to the area made, because their food tasted good in a desert surrounding by swaying palms and suburbia and swimming pools when it was 110 degrees out and you could barely breathe from the oven you sat sweating in. Again, there was very little in the way of studying, or forethought here. I just did what felt right and what I liked to do anyway and went with it. I followed my taste buds, and I didn't eat out a lot because I didn't like fast food all that much (though I fucking grew UP on McDonald's and Wendy's and Whopper Jr.'s and Taco Bell and little Caesar's bread sticks that were my dinner on breaks from my shift at Wal-Mart, because Little Caesar's was next door in the strip mall). There is absolutely nothing about me that I can positively point to that led me to the current food fanaticism in which I currently dwell, but I will say that once I moved to NYC, food did become a political event.

I get here, I look around, and there's a "Movement" going on--everywhere I looked people were barking in capital letter phrases about Go Local. The Farmer's market became a veritable boundary marker for the avant-garde foodie liberal. I thought foodie was what Cookie Monster called anything that wasn't a cookie. I thought it was a dumb word, and I thought all this shouting and busybodying and goading people into political positions based on where they bought their food was even dumber. It seemed irrelevant to me. And the volume was too loud and preachy. I didn't wanna be an avant-garde foodie liberal.

Then I lived here for a little while, and realized I had no choice. No matter how poorly my clothes matched, or if I forgot to wear deodorant, or I double plastic bagged my scallions, I was "one of those" whether I wanted to be or not. This was an important lesson New York taught me: if you don't define your position, someone's gonna come along and label you for you. Fawk. I was not pleased, but I was hooked on the market--I couldn't go back to asparagus from Mexico. It tasted like ass to me, even if i could get it (from Peru) in December. What good is convenience if it tastes like overcooked broccoli if the broccoli had been lying in a compost heap for three weeks? I can still remember bringing home in California a cucumber in June or July or something and John eating it at dinner with something I barbecued, and him having a revelation, and telling me that he never knew a cucumber was supposed to /taste/ like something, that it even /had/ a taste. I was gratified and saddened at exactly the same time.

So here I was, in New York, awash and drowning in others' catchphrase and assumptions for me. I decided, if I'm swirling in the whirlpool, I might as well dive as deep as I can, straight down the middle. Gimme the friggin vortex, I thought. This had been my approach for pretty much everything else in this city, and it had worked (really well, in fact) so far. (in retrospect i think this is what defines this place, what defines whether or not you'll "make it"--it all has to do with reactions and unrequested unsettlings. LIke it or not, this place will happen to you if you live here, and how you respond has everything to do with whether or not you'll like your existence in this place or loathe every breathing second of it.) When it came to politicking food, and the swarms of annoying old ladies asking for the difference in starch content of la ratte fingerlings vs. russian banana fingerlings (THESE are my compatriots in the struggle against food tyranny??! Gimme a frigging break--NO ONE is gonna sign on to this 'movement' and go to a farmer's market if they to squeeze elbows with the likes of these people, or wait in line waiting to pay behind some shrill soccer mom wailing about WHY do they spray the swiss chard and NOT the spinach, and are the chickens organic OR free-range, and WHY don't you tell us on your sign?? "Is this milk pasteurized? My sister-in-law's two year old son almost died from salmonella because of raw milk she insisted on giving him. You swear this is pasteurized?"

I wonder sometimes whether this country will ever solve a problem without first turning into a total nutjob about it, chock full of ill informed dogmas and judgments and rigid definitions of "them" and what "they" aren't doing. Keerist.

But, yeah, I wanted to be understanding, so I read the books that Olivia got for me outta the library. And I read, and read, and read. And what I read freaked me the fuck out. I silently said thank you to all the crazy bluehairs and strange bulgarian women with funny accents wondering how to eat rhubarb, faithfully gathering a pound or two in their arms despite their trepidation; I built a small and silent shrine in my skull to these people, for helping me, for motivating me toward these books and the beginnings of my self-education on the systems in place regarding food production and distribution, the so-called agribusiness, of the last thirty odd years or so. I've learned all about the history of the nutrient, ever since George McGovern's revision of the first National Food Guidelines ever issued, following heavy leaning and threatening memos from American beef and poultry councils, from a recommendation to eat less meats to reduce heart disease to an advisory to "lower the intake of saturated fat". Since then we've demonized every chemical and compound from carbohydrates to omega-sixes, and isolated and pounded supplements of garlic extract, fish oil, gingko biloba, st. john's wort, niacin, as well as the since fallen from grace but once coveted essence of oat bran suppository, the only one of its kind and the alleged most effective away to immediately absorb the benefits of that wonder ingredienet, the mighty, the cracklin', the oat bran (yeah, i made that last part up, but not by much).

The more I learn the more I tailor what I've instinctively done all along, once I could make up my own mind when it came to food choices. Basically, cook for yourself, know where your food comes from, master either a particular kind of cuisine (I ditched mexican because it was too localized and the mexican restaurants did it better, and instead hitched my wagon to Italian. Little known dirty secret about California: despite having some of the best restaurants in the cosmos, they didn't have great Italian where I lived. So I decided to fill the void myself) or figure out what grows best in your particular climate and either fine a supplier for it or grow it yourself, or some combination of all of these. It's up to the individual to look around, see how and where they live, and what they have time for, and do what fits best. But for me, I decided I wanted to make sure I had an hour to make dinner if I wanted to (and I want to), and that I had another hour to enjoy it with whoever was around in my household (the more the better, most of the time), and, finally, that this time of enjoyment would be purely food and people and conversation and wine or beer or whiskey or whatever you're drinkin--the important thing was it was gonna happen around a table, without any distraction from devices.

This is how I eat. I eat slow, I eat with relish, and I eat with an ear, eye, nose, and feel for fresh ingredients (this was the thing I learned about Italian cooking: that its heart may be tomatoes but its soul is really whatever grows best where you live, and what you can most immediately get fresh from the ground, sea, or stable. Italian flavors are immediate, unfussy (for the most part), and bright. They are the essence of the thing you are serving, without all the mishmash of layering and cooked down reductions and all that. At most you splash in some wine to deglaze and five minutes later you serve whatever's int he pan with some pasta. And whatever's in the pan is most likely whatever is growing the tastiest that week, that day, that hour. The quicker you get it and pop it in your mouth, the more Italian it's gonna taste. Which, again, is another convenient way my approach to eating dovetailed with the now green or politically correct one: Italian cooking is inherently seasonal. You don't eat bolognese sauce in july and you don't eat insalata caprese in january. It's just wrong, and besides, where the shit you gonna get tomatoes from that time of year, Guam?). Plus i eat with people, as much as I can, and I eat more different KINDS of things that whopping overhwelming portions of any one thing (1/2 lb. double whopper with bacon, anyone? How about a porterhouse with a side of, uh, sprig of kale?)

This leads me to my first distillation into a rule, what may actually be the ONLY rule, I follow, in the sense that it's the only guideline I consciously follow and can succinctly state:

Eat less, pay more.

Now, that's completely ass backwards from the American food habits currently in place for I would bet 99% of the folks out there, but it's my rule, and I'm stickin to it. And explaining what I mean by it in the next installment. For now go ahead and marinate on that, and if you happen to drift by a ticket to France that you can get into your possession for free, grab it, and go, and come back and tell me about how THEY eat, as that'll help flesh all this out. But for now, I gotta bolt--stay tuned for explanatory events detailed with no particular allegiance to reason, logic, or good sense.

Friday, June 20, 2008

I killed a conch! With a hammer!

This gets a bit gruesome--think dinner meets biology lab dissection table--so if you don't like the idea of taking life to give life, especially shelled mollusk life, then better stop now.

So I go to the fish stand at the market, and I see "Conch," and I see they cost 2.25 a lb. Why is this, I wonder, to the nice lady behind the counter?

They're mostly shell.


You want one?

I'm intrigued by them, yeah....Yeah alright. Let me have a good sized one.

She opens one of the big coolers labeled "catch".

This one's wide open--look at that! And she shows me how it's, uh, moving, like a giant marine snail with a pointy I can hear the ocean shell, along the wall of the cooler. The body is grey and the muscular foot looks like an elephant's knee.

Holy crap, I think, as she's bagging it up and I'm giving her the money. What have I gotten myself into?

Olivia, thankfully, has worked with these before. She clues me into the second reason they're so cheap:
Because they're a pain in the ASS to prep. (By prep, of course, I mean, getting the freaking thing out of the shell and getting to the parts you can actually digest after cooking up.)

Not one to be easily scared off, and ever vigilant and intrepid, I do what I always do when I'm at home, alone, and don't know what the crap to do: I log on to the internet! There I get "tips" from many helpful Bahamians, among others, talking about how to go about this thing. Awesome! I think. Nothing can go wrong now! And I commence to pawing around the junk drawer, hell bent on a hammer.

Hammer in hand, I'm off to the cutting board. This thing is fairly big--I mean, it's a normal-sized conch shell, the icon of a tropical beach, except this one isn't brightly colored, has barnacles growing on it, and is nowhere near empty. It smells great--like the wet wood of a pier. I get it out of the water, watch as the foot retreats into the shell, and...oh shit! Is that actual conch poo in the water?! It is. The thing is doing life functions--there's a streamy strand of, uh, refuse, floating around in the water. These things are a bit more complex than clams or mussels or even oysters, which I've hurt myself shucking but beyond that haven't gotten much into fluids of any sort.

At this point, hammer raised, I have a pause to consider, that cityboy meets the wild moment of, uh, can I do this? Do I want to do this even? I think about how in the "tips" they explain to cut off the "head" (you'll know it from the eyestalk) as well as both the orange "skirt" of the mantle--the thing that secretes the shell, incidentally--and the thick intestine toward the bottom. These things whitewater rush into my foreconscious, sending off a fine misty spray of doubts. But I've bought the thing, and what I'm gonna do, set it free? Go out the back door, lay it in the grass, and say, run little conchie, go to your home, your native place! Or maybe take the subway with it cradled in my lap down to coney island and toss it into the tideline when horace the magic horseshoe crab whose suddenly appeared to assist me in the matter gives the thumbs up and a dashing wink (then we ramble down to the nathan's stand and get two with kraut and mustard, sharing a lemonade between us with two straws).

I shake my head clear. No, no, no! This is meat, and I really wanna know what kind of meat it is, what it tastes like (turns out either I wasn't around or don't remember when Olivia prepared conch the first time--and her last time). Plus I'm getting hungry, and hunger does things to you, or me at least. I get more single-minded, especially when the first instruction on the "tips" is to bash a hole between the second a third ring from the top. I think just about that first step, and I locate what I think is the right spot, and I just go in, making sure I have the paring knife ready once the puncture is made and I have to cut the top muscle from the shell.

I make an exploratory tap, then whack at it. Nothing. I get absolutely nowhere. The shell mocks me. And then I get it, then second gear of my carnivore reptilian mind kicks in. I get mad. I want the MEAT. I whack it two, three more times, harder, without hesitation, actually enjoying the challenge and seeing this not as a puzzle but as a moment where somebody's gotta win and somebody's gotta lose, and I've got a wicked genetic advantage I intent to exploit. Can't help it--I'll admit, I swaggered my cerebral cortex, my ability to acquire and use tools, and I felt GOOD when the shell cracked.

I felt less good when I poked the paring knife in to cut the shell away. The "tips" told me that if you feel soft tissue, you're too low, into the muscle itself, and you need to make a higher hole. Guess what I felt with the knife? What they don't give you a "tip" for is how the hell to make another hole once you've already got one, since subsequent bashing yielded only a long radial crack and then exposure of, you guessed it, more and more flesh. So then I thought, why not just wedge the knife in close, up tight, and pray up with it, kind of, until I can separate the muscle from the shell? My backup plan by this point was simply to cut my losses, literally, and sever the flesh at the exposed point and surrender whatever was above it to the scrapheap.

then it happened, then I felt the remorse of the sloppy first-time hunter. My knife hit something weird, then all of a sudden a bunch of, well, crap, exploded propulsively onto my fingers of the knife hand. Slimy entrailic stuff was everywhere, and leaking more each moment. My backup plan came full force to the fore, and I sawed and sliced until the flesh was rent, then yanked my heart out on the bottom foot--the scene looked like a jaws of life in a stock car evacuation in miniature. The whole mass of flesh slowly and with sucking sounds uncoiled from the winding chamber of the shell, and into my hand, so I fished out what was left of the, uh, head and organs I had, uh, stabbed. I had grainy diarrhea, more or less, dripping off my hands.

Lemme tell you, when they say between the second and third ring, don't overthink it, don't wonder if the first one counts. It does, idiot. Just start there and count to two. When you get to two, split the difference to the next one, take aim, and whack. Anything else is bad form.

I felt ashamed. I felt stupid. I felt like an asshole. I wanted to respect the animal's life I was taking and I didn't, and I realized that it wasn't killing I had a problem with, it was killing that acted as though the pain threshold or otherwise life functions of the animal being killed doesn't matter. It's not respecting the fact that the animal is alive in the act of killing that bothers me, which is why I'm off the slaughterhouse pork, beef, chicken, and turkey. Treating animals like Ford F-150s awaiting assembly, whether they know they're about to die sitting on that conveyor belt or not, doesn't work for me. It's up to each person to make up their own mind on the matter--guys in slaughterhouses claim the cows, for instance, have no idea the gun is coming to the forehead, even instants before it's their turn, but these guys also admit there are some wrigglers on the hook, some carcasses that aren't dead yet, yet have been strung up by their back legs, their throats cut and bleeding. Proof this is a human system, with living things, and thus imperfect--it is NOT a well-oiled machine, especially at the pace and volume at which these slaughterhouses now work. More on that later.

So I had my moment of remorse, realized I could hunt if I was a good shot, and with some practice, acknowledged the thing was dead now, and went on with the business of doing a better job getting to the meat than I had turning the conch INTO meat. I was really good at this part, I'm proud to say (I've taken more than my fair share of college biology classes, which helped in a number of ways). I found the intestine, excised, sawed the solid part of the bottom of the foot off, cleaned up the remaining entrails from the top part of the foot, and did the hardest part--peeling away the tough outer grayish skin to get to the melon colored edible flesh underneath--with great pizazz and elan. Once something's dead I'm a sangfroid motherfucker.

Anyway, once it was all said and done, the shell tossed, the cutting board cleaned up, I had about a half cup of meat left (the conch with shell was maybe eight inched top to foot).

I am not doing this again, I told Olivia, who was now home.

I know it. That's what I thought too when I did it. It's just not worth it.

So I also got a lesson in waste.

Although I will say this: I grilled each side a minute after pounding the crap out of it with teh same hammer (this time protected by plastic wrap), which was another trial, then chopped the grilled pieces up and threw them in tupperware with the juice of a lemon, some chopped up spring onion and garlic and a good heap of diced fennel fronds, let it marinate for about half an hour, then hit it with a little olive oil and turned the whole thing out on a bed of sliced cucumber and radish (I had no lettuce or else I would have had that in the middle) with some grilled baby fennel, and it was pretty damned good, tell you what. Tastes like a cross between clam and scallop, if you're into those two critters.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Adventures in Seasonal Cooking aka Using Weird hard to find ingredients that you can probably find in the woods but I pay three bucks for.

Vol. 1: Ramps

Also called wild leeks, these are very pretty, with long fanned out lily-like leaves, which are edible along with the bulbs. Evidently they grow all up and down the eastern seaboard, and folks in the Appalachians celebrate their arrival as the first of spring. They're season is short like asparagus, maybe three weeks, and about a week or two earlier, starting in early April here in New York and lasting until early-mid May. They taste a little like a cross between garlic and onion, though mellower than both. They go great with eggs and poultry, but here are two recipes, one with rainbow Trout and one that riffs on Potato-leek soup that you can serve alternately cold or warm, depending on the weather.

Trout with Ramps two ways--baconated and unbaconated

Unbaconated--super easy, here's what you need:

One rainbow trout about a pound or so, gutted.
Maybe half a dozen ramps, leaves separated from bulbs, bulbs chopped fine
A tomato sliced thin and the slices sliced again in half
Salt and Pepper
Olive Oil

Oven should be high, maybe 425-450.
Stuff the trout cavity with the chopped bulbs and the tomato slices, putting any extra tomatoes on top of the body. Salt and pepper inside and out (to get at the inside flesh I sprinkle some s and p into my palm and kind of sprinkle in, otherwise it's kinda hard do direct the shaker). Move the whole operation to a cookie sheet. Then you want to grab your ramp leaves and wrap them around the body to help keep the cavity closed and impart flavor. Don't worry about the tail or head--it's pretty funny when you're all done; the fish looks like it's wearing a green blanket, or a fancy full trenchcoat. I like to make it talk in funny accents and say silly things at this point. Once I'm done I drizzle oil over the leaves and head and smear it kind of under the body, too, so it doesn't stick.

After that just whack it in the oven, as Jamie Oliver would say, for 12-15 minutes, or until the eye is completely opaque and the flesh is not pink anymore. Once it's done take it out, unwrap it from the leaves (you can use those later in the presentation on the platter), and get to carving. That means first separating the head and tail, which is a breeze, then cutting along the back of the fish laterally, just above the backbone/spine. Once cut take a spatula and lift the top filet off--don't worry if some bones comes with it, you can pick those out later, but if the flesh isn't coming off the bone then it's not cooked enough. Once you've exposed the backbone just pull it up off the bottom filet, spatula the filet over to a platter, and serve the whole mess with some roasted potatoes or whatever you feel like.

Baconated Trout with Ramps

This was kind of a disaster, but I think I could have avoided it. Here's what you'll need--
Trout same size as above
Maybe three slices of bacon, either thick or thin, about 6 oz. (you may need another slice or half slice, depending on the size of your fish)
Three sprigs thyme
Two or three ramps, this time both the leaves and bulbs chopped fine
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
Wooden skewers or toothpicks

You want this time to stuff the cavity with the thyme sprigs and ramps, then season it. But this time our gentleman or gentlelady or whatever will be wearing what I like to call a meatvest. And this is where I went horribly wrong in my operation. I thought I'd be fancy and do like the pros and not fasten the bacon to the skin of the fish, assuming I could sear the bacon fat to it in such a way that it would act like a glue. Wrong, wrong, wrong--after I wrapped the bacon around the fish and tried searing it in a hellishly hot cast iron skillet, I went to turn the whole mess, which resulted in a flopping noodle like mass of baconflesh, exposed fish flesh where the skin had torn away, and a bubbling molten bog of bacon grease too hot to swim in.

So let's not do that. Best thing to do is wrap the body with the bacon in such a way that the seams of each slice line up, and then affix the slices along that seam to the body with a skewer. Or you could use toothpicks and just affix each slice one at a time, whatever works for you. But make sure they're stuck on the trout one way or another, otherwise you'll have sloppytime express.

Alright, now once the fish is all set up get a cast iron skillet blazing on a stovetop, hot enough that a little bit of olive oil drizzled in starts to smoke immediately. Then add the fish and sear the two sides so that the bacon gets good and brown and crispy, about two three minutes a side. Meanwhile get the oven up to temp.--again, 425 or so--and once you're done browning and the trout is swimming in some good liquiporkofat (you may want to drain some off), pop the whole mess in the oven for about ten minutes or to desired doneness. After take the fish out I like to sautee spinach in the leftover grease, but whatever floats your boat.

From there you just take out the skewer/toothpicks, peel off the bacon strips, and filet as above. The flesh should be juicy and rich.

Veggie-friendly Potato-Wild Leek soup
What you need:
2 T. Butter
Another half dozen ramps, bulbs and leaves chopped fine
Maybe a lb. of potatoes (I used four good sized red-skinned, white fleshed potatoes--I think they were called "Norland" or something. I dunno, one of seventy five thousand potato varieties available at the market. You could use about any non-russet, and thus non-baker/starchy potato here, even fingerlings if you want), diced and unskinned
1/4-1/3 c. Heavy Cream or half and half if you're a health nut (don't event ask if you can use lowfat or skim milk--I MIGHT give a little and say you can substitute whole milk here, but dono't push me.)

Bring a pan of heavily salted water (i.e. the water tastes salty, almost like the ocean--sea salt (duh) works well to this end) to boil and boil the taters until soft, maybe 20 min. Remove the taters and save the water.
Melt the butter over medium heat and sautee the ramp bulbs only until light brown, maybe 8-10 min. You may have to turn the heat down--keep an eye out so they don't brown too quickly and burn. That sucks--they taste like crap when they burn.
Add the potatoes and stir for a minute, then add the water in which you cooked the potatoes (purists of potato-leek soup HATE this step) and the ramp leaves.
Swirl the whole concoction around and bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, for 10 min. tops, until the flavors mix or you get impatient. Check for seasoning, add pepper if you want to or more salt if you need it, then whiz it up in batched in a food processor or blender. Once it's smooth add the cream--the soup should be a pale green color, the color of spring, because of the pureed ramp leaves. Don't add so much cream that you kill the color (and the taste), and you're done. Add croutons if you want or serve with crusty bread.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Brooklyn was Beautiful Today

I don't know if it was because of the weather, a perfect clear mid 70s feel with that no humidity clarity perfect blue sky you get after a weekend of deluge, or because I wasn't here for the deluge and its torrential buckets, or if it was because I was in Boston all weekend and just coming back and so it was all new again in its pure city-ness (I like Boston. I do. But you look around and, you know, everyone's kind of white, and kind of ruddy-faced Irish of one kind or another, or generally United Kingdomish with a splash of Portuguese--which makes for dramatic dark moustaches--and there are lots of pubs with green bunting and shamrocks and the notre dame 'fightin' irish' fella with his angry leprechaun dukes up, and everyone seems to be talking about Go Celts! or do the Sawx have what it takes and what if the Yankees don't make the playoffs that would be wicked cool. All of this is interesting to me, and the lobster roll and homemade ice cream I had was kickin, plus I got to swim in Walden Pond, which was surreal since the place is now a hot spot to cool down, with scads of kids engulfing the funny smelling shores (the water gave off that slightly uncomfortable freshwater in hot weather acridity, which I kinda love, in all honesty) and the tree rim being interrupted by a bath house here and there for changing, but I relished it if only for the transformation. But come back on the bus and you watch Massachusetts and the little marina towns and new english quaintity of outer Connecticut give way to the raucous concrete migraine that is the Bronx, and then you pop out in Harlem and leafy upper Manhattan, zooming down Museum Mile then through central park then you're blammo jet shot back into the subway system where you finally exhaustedly walk your luggage the few blocks from the stop to home and people are out and lovers are real and no one, no one, from the obese family sitting across from you on the train and the over made-up face of the resigned mother giving them candy in place of love, to the perfect skin perfect short hair, a vision of fleshly sculpture tall asian women leafing delicately with twig arms through a magazine, to the steel drums and dreadlocks parade of my neighborhood and the bushy fella who keeps watch on New York Ave., a brown bagged Mackeson sweet stout in his hand--none of them, none of it, is the same for more than a blink. Here, let me give you an easy contrast side-by-side of Boston and New York: Boston's south station, which holds the commuter rail, T stop, and bus terminal (it's sort of Grand Central, though more of a hub for more kinds of transport), has, I think, around 25 or 30 gates for buses. Port Authority, the bus terminal at 42nd and 8th ave. in Manhattan, had, at last count, something like 80, maybe more. And it only does buses, with a couple subway lines going into it. Near South Station is Boston's Chinatown, which you can see if you look down a street. It's clean looking, small, and has a huge tourist welcoming green sign-banner thing with ideographs presumably saying welcome to chinatown in Chinese cantonese or something. It's wooden and the characters are painted gold and it looks like a good place to take your kids. Like the "Near East" section of it's a small town after all at Disneyworld. New York's Chinatown is a sea-beast, with population tentacles shooting out and swallowing whole entire blocks of little Italy, which is gasping to hold on to a few last blocks before the constriction of wave after wave (or barge after barge) of immigrants floods the tides of the rickety brick and stone fire escapes. The place is teeming--it moves at a shorter height, and a much faster pace--than even normal NYC movement when you walk through it. Behind shaded or blinded windows ten stories high echoes of turn of the century tenements reek out fish odors and hung laundry and weird crepe paper cutout thingies that wave in the window and stream from window to window and building to building. behind the windows are makeshift plywood dividers that turn two rooms into four, and studios into homes for families of six, seven, or eight. Plastic bags hang everywhere, on one wall a drunken uncle scribbles poetry in his native language, mostly one or two lines about vomit or the smell or the taste and smell of noodles when they steam or the sounds of the buses screeching onto the curb as rival bus lines fight for customers with tiny ticket takers buzzing around or lying in the street to block other companies' buses from parking. A woman stands sad-eyed in the sunset after shuttering her dry cleaners for the last time, mopping her eyes as the fishmongers hock their exotic species from lined up bubble tanks in what looks like a chinese version of a pet store but what is actually wives and grandmother selecting a good pick for dinner, the fish darting behind the bubbletubes and racing in the tiny plastic bins, suddenly exposed after the mini-sized forklifts unloaded them from enormous coolertanks so they could be displayed on what seems to be the sidewalk but which the fishmonger has turned into the new boundary for his storefront. It is an instantly foreign place. It makes you forget where you belong to, where you are, what this place called America is.)

Anyway, so Brooklyn was something else today. It seemed to me full of grace. Let me take you back to what I just came in from, in no particular order after that.

I'm asking how much an 18lb. bag of Kingsford costs. The cashier smiles and says sure, no problem.
"That's charcoal, right?"
"Yup. That's a big bag of charcoal."
"11.19, but there's tax on that." She says this so fast, so New York, that it sounds to my ears like, "11.19, buthassaxamant." I make a stupid voice, ask her to repeat herself, understand finally, and tell her I'll take it.
Meanwhile, a ladybug has taken up residence on my hand. I know this, but I figure it's better to shoo it after I get outside rather than in the store.
"ohhhh!" She's alarmed, not excited like a little kid. She points, "You've got a ladybug--is that a ladybug?"
"Yeah." I go to show to her and she recoils. "I was gonna let it out outside."
She grimaces. "I hate bugs. I'm sorry, I just can't stand him."
"But it's a /lady/bug."
"Don't they bite?"
"You're from New York--you're a New Yorker, right?"
Then she does the obligatory toughface, "That's right I'm a New Yorker. Brooklyn born and raised."
"Yeah, I knew I wasn't from New York when I first moved here and saw a bunch of kids in the park look terrified at a squirrel."
"So they don't bite?"
"It's been sitting right her on my hand and did it bite me?" And here the ladybug got a sense of humor and flew off my hand. "See it flew away, wants to get outside, maybe it's flying to you to show how it won't bite."
And she flips the freak OUT. She knocks her headset off and starts delintifying her self with desperate sweeps of her hands. "Get it off get it off!" She looks at me, no toughface anywhere in sight. "Is it on me?"
I just grin and shake my head and walk out the door. "have a nice day!"
"You too!"

Between there and home, which is a block and a half, I see a bunch of school buses pass by. You can always hear tons of kids screaming out the windows, but this time I slow down and pay attention because there's acrossing and I don't have the walk sign. There's a woman next to me waiting at the bus stop. Two kids, maybe 8 or 9, boys, in white shirts and dark pants, uniforms, are hanging half out the window with their finger up. Turns out it's their middle fingers (one boy has his upside down), and they're shouting something like, "Fuck a pussy," or "fuck your pussy" or some combination of the two words. I hear the woman behind me as I cross yell,
Then I'm on the other side of the street, in front of the all Catholic, all Black, mostly Caribbean, church next door to home. There's a fedex truck parked on the curb and two employees in the front with the doors all open, enjoying the day. They've both got black skullie doorags on in addition to their uniforms, the driver's passed out and the passenger's flipping slowly through a New York Post, totally at ease.

On my first trip out earlier today the neighborhood crazy man on Eastern Parkway, who usually is totally silent and drooping his head down, is twirling his hands like he's simulating a wheel's motion. His eyebrows are raised and he's talking about, Idea! Idea! It's Idea!

Then I got off the train at Borough Hall, which is the sort of downtown of Brooklyn (downtown is considered closest to Manhattan--think of it as the tip nearest that island, where the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge are. It's also where all the official looking buildings are, including the court house whose front they used when filming Law and Order). I pop out of the station and go to the market and run some errands in the vicinity, and next thing I hear two little girl voices, amplified, singing that Alicia Keyes song--the one with the hook that goes, "No one, no one, no wwwwuuuuunnnn," in ascending pitch. There's just two of them all made out in dresses and little flowers in their ears, on this bandstand in front of Borough Hall itself where they've been having what are mostly lame children's chorus concerts with bad piano that bank on the cute factor for anyone to stop and listen. Not today--these girls were RIPPING that song! And there was a throng of folks there, some smiling in that awww, so cute, way, but many moving along to the music, getting hip to it, you know. I stood for a moment myself, bogged down with the first cherries and blueberries of the season along with the last strawberries it looks like, some new garlic and spring onions, a dozen eggs, some weird purslane I want to try, asparagus, and a couple tomatoes, bopping my head in spite of myself and the fact that I don't even /like/ that song. Turns out that may depend on who's singing it.

And everywhere the tiger lillies have exploded next to the fading peonies and the overgrown yard on the corner of new york and eastern parkway is exploding with poppies and some enormously tall snapdragon looking things that must be six feet up and have a bigger bloom despite growing up the stem like a snapdragon. Can't figure them out, or the yard in particular, since it has no garden-plan attached to it, but I like it.

So when I was careening back home on the train full of the usual jamaican and barabadosean and trini accents, and the mother scrunched next to her slumping teenaged son, all iced out in the ears and around the neck and fingers, smoothing out his back and telling him in shushing tones that it was all right, they'll make it without dad, and the kid who looks like a man but clearly feels like crying, fuckall if it's in public, his eyes bulging and blinking and him wiping and dabbing at his face when no words can come, and the scene and sounds and people that have grown soothing to me, comfortable despite the fact that I'm almost always, for the last couple stops anyway, the only whiteboy in the car--when all this mellow got sliced up by a tall whitewoman in a floralprint dress standing directly in front of me, her pastel echoing pansies making impressions across her slim figure and slight slope of taut belly, curving into her calves and then on into her yellow jelly laced sandals that look like they are positively murdering her pinky toes, and she holds up a book and starts reading it so I can read the title, "All Those Sad Literary Boys," I am ok with it. And even when I read the back cover, and the little endorsing write-ups from other sad literary boys, and see that among them is a blurb by Jonathan Franzen, my literary Magneto, my Dr. Octopus archnemesis I HATE that effing guy, that no talent having success anyway published motherfucker--even then, even when I saw him and saw here reading this schlock and feeling sophisticated and all that, even then I didn't feel rattled. I just leaned back and let it glide, because even the wind was on my side today--I could feel it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Ethics of Eating Meat and other tales from the gypped (6/8/08)

I'm eating steak tonight, a good-looking bone-in sirloin from my buddy Farmer Rick, plus it's about fourteen hundred degrees here on this fine, uh, early-June Sunday, so I figured now was as good a time as ever to write something like this. I've never done this, so I'm bound to stumble; it's never been imperative to me to write down, let alone publicly share, my reasons for eating animals. I have over the years simply cultivated certain eating habits based on what I believe is good sense, what is obvious to me. Well, as I get older and see more and more, looking around at folks I know, some of whom I've known closely and dearly a long time, I've gotten more and more confused.

And now there's a movement, or twenty. I remember when being straight-edged, or vegan, or both, was a rare miracle of radicalism. These folks were marginalized (or marginalized themselves, depending on your point of view) and easily recognizable. Since then there's been any number of food and lifestyle movements: there's abstinence, the willpower to be anorexic in pro-starvation websites, and of course the more common recent trends, with "going green" or becoming a "locavore" or the "New American seasonal" movement among top chefs in restaurants. It's getting confusing to me, and everywhere I see lines between groups of people getting drawn into more and more minute spaces; the cubbyholes are shrinking and the number of names on each are getting more isolated from each other. There has been, arguably, as a result less marginalization, but I wonder if there isn't an equal paucity of communication and understanding across groups.

So what I have to say I should make clear is going to be rambling and awkward, in that way that only the confused and the hesitant first-timer can be. It has always been my policy to mind my own business and let others mind theirs when it comes to eating. I've shifted a little the more I read and learn and try to understand, and while I am far from being activistic about anything, let alone food, I at least feel comfortable enough, feel like I've done enough homework to share some small testimony and analysis of why and how I eat the way I do and place myself among others who eat differently in order to understand where they are coming from. But that's just it: I write all this to start a discussion, however awkward and stupid and lopsided my viewpoint may be. I am convinced of nothing--my perspective has shifted markedly in the past ten years when it comes to food--and I don't view this as a right or wrong issue. I want to have a sane, even-voice conversation so I can learn about and understand those about me. Dogmas, ideologues, in other words, need not apply.

Ok, on with it. Here's what I'm thinking about. I'm thinking about the reasons, the basic general reasons, most people list for eating or not eating meat. I've heard a few basic categories, and when I ask vegetarians of all stripes why they chose to give up eating animals, I pose the question as being one of two options: did you stop eating meat for ethical reasons or because you didn't like the taste of it? On the other side, carnivores wrestle with their own inquiries from others, but mostly from within--at least in my own case, I've asked myself countless times the logical endgame question that comes from intelligently thinking about why you eat an animal--namely, are you willing to kill that animal, skin it, gut it, etc. BEFORE you eat it?

Now these are some loaded god-damned questions, if you ask me. And since I asked myself, I'm gonna keep talking on it. On the one hand, posing vegetarianism as an "ethical" choice stuns me, the more I think about it, in that it brings to bear an enormously simplified idea: that is, if you don't eat meat you are doing something "good" and if you are not eating meat you are doing something "bad." Whoa nelly is it a bad idea to think this way, for reasons I'll get into. The carnivore question is loaded in the sense that killing something, and moreover killing something seconhand, is innately BAD, because killing is innately wrong. This depends on your religion to a certain degree--if you're a Hindu or a Buddhist, then, yes, this is the ethical position you take. I am neither of those things, however, and so take a different one, as I assume most of you do in this Christian/Atheist nation.

For me, yes, at this point in time I would be willing to kill an animal and prepare it for consumption. My only example to back this up is fishing, which admittedly is the most chickenshit easy backdoor way to answer this inquiry, as a fish is much smaller and less mammalian than, say, a pig. But nonetheless, I've caught a fish, killed a fish, and gutted a fish. I've whacked a live fish's head off and chummed the waters with it, so I could catch a bigger, more edible fish. In short, I've hunted, and it felt fine. It tasted better. It is enormously satisfying to sit by a river or on the deck of a boat in the late afternoon heading into sunsent, smelling a trout or a catfish cook over a fire in tinfoil--nothing smells like that smell of opening the tastepackage up and smelling the steam vapors laden with flavor. You are smelling, and then you are tasting, the fruits of your labor. You are tasting your sweat, the energy you put into it. And I could understand this when I was eight years old--it is very possible, in fact, that it is BECAUSE I understood this, felt this way, was placed in a hunting environment where it was deemed acceptable and right to kill something yourself and eat it, that I have fewer qualms about eating animals now. I dunno. Let me move on.

For me it, and by "it" I mean the rationale beyond the feelgood scenario I just outlined, has to do with energy and evolution. Let me explain. We've domesticated animals, and we've domesticated plants. Gardens and farms and chicken pens and shepherded flocks and fenced pastures are nothing more than humans expressing their abilities as apex predator to shape their surrounding environment and its creatures to suit their own ends. You can clear land to plant swiss chard and strawberries by the acre, making neat rows in dirt (anyone who's seen a small farm, say ten acres, surrounded by woods, knows there's very little "natural," in the sense of doesn't look manmade, about a farm), or you can keep a herd of animals to munch on grass or grain or bugs, depending on the diet they prefer, so they can get old enough to kill and dress and eat. Or you can hunt and gather--those are two other options, and as far as I can tell the ONLY two options for eating animals, that don't involve domesticating the surrounding environment so that it will nourish us.

There are now two directions I can go from this premise of domestication. The vegetarian in me will go down one of them, and ask, Well, ok. Given that you can either domesticate plants or domesticate animals, and it feels less morally wrong, it feels "better" (in the sense of more guilt-free), it is less complicated feelings-wise, to kill and eat plants than animals, why not simply keep to farms and eliminate animal husbandry from the eating equation? The carnivore in me, who, strangely, also occupies the same brain and soul space as the economist in me, or the Mark Twain view of humanity in me, the skeptic realist (just as the vegetarian in me occupies the same space as the poet in me, the tree-hugger in me, the part of me that wants to raise my own child to love)--I'm offtrack: my carnivore side argues for the natural progression model, and states, quite simply, that things like slaughterhouses and chicken factories or whatever you wanna call them--the industrialization of animal killing for consumption--is just a "natural extension" of a human impulse, the happy matrimony of science, technology, and I'm hungry. Isn't "agriculture," the carnivore economist positivist historian asks, simply the continual advancements of methods to feed more people with less money and resource usage? Is it any less like humanity to line up cattle on an assembly line a la Henry Ford's model than it is to herd goats on a mountaintop, and if one can be done more cheaply in a way that feeds more people than the other, shouldn't we do THAT one?

Not so fast, you two. And here's where context comes into play, and the need for conversation between the two parts of my brain, between and among the different cubbyholes of those who attach themselves to movements, arises. First, to the vegetarian side, I would say this: if we could get in a time machine before years of domestication of animals, then, yes, we could just wipe out all the animal eating and go on our merry way. But we can't, and the fact is, some creatures, like chickens and most breeds of cows and even turkeys, can't do much but BE dependent on us after years and years of human beings selecting for traits that will render them needful of human care (cows have to be milked, chickens have so many predators if introduced into the wild in their current state that it takes about an ounce of reason and imagination to see their imminent extinction). Many animals, like goats, benefit from us herding them--we protect them from predators, we lead them to good food sources. Do I think we should treat all animals this way? Do I even think we should CONTINUE to select for a narrow range of characteristics so that breeds of certain animals become as restricted in their gene pool as to resemble the Amish? No. Absolutely not. In fact, I support efforts to raise heritage or heirloom breeds of pigs; I eat cows that aren't Holsteins and turkeys that aren't the humongous white variety that look oddly more like donald duck than a gobbler. I eat eggs from ALL kinds of chickens; I know this for a fact, as I've asked the egg farmer, Nestor, himself, in order to support animal diversity. But in doing so I cannot ignore that many, many animals now benefit from our interaction with them, and that a symbiotic, humane relationship can exist which results in the human eating the animal.

This is not without complications, or considerations, for me. Pigs, which I have mentioned above, trouble me. They are the animals I am most on the fence about, who I would consider first on my spectrum of not eating (a.k.a. animals I feel bad about killing, with fish being last on that spectrum, poultry like chickens, turkeys, and rabbits and other game being next, and cows being closer to pigs). This is not because pigs can feel pain and other animals can't; I understand all animals can feel pain. It is because pigs, from some accounts I have heard, can sense they are going to die before they are killed. They are aware enough to sense danger, threat, etc. and this suggests that they are more like me than less. Chickens, on the other hand, you can put in a metal cone-sling thingie to calm them down, where they will lay there placidly, waiting for their throats to be cut (I'm taking this from Michael Pollan's experience on Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm, which he recounts in The Omnivore's Dilemma. He explains how, standing there with the knife that will slit the chicken's artery in its neck, he notices the chicken's eye is blank, flat, unknowing, and that, if done well, done expertly, without hesitation or missing, the chicken will die without so much as a squawk. Like much death, it is undramatic, absurdly uneventful--the body lies there with a few ruffles while the blood leaks into a metal pail. Now, emptying the guts out....that can get a little intense, but leave that for now.)

In any event, I want to be clear that I'm not set in my opinions, not at all, but that I've worked out some preliminary premises for why I do what I do. Admittedly, I have not killed a chicken, that I have only vicariously experienced it. Admittedly, I eat pigs and cows, while wondering whether it is right. Admittedly, the first bites of rabbit were strange because I couldn't NOT know where my food was coming from, in the sense that I thought I might be eating someone's pet, or Bugs Bunny. But this is good, I think; this is healthy. John Milton claimed in one of his essays that there is no virtue in living without temptation, that virtue untested is anything but, and I agree with him. If I don't continue to know where my animals come from, and don't ignore the blood and death and bones involved in feeding me, then I forget there's a sacrifice, there's a transfer of life-force and energy from them to me, and that forgetting leads to some ugly stuff.

And that brings up the last two things I want to discuss. First, let's get back to my carnivorous rationalizing side, and a response to its question about stockyards and slaughterhouses and meatpacking and even more generally the industrial model for ALL agribusiness, the thing that creates high fructose corn syrup plants and McDonald's burgers with feces in the meat (check out Fast Food nation for investigation that reveals the validity of that claim), and why all this isn't necessarily an inevitable, "natural progression," with positive results. One argument against this is context. There are all sorts of problems with applying the metaphor and mechanism of industry to animals and plants and eating in general. The main one is that this metaphor assumes not only that food is a machine, but that the thing being fed, us, human beings, are machines as well. It works from a model of chemistry, of nutrients, of the belief that oat bran is good and saturated fat is bad, that soil consists of the three elements of fertilizer (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium), when in fact the earth has a number of important living microbes essential for plants' root systems; the fruits and stalks and leaves and seeds of those plants that are edible to us are not as nutritious if those microbes aren't present because the overabundance of fertilizer's three elements has killed them. This explains, incidentally, why organic food is better for you, and may even taste better, arguable, than non-organic food (Again, see Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, or more conclusively his newest book, In Defense of Food, for more on this).

The biggest problem with claiming that nature's flora and fauna, including homo sapiens, are machines is that it ignores two things. First, a metaphor claims something is LIKE something else, not that it IS something else. All metaphors break down somewhere--that's what makes them metaphors. And in this case the metaphor breaks down when you take into account the fact that humans, pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, beets, carrots, arugula, and all of the natural world is LIVING matter--these are all carbon-based life-forms. They are products of life processes, not the product of applications or craft or the conversion of inorganic natural resources into machines and systems that make more efficient human society. And thus there are all kinds of deficiencies, inefficiencies, and wasteful acts affiliated with an industrial mode of agricultural production, or so-called agribusiness, as one takes into account the amount of energy in resource terms that one puts into making a industrial hamburger from a feedlot cow vs. the amount of energy and nourishment in food terms you get OUT of the process, the system is horrible--the entropy involved is incredible. One easy comparison is calories put in against calories put out, which, again, you can find in Pollan's In Defense of Food. The ratios are ridiculous; any business working from this model and using calories as currency rather than dollars would tank within a year.

But that's just one way the metaphor breaks down. Because cows and chickens and all that are alive, they produce living waste, they work in concert with the land around them, and if you stack them up like widgets in a small space, they will not only get diseased and/or die (and thus require piles of antibiotics, themselves expensive and deleterious to the health of the human consumer), they will destroy that earth they live on, and/or pollute it in such a way that they will pollute themselves. Living things are more complicated than machines, they exist in concert, in an interconnected manner, and thus the industrial model of agribusiness doesn't work. Planting acre after acre of corn and making corn the basis for everything from steak and perdue chicken (both feedlot cows and chickens are fed mostly corn in their 'grain' diet) to potato chips (the oil) to ding-dongs and coca-cola to breakfast cereal makes the food supply incredibly vulnerable to disease, a trait that ONLY belongs to living creatures (machines require maintenance, but they don't get sick).

So I can outfox the reasonability of the industrial model of agriculture with my own rationale. And I'm pretty sure I can out feel-good myself on the feasibility and ethicality of eating animals (where, for example, would we /put/ all the chickens we're not eating? What is the natural habitat for a holstein cow in a country into which we have imported it? These are just some of the questions I have for the more militant among the vegetarian impulses I have). I can more or less, in short, play Hamlet in terms of my eating habit, and argue for both sides. But what remains is this interconnection argument, this belief and recognition through observation that life happens in a cyclical, incredibly complex but equally delicate, harmony and symphony. At root I don't feel like I can understand it fully, and that means not understanding human beings' impulses to control or alter that symphony indelibly. I simply can't politely excuse myself from the party just because I'm uncomfortable with the fact that the party reveals human activity and impact on the world, or the most startling, glaring fact of all: that we have impacted the natural world in a way that has changed the nature and manner and habits of some of its creatures. We could perhaps work to resolve that issue, to reverse that trend, but I don't believe instantly forsaking the consumption of animals is the way to do it. And so I cannot equally believe that becoming vegetarian, choosing not to eat animals would change me as a human being, or even help me understand the way my humanity impacts the world on a personal level.

Nor do I think it always makes sense from an energy standpoint to do so. And this is my final point, for now, of an already too long post. Energy is a funny thing, depending on how you look at it, and these days it seems like in one way or another we're all looking at it. Particularly, we are concerned about the SOURCES of energy, the origin and sustainability of those sources. For me the same goes for food. The sun is where it all starts: whether you eat plants or animals, the food chain starts with the sun. When we eat we are eating converted solar energy, whether it's in the form of the spinach that photosynthesizes its energy to grow and convert that energy into an iron and fiber and calcium packed package for us to eat and convert into OUR energy (and waste in both cases: the spinach's waste nourishes us and our waste, both CO2 and poopie, can enrich the next crop of spinach), or whether it's second-hand in the form of the grass the cows (should) munch (instead of the corn they now are if you buy your beef from supermarkets). The question is, how best to use that solar energy? What's the shortest, least wasteful chain from the sun to our bellies?

That answer, for me, is simple in some ways and complex in others. The simple answer says: the shortest chain is best. In this point of view, if you isolate it, we should all have a garden or small farm from which we feed ourselves, with no animals. Ok, fair enough, for the time being let's say I agree, and this seems to be the answer behind the local food movement--the farther the food travels, the longer the energy chain, and thus the more wasteful and hurtful to life on the planet it is. Again, fair enough, I agree. But there are some complications. What if you live, as I do, in the northeast, where everything is dead, for all practical purposes, from about Thanksgiving to about the middle of April, when the first shoots of ramps and asparagus stalks come up?

Now, there is such thing as storage, and canning. I know all that. You can put up green beans, tomatoes, pickled cucumbers (some folks like to call them "pickles") in little mason jars (never mind that I live in an apartment with a tiny kitchen--that's my own damn fault for being an asshole city-dweller), and you can put some potatoes and turnips and cabbage and squash/pumpkins in the cellar. If you also freeze some zucchini you'll be in alright shape, right? Maybe. But it's close. And other store foods, like flour, for example, are fairly energy intensive, and lengthen the energy chain, arguably, more than the roast chicken pecking at the seed grains out of which something like flour and bread can be made does. Again, it's close--too close, by my standards, And the risks are too great in this model in terms of malnutrition, bugs and rodents getting into your cellar, doing the canning wrong and spoiling it all, for me to build a log cabin or get all Into the Wild about it. I want a safety net, and I bet my ancestors (and, hell, the American Indians, too, for that matter) at least felt somewhat the same way, if they lived in a place with winter, when they started killing animals and eating them. For me, eating meat in the winter makes a whole crapload of sense, because frost doesn't kill cows, or buffalo. As a result, I eat as much or more meat and eggs in winter and early spring as I do root vegetables and the few leafy greens I can muster from the farmer's market. And I don't feel a lick of guilt for it, because I know where the animals came from, I know who killed them and how, and I know how they lived before they died.

The more I think about it, the more I think I'm just living in the way that is most connected, most harmonized with my particular climate. This may be the next wave of the local food movement! Get a leg up on your holier than thou friends, show up your neighbors--let the whole world know you are the most conscience-laden person in a fifteen mile radius (to consider people outside of this area would be un-local): start the NATIVE-locavore movement! Start a buffalo ranch! Set fire to fields that grow apples, or peaches, or pears and turnips and cabbage and broccoli and carrots, all in the name of new world eating reclamation acts! Wear only loincloths and paint your face and learn how to fancydance!

Ok, so there are limits. I can't become an Indian, much as I want to. And while fanaticism is fun for a little while, I get lonely quickly. Fact is, I'm a white boy on stolen land, surrounded by ways and means and plants and animals that don't, strictly speaking, belong here. But then there's Darwin, and the fact that adaptation is the way to go. Fair enough, so let's work from a flexible adaptive model, and say this: if you live in Los Angeles, eat like a Mexican. If you live in Washington sate, you should probably eat plenty of salmon and not so much in the way of rhubarb. I'm not saying "go local"; I'm saying learn about your surrounding area, what grows there, what is already growing there, and GET some of it, and EAT all living hell out of it. If you live in Texas eat beef--it makes sense to. But baking bread in El Paso? Doesn't make much sense--stick to tortillas.

I dunno, I realize there are limits here. All I'm saying is that my standpoint doesn't work from an abstract sense of "right" or "good" one one side and "wrong" or "bad" on the other. It works from a belief that the best way is the way most in concert with what is immediately available and can be endlessly sustained one side of the equation and what is most healthy and least risky of starvation and spoilage, as well as devoid of denial and weird puritanical purgation on the other. I am finding the most adaptively native way of living in my environment that is also ethically sound. In this way if you're a vegetarian in New Jersey eating strawberries from Mexico because you have a hankering for them, and some tomatoes, too, from California, in the middle of January, you really aren't any more "Good" or "Right" in my book than a Texas rancher eating beans, tortillas, and carne asada on his way to round-up at the stockyards. I worry sometimes that vegetarians make the choice so that they don't have to think about food choices in nuanced, sometimes conflicting and difficultly ambiguous ways, that they make the choice to disavow animals as a way of not having to worry or think about being wrong anymore, a sort of eater's get out of jail free card, that sometimes leads to some weird food choices based on a cycle of denial and indulgence (I've earned those Mexican strawberries/Argentine asparagus!). Another tendency I sometimes witness is the hypercensuring of eating ANYthing because there is a stain, a mark of sin in the form of the business practices of the farm's owner's uncle, or, to use but one example I heard recently, overfishing. I have a friend who will remain nameless who felt bad, like he wasn't supposed to eat the mahi-mahi I had cooked which came from Trader Joe's.

Why, friend? I asked.

Because so-and-so told me mahi-mahi is an overfished species, Friend replied.

Now, everyone's /right/ here, but they're on the wrong tack, I think, because the perspective is limited. Is the lesson here not to eat mahi-mahi? It would seem that way, and yet I can get mahi-mahi from my farmer's market from a boat off of Long Island that fishes in a way and in a place that doesn't clean out the species. it respects the eco-system whence the mahi-mahi comes, and as a result I can only get Mahi-Mahi for a limited season (when they're migrating north for the summer) and in limited quantity (it often runs out of its limited supply by the time my lazy late-rising ass gets to the market). So it's somewhat more complicated than simply laying down a commandment of denial that reads, in essence: don't ever eat mahi-mahi because it's overfished. Don't eat mahi-mahi from Trader Joe's that comes from Ecuador, yeah, sure--that was a bad choice on our part, for a number of reasons only one of which is overfishing.

But shouldn't that lead to some further questions, rather than simply a new commandment to be followed? Questions like, how much fish should I be eating in the landlocked town in Western Massachusetts where this took place? The coast is fairly close, however, so maybe a better question is, why doesn't fish from the nearby atlantic coast (only a little bit north of long island, where i get my mahi-mahi from) show up to be sold here, at a stand at the saturday farmer's market? Maybe it is! I should go to the local farmer's market this Saturday. And then you would go to the farmer's market in this quaint massachusetts college town and find....rhubarb. And a shitload of plants in plastic pots to buy. And some goat cheese and milk. Hm. What is going on here, you may ask? Why are no farmers selling food in their stands at the end of may? And why is the Trader Joe's and the Whole Foods (which seems to have asparagus, by the way, from a local farmer in a nearby town) packed with customers? Why is the place that shouldn't have the mahi-mahi but does loaded with people expecting exactly what they want any time of day or night, let alone season, and the place that should have the mahi-mahi but only for a limited time and from a local waters devoid not only of fish, but of almost /all food/? Does this say something about our eating priorities and assumption?

This would seem to be better solved, these questions better answered, than with simple, or oversimplified, decisions or discussion of ethics regarding whether an animal should be eaten or not. The problem is systemic, deeply rooted into our culture, and often packaged, I would argue, in ways that pose as the solution to the problem, when really a place like Whole Foods, contains elements of the problem as well (don't get my wrong, I'm not picking on Whole Foods or TJ's--they are both FAR better options than almost any other major supermarket chain. I prefer TJ's for reasons I won't bore you with here, but the point is, I shope there). My beef is with a mindset that thinks food comes from stores, from cellophane wrapped packages, NOT from, holy hell, the nearby ocean or the acres of farms that, at least in this example, the town was surrounded by!

this mindset is a problem to me because it ignores reality in favor of an abstraction, a perceived good. And that perceived good is seen as being uniform, as being wholly good (If I shop at Trader Joe's then I am doing the right thing, and am not a bad person like those shithead republicans). This takes me back to the beginning, as its what is behind my issue with eating or not eating animals (If i don't eat animals, I am doing the right thing, and am not a bad person like those shithead republicans). I'm not saying vegetarians don't make decisions on their own terms, nor am I, not by a long shot, saying that some carnivores are not shitheads, or republicans, or both. Many carnivores, perhaps most, are guilty of being willfully ignorant of where their food comes from, and refuse to engage in any sort of truth-seeking about their eating habits and their impact or influence on the real live world around them. They will not educate themselves because to remain ignorant is to remain safe. And this is abhorrent to me. But, frankly, I see it on both sides of what I call the bloodline, even though there is more evidence that it's the carnivores who are baldly turning a blind eye (by analogy, many southerners are easy targets for racist sentiment, whereas northern racism is very difficult to discern, and in that way perhaps more damaging, in that it is so hidden. so south carolinians become uniformly rednecks to outside observers, and new york a tolerant place of refuge. yet new york city, at the outbreak of the civil war, wanted to secede from the union as well....where does it leave the moral compass of racism if bigotry is seen in terms of geographical location??).

What I'm saying here is shitz is complicated, and deep. What I'm also saying is that not ALL carnivores suck, and not all vegetarians are necessarily getting off the hook by my measure of what is "right" or "good" ethically. Equally, not all carnivores are enlightened, and many, many vegetarians have educated themselves fully in their positions. I try to count myself among the former, though it needs work, and would love to hear from fellow folks like me, or from the latter group I described, as there are many veggies in the midst of my readership who no doubt have strong, well laid-out positions for their eating behavior. I'd love to hear them. It's time we opened this nut up and started looking at it for what it really is, rather than huddle into our respective groups and plant a flag labeled "I'm right" in the ground. I am not staking out a claim; I am exploring a series of ideas. I change all the time, and am tentative in more than one of my positions. Moreover, I screw up, and don't always follow my own advice. I am fallible, and stupid, but I'm trying to be less of a moronic, destructive cock about the way I eat. It hasn't been easy, I've swallowed more than one bitter pill as a result, but hearing others' opinions has not been one of them.

Next I'm going to lay out, based on my philosophy of eating, my literal habits. I'm going to show the practical methods, the concrete actions that this abstract notions lead to, with regard to how I eat every day. Hope I don't lose all my readers or piss everyone off/bore them to tears along the way.

Random Schlock (6/6)

First a quote from Samuel Johnson I recently read and like: "A man accustomed to hear only the echo of his own sentiments, soon bars all the common avenues of delight, and has no part in the general gratification of mankind."

Second: Planet Earth. Just watched the first disc of the series, which includes Pole to Pole, Mountains, and Fresh Water. The footage is unreal. Holy shitballs is it unreal. I've never seen wild dogs hunt in the savanna in a way that makes so much sense and reveals their strategy so fully. Vivid, vivid footage. The birds of paradise--only one thing expresses my reaction to seeing the males' mating gyrations: ??!??!. So wild, so incredibly cool. And, oh yeah, you get to see a snow leopard hunt....down the almost cliffside of a mountain of loose rocks in Pakistan.

They used front of a helicopter mounted cameras formerly only in use in the military to get some of the shots. it allowed them to zoom in on a giraffe wading through a flooded delta in Africa without the giraffe having any idea. Other shots with the same superduper lenses came by way of camped out crackerjack cameramen that lived in huts built in rocks. For weeks this dude waited for the snow leopard mama to come out, only to have the remote cameras pick her up as she tenderly licks her one year old cub, then rubs, like a domestic cat except with enormous paws, claws, and a kangaroo tale, her whiskers and scent glands against a jutting rockface. Phenomenal stuff. They made all 25 million dollars (pounds? It's a BBC production) of their budget count with the footage.

Which makes me wonder--why not just leave it at that? Why not edit and present the footage, as is, unadulterated for me to salivate over? Maybe it's the meddling urges of humanity in general, or the old colonizing, conversion to protestant minded impulse of the British resurging yet again, but there's all this, uh, packaging. There's music (that's often culturally entwined to the geographical location, as though the giant panda gives a crap whether the background music for its footage is Chinese, or, better yet, a rabid school of piranha ripping apart to the vertebrae a fish give two shits whether that's a bossa nova or a beat box framing their frenzy). For Christ's sake, do we really need to be TOLD how to feel about this shit? And isn't there a problem with that, with the idea, the presumption, that nature should be narrated? I mean, we're gonna do it anyway through the editing, through the cropping of cuts and even down to the footage you decide to go out and get in the first place, the decision to go after wild dogs rather than prairie dogs, the snow leopard rather than the grasshopper. But shouldn't we attempt to minimize this when we're dealing with creatures of the wilderness?

I dunno how to work all this out, and I'm open to ideas. But I know almost for certain one thing: that a polar bear or a grizzly emerging from their den at the end of winter, at the first sign of spring sunshine, is not tumbling like a spaz down the hill of snow "for the sheer joy of it," or at least it's not the most rational explanation. Uh, David Attenborough, or the writer that gave this flatus to the narrator, may I, ahem, interject with the theory, the possibility, that the fucking bear's LEGS ARE ASLEEP? I dunno, after sleeping for, let's say, four bloody months, chances are coordination and circulation aren't at their peak, and so when it looks like the polar bear is trying to learn to walk again, as great an opportunity that is to show how human-like, how anthro these bears are, perhaps we should resist the urge and let the reason be the better angel of our nature at that point.

This is but one example. This framing, this packaging, really irritates me, because it carries with it a whole trunkload of implicit assumptions about how the wilderness works, and substitutes a projected reality with what can be pretty easily observed as the truth, the easily verified, empirical, falsifiable claim (thank you greenie for the term and definition) truth whose underlying principles something posing as a semi-scientific program should adhere to. But in any event, I'd be happy if they just cut the fucking music and the words and let us be that camera, too--watching invisible, perfect voyeurs, into a world that changes the instant it sees us watching, a world with reactions and actions totally outside the sphere of human intervention and human intention and, of course, human creativity and language.

4:56 PM - 1 Comments - 2 Kudos - Add Comment - Edit - Remove

something happened on the way to heaven

You guys remember that song? The video had an adorably mischevious dog stealing something from the band throughout their recording take--I think it was a terrier or a floppy benji type mutt. Whatever. It was Phil Collins, and when Phil Collins was on mainstream MTV, these were dark days for the empire. Remember when there was only one MTV? Pepperidge Farm does.

Anyway, this post kind of riffs on, or at least was triggered by, the following column by William Safire, a guy who writes about, among other things, language on a regular basis for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. You don't have to read the column (which this time was about emoticons, or at least ostensibly) to understand what I'm talking about, but it's smart, entertaining, and brief, which is a combination you don't always see and so should relish:

I was on the laptop, Olivia's oh so cute little Apple ibook G4, a juggernaut of tiny white plastic, and I went out back to sit on the back patio table (we actually have some semblance of a backyard in our Bklyn apt.), and I went on Facebook, the unmyspace. The antichristspace? Anyway, I'm sure you're all on it, too, because we are all cheaters in our hearts, and so may or may not know that it's based mostly on opensource applications, and so people can make up little widgets and thingies that you can embed in your profile and will tell you your horoscope and let you think Ron Paul is the new messiah or turn you into a vampire so you can bite people and turn them into vampires. I had recently discovered not only that I could embed Pandora radio, which I freaking love ( you're into music in a breadthy depthy kind of way, it's fer you), but this thing called the Virtual Bookshelf.

Now, this bookshelf is really cool for me. I can put, pictorially, the covers of all the books I can remember reading, along with my rating (and a review, if I want to go to the trouble), the book(s) I'm currently reading, and the books I want to read, in neat little rows that show up on my profile and that other users can explore. This, combined with Pandora's use of visual imagery to reveal my favorite artists, who I'm currently listening to when I log on and "tune in" to my particular radio stations that I've created, gives a concise, visually appealing (aka pretty) and fairly nuanced (you can look at my ratings, or my reviews if you choose to, or with Pandora you can look at how I built my stations, which artists or songs I used to create them), user driven way of seeing what I read and listen to.

The important thing to me about this, what led to a revelation, was twofold. The main thing that popped out and left me gaping was that this language of communication is symbolic, but not through language. That is, this is a better, at least I think, way to use the medium of social networking online to reveal and share with other people than description through words. I can't really "describe" in a way that isn't annoying and long and drawn out and gives you a headache the shades of different preference I have toward Gloria Naylor's versus Toni Morrison, or how I organize Hank Williams with Bob Dylan with KRS-One as great songwriters. The language of words and sentences and all that isn't associative in this way, it doesn't organize in that way, in this case to reveal one's personal echoes of taste, or it at least can't do it in a way that the computer online can convey as well as this.

Let me back up. When I say "the Woods and Prairie," which is the name of one of my stations, I can give you a description of that station, which I briefly do. This description, however, will fall FAR short of explaining the platform of my station, because you won't know which artists I used to build it, or which artists based on those artists Pandora has "selected" for me in guessing I might like (another verb would be "figure out"--Pandora attempts to figure out what you will like based on what you already do). likewise, I can't list all the books in the "books" section of myspace or facebook all the books i read, or my reactions to them. Arguably I can't do that in the VirtualBookshelf, either, without considerable time and effort on my part on the front end and considerable time and effort expended on yours, but what I CAN do is communicate very quickly and in a very accessible and, again, /pretty/ (pretty is important--shiny book covers come through the light screen better than words like this) manner what I'm into bookwise and what I wanna get into. I can, in effect, and plan to--on Facebook at least--completely eliminate the books, movies, music, activities, etc. textual descriptions in favor of these applications, because they make more sense within the given medium of creating a facebook profile. (You listening, myspace developers? Get on that shit!)

Which brings me to another point, or two observations at least. First, I realize the irony that I'm communicating about a better form of communication than words through sentences created electronically and posted on a web log. Yeah, I know. Duh, right? So it should be obvious that I'm not pronouncing the written word dead, a la Egon in Ghostbusters. But be honest: if I could make perfect little stand-in glyphs, little bouncy symbols, that got across these ideas on the screen; if I could "program" with algorithms and code an argument, or my observations of crazy people in new york, or how to cook a bunny and crack a coconut, it'd be better, at least in this format--admit it: you'd prefer the bouncy bunny to hop in the stewpot with virtua-flames and bell peppers getting sliced by an animated knife and getting tossed in with measurefied olive oil tablespoons all pictorially displayed. It's WAY better than scrolling down, and rubbing your eyes after my second long winded paragraph, and your silent internal but distracting thoughts that I just get to the point and be plain in my language, Geeezus.

I sure would prefer that. Wouldn't you prefer that? Writing is cumbersome, laborious, and, often, for me, lugubrious. I lumber along in my doofis way trying to get my doofis ideas down so I can share them with invisible and mostly imaginary audience members out in the enormous amount of empty ether world of cyberspace. And this only makes sense: computers are created by programmers, or at least their operating systems and the applications we access via the internet are, so why wouldn't a mode of expression based on the model of computer programming be a better way of communicating ON a computer? The symbolic virtua-language of embedded applications, the virtual bookshelf, all that shit--it all works from the programmer metaphor, in the sense that you put in a bunch of code (the application itself is a symbolic visual rendering of a whole bunch of code, a whole bunch of specialized language, that's been set to GO using electricity through 1/0 binary holes) and then BOOM! The code that is your personal preference, your identity through music, books, movies, etc. pops out after you hit your version of GO, the Submit button, in a visually appealing, streamlined, embedded form, with all the assocations and nuance and complexities worked right into it. (one indirect piece of evidence I would inject humbly for your consideration in this aside is something else that I noticed while editing my Virtual Bookshelf and having my revelation that frustrated the living hell out of me--namely, that monitors don't work in the natural light of the sun. It's too bright. A computer is an indoor device. It is best viewed under flourescent light. If that isn't proof that the logic, mindset, and environment of the programmer makes itself manifest in the machine programmed, I don't know what does.) This new programmer symbolic virtua-language is not linear in quite the same way as words and sentences are, and so demands a different kind of thinking to access and create and work within it. It works from the bubble bursts and webbings of, well, the web, and hyperlinks, and creating what constitutes more or less a virtual associative apparatus of who you are.

But there are limits, of course. The medium is limited in scope (for now at least) to the online and hardware/software world. We haven't QUITE learned how to translate the mentality or mindset or metaphor or whatever you wanna call it, the approach, of computer programming and web navigation to other, non-computing oriented parts of our lives. Or at least I haven't seen it yet, though I suspect globalization doesn't happen in quite the same way without the internet hitting America so hard when it did all those years ago. For now, though, the word is a universal remonster, a massive swiss army knife, a skeleton key for getting, approximately, what I'm thinking, feeling, seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, and tasting to you in a mutually understood way. Words are quick and dirty, and every now and then, in that magical super-real unreal superbrilliant sparkledust moment of magic wand waving, the words go past their meaning and I tickle your heart, and you're right there with me when I give a strung out waif in a pink bubbledown vest my dinner leftovers, you can the hunger and hear and animalism in her eyes when I hand it to her, followed exactly and immediately by gratitude, and you can be there with me beyond space and time when I find out how she scarfed it all down while whispering praise jesus, your heart thumping in anticipation of the news, your face flush with the receiving of it, and you will exhale, too, in relief when it's all over.

But only if I do it just right, and only until we find some way to scrap these words in favor of a better instrument. Let it come, I say: let print be print and virtual be virtual and let us make each other real through both.

How to cook a bunny and how to crack a coconut (6/5/08)

This is exactly what it says it is, and since i know there is at least one of you reading this thing that has a pet out of the animal I am describing as a preparation to eat below, let me give the culinary equivalent of a SPOILER ALERT (or maybe a spoiled appetite alert) and suggest that those who don't eat meat skip down to how to crack a coconut. Let me also say that if you have a rabbit, or think they're oh so cute, i'm not the type to eat your pets: I don't eat things once they're named by people. But I make no mistake about it: naming is a human act. If it ain't named with a people name, then I name it meat, and call it fair game (I challenge any of you to count the number of [bad] puns in these blogs lately).

1. How to cook a bunny. Or, hey, I just cooked rabbit for the first time and it turned out really well. If you're ever feeling adventurous and/or have access to a rabbit that's been skinned and gutted and cut into six to eight pieces (and preferably has been living a pretty good bunny life to that point, which will probably the case since the only sources for bunny to eat will either be shi-shi organic places or small farms or your hillbilly neighbor in east appalachia, all of which, in my mind, are about equal in terms of quality and ethicality, although the hillbilly will be fresher and so probably the best).

First, you'll need to get yourself a bunny, as previously mentioned, about 2 1/2 pounds total, cut into 6-8 pieces. If it isn't gutted and skinned, have fun with all that. If you really aren't into eating rabbit, a 3 1/2 pound chicken cut up would work, too.

here's what else:
About 6 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 lb. waxy potatoes (not bakers), peeled and cut into one inch cubes (a variation is to cut this down to 1/2 lb. spuds and half pound baby turnips, which is what i did. sweetness of the turnips pairs great with the rabbit and pepper)
1 red onion or I used three small spring onions, which are great this time of year
2-3 bell peppers, at least one red and one green and the last either orange or yellow
2 good sized tomatoes chopped up
maybe a cup of sicilian green olives or whatever decently sized green or black olives you can find
maybe a quarter cup of capers, either brined or in salt, with the salt rinsed off
2 stalks celery sliced thin
4-5 small cloves of garlic, or 3 medium-large cloves of garlic, minced
some springs of thyme (maybe 3 or 4)
1/4 c. either apple cider vinegar, dry white whine, or a full-bodied white wine like Riesling, depending on how sweet or acidic you want it, and what kind of flavor you prefer
maybe 1/2 c. water total

Ok, now we're ready to get started. First things first: get a good sized cast iron something with a lid on it, the heavier the better. I used a six and a half quart enameled cast iron stock pot but i'm a gangsta and we can't all garnish our goldschlager with wads of euros. Dump in maybe 4 T. of olive oil and get it good and hot, until it starts to smoke. Salt and pepper your rabbit in the meantime then, brown in it in the super hot oil, maybe three or four minutes per side (get it and good and brown, which takes patience).

Once the rabbit's brown take it out, turn down the heat to about medium, and add the last 2 T. of olive oil. Then add the onions and saute them til soft. Once they're soft, maybe four, five minutes, dump in all your solid ingredients, which is to say all ingredients but the last two, and stir stir stir to blend. After another maybe five minutes, once the flavors meld a bit, deglaze with either vinegar or wine, scrape the brown bits up, then add the water. From this point you want to jack the heat until the mixture boils, adding water as needed to make a stew (to cover all the rabbit parts and vegetables until they're submerged), then cut the heat to a simmer, cover, and let sit for as long as you can stand it: at least 45 minutes but up to an hour and a half. Check periodically to stir and make sure you don't need to add water to keep everything at least mostly submerged. It's done when the potatoes and/or turnips are done, so give a taste here and there and see what you like.

Dish it all out with some crusty bread and wine and, man, that's good eatin.

***This recipe is adapted from the following one from Bon Appetit magazine.

I made some changes, as i think spring onions and turnips and white wine work better, but it's up to you.

2. How to crack a coconut: I recently (April) made a cake, which i don't normally do, for olivia's birthday. It was fresh coconut with clove and lime in the mascarpone frosting. I'd never worked with fresh coconut, but the trinis in my neighborhood at the local grocery helped me out when i looked lost buying one.

First, when you pick a coconut to use, get a heavy one. The more juice swishing around in it the better. Once you've got the nut home, and this is the real secret here, the thing you don't hear everywhere, throw it in a 350 degree oven for maybe ten, fifteen minutes. It'll get warm.

meanwhile, get your tools: a hammer and a flat head screwdriver work best. Once the coconut comes out the oven find the holes that look like the fingerholes on a bowling ball, and hammer the screwdriver into each of them. Drain the juice out into a bowl and use for other stuff like sexy tropicale cocktails. Stage two of the tool section is the really fun part: rest the screwdriver on the middle part, the equator of the nut, and then start whacking, as Mr. Anderson from beavis and butthead would say. You want it to crack in two, but it my case it cracked into all over the fucking places in about seven jagged pieces, hairy brown bark winging into the cat littler box, gone for human consumption.

Once you've salvaged the pieces off the floor and gathered them all together, you're ready for the next phase, which i call super annoying. The first stage of this section involves wedging the white flesh away from the shell, which will really start to resemble a nut casing, like a walnut shell, in hardness by now (this is why you cook it first). Once you've wedged all this flesh away, open a beer or smoke a bowl or do whatever, because you deserve it even though you're not even to the worst part: grating.

Welcome to the worst part! I hope you're high and/or drunk! Grab a box grater or a zester (i used a microplane which worked relatively well, or as well as i guess you can expect for this operation), then grab a hunk of flesh (RESIST the urge to take huge bites of this or to lick it like a deer on a salt block) and start grating. And grating. And grating some more. You get an ENORMOUS fucking yield from a coconut in terms of shredded flesh (I bought two and i barely used a whole one for the entire cake, and this takes into account the fact that i did not resist the urge to take giant herbivorous dinosaur bites from the hunks of the creamy white alluring milky sweet crunchy holy shit fresh coconut tastes good), so that's good news.

But you've still gotta wonder, Why go through all this when you can buy it out of the bag? If you have to ask that, you've never eaten coconut fresh off the bark, or eaten something with freshly grated coconut baked or cooked or swirled or whatever into it. It is swear out loud good. Not something I'd do every day, but something I'm glad I did nonetheless.

And you thought the beat slowed down HIT IT (5/21/08)

Apparently I can't stop thinking. I'll get back to New York and everybody in it soon, but for now let me trot out some more in what is increasingly becoming an ongoing discussion with myself and anyone else who wants to jump in.

Again, two stimuli triggered this response. The first is the news that the polar bear has been placed on the endangered species list, or as Olivia put it in an unintentionally nasty way: "it made it." The second thing that got my gears grinding is one of those embedded web-polls you can take, you can "vote" on. This one was on, the weather channel's website (I love the weather channel, and without cable i love The question was, basically, how concerned are you about global warming? There were four answers, with three of them being various degrees of concern, from I'm really freaking out about it/super worried about it to who gives a five cent wooden beaver I bought at ozarkland? Fair enough. But what was really different for this format was the fourth option, which, incredibly to me, was "I don't believe it really exists." I was incredulous because the country I call my own is the laughingstock of the first world for its persistent ability to deny the solid, ubiquitous across nations science that proves the earth's atmospheric layers are heating up at a much greater rate due to gases that are industrial exhaust products, and thus man-made pollutants.

Well, I should have saved some reserve in the old flabbergastank, because when I clicked on my vote, which was holy shit I think I'm probably melting right now, the current percentages showed that something like 32% of the votes were in my category, something like 12 or 14% were in each of the other three categories (I really wanna meet the "midly/somewhat concerned voters: I bet they're either accountants or ambassadors, or both), and 38% did not believe this wacky conspiracy theory known as "global warming" was a thing at all.

Whoa nelly. Thirty eight percent? That's nearly four out of ten! And these are visitors--I KNOW anybody who can read a doppler radar is no dummy!

So my head began to spin. I was visibly taken aback. Seriously, normally watching someone virtually vote on a webpoll is pretty unexciting. Their face has no expression, nothing to listen to but the errant click or two on the mouse. But if you had taken my picture that day after I saw those results, man, you would have thought a mack truck was coming out of that screen with its high beams on full blast.

So I got to thinking, got to thinking, and then along the way I heard about the polar bears, and this is what I came up with:

4 out of 10 Americans don't believe polar bears exist.

Ok, bear with me here. There's actually some logic here--I didn't just smoosh together the end of one stimulus and the beginning of another in some sort of hysterical logic rebuking juxtaposition. I actually have some way of arriving at this destination by normal roads of reason, or at least normal by my definition.

First, consider polar bears. How do you know they exist? If you're me, you have two pieces of experiential evidence. The first is the san diego zoo. I could say zoos in general, but my memory holds on very clearly to a polar bear i saw in the san diego zoo. This bear sticks out because I got very close to the underwater glass you can walk up to and watched him play endlessly with this red ball. He was kicking, he was splashing, the ball was being launched into the air--he was huge! And furry, and not as white as I expected. In short, I was as charmed as everyone else, though I didn't ooh and ahh in that look how cute we're at disneyworld and minnie just gave you a kiss that only a giant plastic inanimate head with big red bows on its ears can give a nine year old boy way. I couldn't quite get to thinking of the polar bear as cute because I saw his paws up real super zoomin close. They were also huge, and had bigass claws that looked more like sabertooth tiger fangs to me at this distance. These claws never, it should be added, punctured or even grazed that red ball, however; only his big soft black pads batted the ball about.

The other polar bears I remember distinctly live on the north pole with santa claus and offer him coca-cola to drink in december of like 2004 or 2005, somewhere around there. The scene is kind of blue, and these polar bears smile and make cute teddy bearish sounds and nuzzle each other and wear scarfs, presumably to keep them from getting chilly around all that pallid blue animated ice. These bears are perfectly white, and their fur is never wet or even matted into haphazard tufts like the bear i saw in the san diego zoo.

Now, if you're anything like me, zoo and those coke commercials are probably pretty close approximiations to your own reference points--they're what you have in the memory file labeled "polar bear." That's not so important. What's so important is that very few of us have a memory of a polar bear that sees them in the wild. I've seen plenty of national geographic and discovery channel and nature on PBS (lately more of that)--I love nature shows. On these nature shows there have been plenty of polar bears doing their thing--padding around on glaciers, hunting and fishing, wreaking carnage on threatening males in competitive territory. You know, the usual. But my brain doesn't hold on to these things, except as facts. I KNOW polar bears are pretty badass, and could pretty much rip me in half if they wanted to (anyone who's seen the documentary grizzly man knows what i'm talking about). But I only REMEMBER coca-cola and the zoo.

I have a simple answer for that. I have no idea what the wilderness is all about. I don't live in or around wilderness--I really don't now, here in Bklyn Zoo. But even when I was living in all the places I've lived--over fifteen different towns and about as many states--I knew nothing of wilderness, or almost nothing (if i squinch my eyes really tight and then relax the mind muscle I can recall in pomona, in southern california, the time when we had to drape a plastic bag over a cat we found half-eaten by a coyote in our front lawn. what flashes before my eyes first is not the way the body looked like meat where it had been ripped in half, but the snarl of pain on the cat's "face." I felt very far away from that look of pain, from that grotesque wincing that comes as a body is ripped into two pieces by bloodied jaws).

But here's what really trips me out: If I don't know wilderness, but I CAN know things from the wilderness in protected, domesticated environments like the zoo or an animated commercial, if all i can remember of a polar bear is that it is a bear with a great life who sometimes wears scarfs and drinks coke with his buds, how the hell am I ever gonna worry or even consider the fact that it as a species is endangered? I don't even know what it IS as a species in its natural habitat, let alone how many there are out there wherever polar bears live, among these sheets of ice (again, something i have no direct knowledge of) that are supposedly melting or whatever--this all gets too abstract, too foreign, and thus too far-fetched for me.

And so I think you can see where I'm going here. If I know on the one hand polar bears come from the wilderness, but only know through experience and memory that polar bears live in domesticated spheres, how do I reconcile this disjunction? Well, a couple of possibilities emerge, but the one I'm interested it trotting out, the one that leads to my 38% of people up there, is the one that determines, perhaps sub-consciously, that the wilderness doesn't exist. How could it for most of us, except as an idea? And yet, if it exists as an idea long enough, that idea is going to be influenced by representations of things that come from that wilderness--things like polar bears. And if those things from the wilderness are presented in domesticated spheres....from here, to me, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to an idea that the world never existed without human industrial development, and its attendant waste. In effect, my argument here is that our minds, our four out of ten (presumably American) minds who vote on, cannot conceive of a wilderness that is outside of human control. We cannot understand anything but a world that was both created for us and by us, and thus any effects created by us cannot have detrimental effects, or at least not long-lasting detrimental effects that we won't be able to solve with the same minds of mastery that this world is evidence of; and perhaps most importantly, this world cannot have negative effects on other things in the world, because, for the most part, those other things are controlled by us, too, and we would never let that happen. How could we, right? If there is no wilderness, then there is no need to "protect" it, so the presence of wilderness, a place and system that operates outside or beyond human control, ceases to be relevant, and any discussion about "global warming and its effects" is irrelevant because it describes a globe that includes a wilderness that doesn't exist. In short, polar bears cannot be endangered because the only real species of them live under our control; to speak of them in the wild is, again, to describe a world we no longer believe in.

Or at least 38% don't seem to.

There's more to say on this, and many other different things to conclude, I'm sure. But before I go let me quickly say this: I'm not human-hater. I don't wanna eradicate the fruits of human ingenuity, among them the internal combustion engine or the ability to generate energy out of matter or any number of many, many things that unfortunately have negative consequences in the form of pollution. What I want is balance, a recalibration of the scales with human activity on one side and the aweinspiring, spiritraising beauty and diversity of all the different form so life on earth, a place that is wonderful and singular BECAUSE it can support so many different forms of life and its activities, on the other. And that will mean more than CFLs, or hybrids, or ethanol, or "going green" in a buy different shit approach. TO me, it will mean a real reckoning with how we think of ourselves within the world, and a new definition of what the world is relative to us.