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Face-Off

June 7, 2009


My mother wanted all the details of my dinner dates, beginning with my outfit and ending with espresso and dessert. That is, until the horse tartare. “I’m just so angry with you, I think I need to hang up,” she blurted, and indeed, it was almost a week before she called back to pick up where we left off, carefully snipping the dinner date from the conversation.

Months later, she explained that by her principles, it’s not right to eat cute things, baby things, or smart things–no bunny, lamb, deer, duck, or horse. Also, no stinky things like fish (shrimp and scallops somehow slip by), nothing that smells like feet or farts, and nothing that sounds like a part we have–heart, kidney, liver, and so on.

At first I accused her of establishing a dining hierarchy that permits killing so-called ugly or dumb creatures but not the fluffy storybook ones. But, then, I realised my own appetites and opinions once forced my family to accommodate some mercurial rules. In my early twenties, I became vegan, and remained that way until I began dating a man who teased me relentlessly about my “eating disorder”. He had lifted this label from a Jeffrey Steingarten essay and trotted it out at every opportunity. “Just try a bite,” he would badger, extending a forkful of bacon, trout or cheese. I called him pig-headed and rude, and he countered that it would be rude to not offer me bites of his meals, in case one day I wanted to try something but felt like I couldn’t ask.

One night, I caved against a drunken dare, and dug into a rare steak, basted with butter then smothered in Stilton cheese. My meat-free lifestyle was over, replaced by a courtship that involved a game of butcher-based one-upmanship as we refused to back down from any culinary challenge.

We never plucked, skinned or gutted our dinner, but we once found ourselves staring down at a bare, pink rabbit, curled on the counter top and looking a bit too familiar. “You cover its eyes and I’ll do the chopping,” he suggested, dividing the labour into two equally unappealing tasks. I cupped a hand over the bunny’s face and its buck-teeth poked into my palm. After a brief time-out, I recovered, my fingers hovering while he removed the head. I whisked it into the compost bin while my partner jointed the carcass. We agreed that next time, it would be ok to ask the butcher to deal with the face.

One August long weekend, we were overly enthusiastic about patio cocktails and less attentive to stocking the fridge to last through Monday. Trawling Chinatown on bicycles, we found a shop open through the holiday, and settled on a whole chicken–face, feet, feathers sprouting from its armpits. It was lankier than its grocery store counterparts, and the skin was distinctly browner.

That afternoon, my partner was nursing a sun- and beer-hangover so I tackled the bird alone, shouting bulletins from the kitchen toward his prone form. “Its feet kicked when I lowered the cleaver!” On the balcony, he groaned, rolled over, and angled his face out of the sun.

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