America, animals, chicken, cooking, headaches, huzhou, MEAT, musings, students

There’s Always Money in the Banana Stand

04.23.11 | 11 Comments

I noticed the silliest thing today: there are bananas growing in my yard. Where am I, the tropics or something? I thought Florida was only good for citrus and yachts, and now suddenly there’s a potassium shrub right next to where we keep the garbage cans.

I’ve noticed the bananas many times before, but it got me thinking today about how community gardens and local produce have become trendy, and it’s a great trend, because America is really disconnected from where our food comes from.

I am totally for the gardening trend—heck, I didn’t know that pineapples grew in the ground until I was sixteen—but in my opinion, all the local food movements and gardens are missing a key component of food education: meat.

I know—I’ve already railed against the prevalence of meat in the American diet. I would be happy eating meat once a week or less. But the fact remains that Americans eat a lot of meat; most people eat meat every day. Here’s the meat problem I’m addressing today: our meat in no way resembles the animal it came from.

Boneless skinless chicken breasts, fish fillets, ground beef, pork loins. The shrink-wrapped, Styrofoam-padded eerily neon-colored flesh that’s sitting in the back of our supermarkets does not look like animal. How about those floppy pallid discs of sandwich ‘meat?’ What animal is bologna? Does this look like a chicken??

Maybe if it were a Hoth chicken.

These are things I never noticed until living in China. Each semester I taught college in Huzhou, I did a unit on food. My students were shocked to hear that people could be deathly allergic to peanuts, but they were astonished that Americans don’t like to eat bones. Bones are part of the reason that KFC is so successful in China: chicken with bones! Hamburgers don’t have bones; perhaps this is McDonalds’ next big idea.

My students were astounded that we eat boneless fish fillets—the whole fish is so much tastier! Fish heads are their own sub-cuisine. Have you ever tried a fish cheek? Best part of the whole thing, but Americans would never know that because if we based our idea of a fish off of what we get in a restaurant, we would think fish are essentially giant worm blobs.

Bones taste better in beef, chicken, duck, snake, dog, and every other vertebrate. So many foreigners I know have refused to eat the most wonderful things because they don’t like dealing with the bones. I acknowledge the cumbersome nature and potential danger of small bones (I myself nearly choked on a duck bone my first week in Huzhou. TJ’s arms were at my sternum ready to Heimlich that sucker out of me when it dislodged itself and scraped nastily down my esophagus. Should this ever happen to you, swallow gobs of un-chewed rice.), but despite choking, bones slow you down and allow you to relish the flavors and suck the marrow. Plus, if you’re in China, you get the distinct pleasure of spitting the bones directly onto the table. I urge you to make this your practice even if you are not in China.

This is one reason I get irritated when people look at me aghast when I tell them I’ve eaten dog. I get that you have a pet that you love—I love my puppies like family members too. But where do you think meat comes from? Do you think it’s ok because chickens or pigs or cows aren’t as cute? Did your steak come from any less of an animal? Please.

For such a food-obsessed culture (or really, non-food. South Beach Diet meal bars, Weight Watchers anything, and pretty much every major brand of packaged food is not real food. Just try to find sliced bread with less than seven ingredients.), we don’t know anything about what food is or where it comes from. We just like to toss around abbreviations like BMI, GI, and HFCS while we eat 100 calorie packs of hydrogenated oils in Oreo form.

What does this have to do with the bananas I have painstakingly photographed and that have oozed sticky ooze all over my fingers, light box, and camera? It’s a reminder that food comes from the earth, that it grows on trees, and that when we eat delicious a hamburger, the meat is from a cow that was as alive as the dog I ate in Beijing.

So let’s make meat part of the local food movement. Let’s raise chickens in our back yards or buy them fresh from the markets instead of freshly harvested from the freezer. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done–I can’t even follow my own advice. Where could I possibly get fresh chicken around here? If I could find it, how could I afford it? It’s a vicious cycle that America needs to break.

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