The Anatomical Theater: Skin And Flesh

Look at it.  So beautiful.  Firm, bright color, everything you would want. Consider Harold McGee’s view of skin in On Food and Cooking.

Usually cooks don’t welcome large amounts of toughening connective tissue in meat.  But taken on their own, animal skin, cartilage, and bones are valuable exactly because they’re mostly connective tissue and therefor full of collagen (skin also provides flavorful fat). (168)

Ah, the fat.  Edna Lewis offers a recipe for turning fat into cracklings in her wonderful book The Taste of Country Cooking.

Cut the fat into 1/2 inch pieces.  Cook in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or iron skillet with 1/4 cup water to avoid the fat sticking in the beginning. Start on medium heat, watch closely, and stir often at first until the fat begins to melt.  Lower the heat and let the fat separate slowly.  The pieces of fat will begin to float.  The defatted, browned pieces will go the bottom and shrink to half their original size.  Strain the fat away; it is excellent lard for baking bread and frying.  Leave the defatted pieces to cool.  (249)

Let’s turn this belly over and see the other side.

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Oh my.  Look at that amazing landscape of fat.  As Jane Grigson writes in Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, “From early times, one of the pig’s most valuable assets was the high proportion of fat his carcass provided.  Apart from being important to the human body’s welfare, fat makes a good preservation of lean meat, particularly neutral tasting pork fat” (309).  Skin and flesh.  Here’s about four and a half pounds of pork belly from Revival Market. More than required for a debt, yet probably less than I eat in a year.  Is there anything else skin and fat are good for?

Shylock and Shakespeare are right, flesh does mean a great deal to us. Possibly we prize nothing more than our ability to decide which flesh, what skin matters the most to us.  Are we owed beauty?  Is beauty, the perception of beauty, a human birthright?  Are we owed perfect beauty?

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Of course, there is a difference between pork and human flesh, isn’t there?  Why not read, Human Flesh Looks Like Beef, But The Taste Is More Elusive from The Smithsonian. Probably not surprising given the anthropocentric world we live in, the highest display of beauty is human, and specifically, a model of the human being perfected in stone.  Here are the words of Giorgio Vasari on Michelangelo’s David in Lives of the Most Excellent, Painters, Sculptors and Architects.

When it was built up, and all was finished, he uncovered it, and it cannot be denied that this work has carried off the palm (2) from all other statues, modern or ancient, Greek or Latin; and it may be said that neither the Marforio at Rome, nor the Tiber and the Nile of the Belvedere, nor the Giants of Monte Cavallo, (3) are equal to it in any respect, with such just proportion, beauty and excellence did Michelagnolo finish it. For in it may be seen most beautiful contours of legs, with attachments of limbs and slender outlines of flanks that are divine; nor has there ever been seen a pose so easy, or any grace to equal that in this work, or feet, hands and head so well in accord, one member with another, in harmony, design, and excellence of artistry. And, of a truth, whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or in other times, by no matter what craftsman. Michelagnolo received from Piero Soderini in payment for it four hundred crowns; and it was set in place in the year 1504.

The human body in its youth connotes beauty, power and the future. Taken as model of perfection, David’s heroic athleticism offers a compelling way to shape oneself.  When we look at ourselves in a mirror, we often evaluate what we see by how others view us, by the standards of beauty of our time.  The mirror also shows us our identity, our body, our face, our beauty is who we are.  Yet, we can alter what the mirror shows us by altering our own flesh.  Is there a danger in seeking how we want to look rather than the way we do?

Is our search for individual beauty, distinctive beauty also a search for the good? Consider this dialogue between Socrates and his teacher Diotima for Plato’s Symposium.

“‘That is the next question, Socrates,’ she replied, ‘on which I will try to enlighten you. While Love is of such nature and origin as I have related, he is also set on beautiful things, as you say. Now, suppose some one were to ask us: In what respect is he Love of beautiful things, Socrates and Diotima? But let me put the question more clearly thus: What is the love of the lover of beautiful things?’

“‘That they may be his,’ I replied.

“‘But your answer craves a further query,’ she said, ‘such as this: What will he have who gets beautiful things?’

“This question I declared I was quite unable now to answer offhand.

“‘Well,’ she proceeded, ‘imagine that the object is changed, and the inquiry is made about the good instead of the beautiful. Come, Socrates (I shall say), what is the love of the lover of good things?’

“‘That they may be his,’ I replied.

“‘And what will he have who gets good things?’

“‘I can make more shift to answer this,’ I said; ‘he will be happy.’ (204d-e)

Plato saw a key energy in desire for the beautiful.  The lover pursues the beloved, only thinking of his desire.  What if that desire for beauty, shifted to a desire for what is good. A truer beauty?  An inner beauty? Or an appreciation for what remains beautiful and good and never decays, never dies.  Unlike us.  A pairing of immortal and mortal beauty resides in John Keats’ Ode On A Grecian Urn.

We age through and on our skin, care and concern imprinted right on our flesh, showing all the tree-rings of our years and decades.  Is this also beauty?  Forever young or forever aging?  Consider Lucian Freud’s Reflection, then turn to your face in the mirror and look.

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Turn back to the ideal, that which art always provides us, look again at The Birth of Venus (1486) by Sandro Botticelli.  Venus/Aphrodite, a vision of earthly or heavenly beauty and love, however you may wish to view her, rides the waves stirred by the Zephyrs.  Ah that lovely youth everywhere, and a maiden, is it Primavera, welcomes her to shore. Beauty has arrived.  What are her or his intentions?

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Such a drive within us.  How do we understand how we construct ourselves and the world?  Elaine Scarry in On Beauty writes,

The beautiful almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction–to locate what is true.  (31)

So back to the Platonic, a search for a true source of the beautiful, what endures.  Is that equal to the good?  Or despite what is good or not, it is how we act and think?  Let’s consider a Darwinian approach to beauty, courtesy of Denis Dutton.

As with the rest of nature, we are wired for beauty.  We have evolved in part because of our perception of beauty, which if we also consider Sigmund Freud’s view of eros, then the evolved part of us called civilization is sexual desire delayed and turned into art. Consider Civilization and its Discontents.  Freud views our world within the world beginning with tools, dwellings, fire, and then motor power, telescopes, writing, more machinery controlling nature, and also,

As though we were seeking to repudiate the first demand we made, we welcome it as a sign of civilization as well if we see people directing their care too to what has no practical value whatever, what is useless–if, for instance, the green spaces necessary in a town as playgrounds and as reservoirs of fresh air are also laid out with flower beds, or if the windows of houses are decorated with pots of flowers.  We soon observe that this useless thing which we expect civilization to value is beauty. (77)

In thinking where we’ve traveled from pork belly to Shakespeare, to Michelangelo, cosmetic surgery, Plato and others, we may wish to take Freud’s idea of “useless,” and instead write beauty guides us to pick up tools, dig into the earth, and paint the beautiful, compelling word around us at the very beginning of what it means to be human.  I leave you with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a film directed by Wernor Herzog exploring the paintings of lions and bears, bulls and human figures, and a wall of handprints.  Skin and flesh, human or another animal, beauty and identity, all these shine through are old human need to understand the world around us, even make the world we inhabit, through images, through dreams.  I need to get back to my pork belly.  Bon Appétit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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