The Anatomical Theater: The Stomach Our Cultural Engine.

Ah, ginger beef tripe from Yum Yum Cha Cafe.  Though no longer a fixture of Rice Village, many a Sunday morning the Harvey/Maya family traveled to its storefront window and entered in search of dim sum.  Beef tripe comes to us from the muscle wall of the first three chambers of a cow’s stomach.  The cow eats grass, or should; its stomach digests the green material, then we steam the elastic texture in garlic and ginger, and place a bit of it in our mouth, sending it to our own stomach. Now that we’ve considered a bovine’s gut, let’s look at ours.

Often what I read has led me to what I eat.  When I first read James Salter’s short story collection, Dusk, I knew I needed to devour more of his writings, his words.  He displayed an exact, incredibly articulate, definitely carefully shaped but incredibly flexible prose, which hooked me and led me to his novel Lightyears.  The graceful, evocative, poetic, unsparingly sad and yet incredibly beautiful sentences gave me a sense of what I wanted to write myself.  And then I discovered he loved to cook, that he and his wife loved to entertain dinner guests.  I read their work Life Is Meals and knew I had found wisdom.  Here’s the entry for January 1,

Meals Are Everything

The meal is the essential act of life.  It is the habitual ceremony, the long record of marriage, the school for behavior, the prelude to love.  Among all peoples and in all times, every significant event in life–be it wedding, triumph, or birth–is marked by a meal or the sharing of food or drink.  The meal is the emblem of civilization.  What would one know of life as it should be lived or nights as they should be spent apart from meals?

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in his Physiologie du Goût (1836) began doing this good work of emphasizing the stomach is more than an inner organ squeezing food, secreting gastric acids to break everything down–it’s an art of living.  Here’s Brillat-Savirin on gastronomy, which you may consider as the art and science of the stomach.

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Gastronomy is a scientific definition of all that relates to man as a feeding animal.
Gastronomy rules all life, for the tears of the infant cry for the bosom of the nurse; the dying man receives with some degree of pleasure the last cooling drink, which, alas! he is unable to digest.
It has to do with all classes of society, for if it presides over the banquets of assembled kings, it calculates the number of minutes of ebullition which an egg requires.
The material of gastronomy is all that may be eaten; its object is direct, the preservation of individuals. Its means of execution are cultivation, which produces; commerce, which exchanges; industry, which prepares; and experience, which teaches us to put them to the best use.  (Translated by Fayette Robinson)

Gastronomy distills and orders all knowledge through taste; the vehicle of our mouth (by which food travels to the stomach) connects to our olfactory senses, which turns the cave of saliva, teeth and tongue into a glowing orb revealing another universe Think about what Andrew Zimmern puts in his mouth.

What we eat, what we send on a journey to our stomach says much about who we are, the world we live in, our respect for life, and the ways we nurture forward.  Now skip and jump from Brillat-Savarin in 1836 to Carlo Petrini in Slow Food Nation (2005).

Gastronomy is part of the following fields:

  • botany, genetics, and the other natural sciences, in its classification of the various kinds of food, thus making possible their conservation;
  • physics and chemistry, in its selection of the best products and its study of how they are processed;
  • agriculture, zootechnics, and agronomy, in its concern with the production of good and varied raw materials;
  • ecology, because man, in producing, distributing, and consuming food, interferes with nature and transforms it to his advantage;
  • anthropology, because it contributes to the study of the history of man and his cultural identities;
  • sociology, from which it takes its methods of analyzing human social behavior;
  • geopolitics, because peoples form alliances and come into conflict partly, indeed chiefly, over the right to exploit the earth’s resources;
  • political economics, because of the resources it provides, and because of the methods of exchange that it establishes between nations;
  • trade, because of its search for the means of buying at the best possible price that which it consumes and of selling at the highest possible profit that which it puts on sale;
  • technology, industry and the know-how of people, in its search for new methods of processing and preserving food inexpensively;
  • cooking, in its concern with the art of preparing food and making it pleasing to the taste;
  • physiology, in its ability to develop the sensorial capacities that enable us to recognize what is good;
  • medicine, in its study of the healthiest way of eating;
  • epistemology, because, through a necessary reconsideration of the scientific method and of the criteria of knowledge that enable us to analyze the path food travels form the field to the table, and vice versa, it helps us to interpret the reality of our complex, globalized world; it helps us to choose.  (Translated by Clara Furlan and Jonathan Hunt.)

This is where the poet and farmer Wendell Berry writes from, a place where eating is an agricultural act, where the stomach plows the world into a hearth. In Chapter Four of The Unsettling of America, he addresses food as culture.

A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes calamity.  A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration.  It reveals the human necessities and the human limits.  It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other.  It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well.  A healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safeguards a human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace. (43)

The chef Dan Barber demonstrates how preparing food for a customer’s stomach involves an aesthetic and ethical engagement with the world.

When I cook at home, I like to use a pot.  Here’s Rachel Laudan in Cuisines and Empires on the subject:

The cooking pot, in which diverse elements were brought into harmony, symbolized culture and state.  When the Greeks founded a new colony, they carried a cauldron and a spark of fire from the mother city.  Confucians argued that the king had to create harmony as the cook created harmonic the cauldron: “You have the water and fire, vinegar, pickle, salt, and plums, with which to cook fish and meat.  It is made to boil by the firewood, and the the cook mixes the ingredients, harmoniously equalizing several flavors, so as to supply whatever is deficient and carry off whatever is in excess.”  (44-45)

Often this creating of harmony requires a sacrifice, and that sacrifice signifies a purging, a purification that allows the community to become whole again.  Purification.  Purging. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. A ritual to cleanse the sanctuary and purge the people’s sins.  And for that, you need a goat.

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16.15      He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood behind the curtain, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the cover and in front of the cover.

16:16.     Thus he shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness. (Tanakh, JPS)

Marc Zvi Brettler in How To Read The Bible offers insights into ancient Hebrew scripture through modern archaeological discoveries and current scholarship.  A great read, and very helpful in my thinking about Leviticus, a sacred text which offers a complex world of nuanced rituals.  Impurities accumulate on and in the temple and must be removed. Slaughtering produces blood, the sprinkling of blood seven times purges the shrine of uncleanness and transgression.  And the other goat?  The scapegoat?  The words of sin spoken to the living goat who then scampers off into the wilderness.  Sins transferred then disappear.  At the Harvey/Maya household our meals certainly sanctify our home, and food on the table allows for conversation which often can include sharing troubles, offering consolation.  So, I ordered two goat shanks through Farmstead from Windy Hill Farm.

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Look again, look closer.  Look at the deep red-colored flesh, the blood.  Look at the wondrous marbling, the rivers and creeks of fat.  Confess your sins.

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On with the cooking!  The goat shanks have been in the oven at three hundred and fifty degrees for a half-hour and should be ready.  Ah yes, look at them.

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I gently place them in water with bay leaves, crushed garlic and fresh oregano leaves and stems.  I have some time, what does the revered 1961 Larousee Gastronomique have to say about goat?

Goats are raised especially for dairy production.  Goat’s meat when the animal is still too young for breeding has an agreeable flavor, although always tougher than mutton.  But as a rule only animals which are old and worn out by milking are slaughtered.  The meat is as nutritive as mutton, but its smell sui generis is disagreeable.  Goat is eaten particularly in Spain, in Italy, and in the south of France, but for reasons which have nothing to do with gastronomy.  In the high mountains goat’s meat is dried in the rest air; this is the bindenfleisch of the canton des Grisons.  (466)

Swiss dried air-meat fashioned in the Swiss Alps during winter.  Cold, not positive, especially the blunt note on eating goat–but for reasons which have nothing to do with gastronomy.  Ouch.  Time heals all though, so how is my goat stew looking?

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I braise onion, carrots, yellow beets, leeks and garlic in olive oil.

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Now I’m parboiling a large sweet potato I’ve halved, quartered, then cut again.  I’ll then put that in the pan with the vegetables and sauté.

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The parboiled sweet potatoes have been tossed with the caramelized veg and we’re ready to add the goat broth.

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And then, the goat stew is ladled into bowls and served to the family.

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The goat bones add a protein-rich, thick kick to the stew, and the goat meat adds a darker taste than lamb; however, with the sweet potato rounding out those harsh edges with, well, sweetness, a balance, a harmony of the cosmos seizes the day.  And “cosmos,” is the right word as our stomach functions as a micobiome connecting microbes outside us to microbes inside us.  Farmer and activist Joel Salatin has something to say about this.

So our stomach is a room where the visible and invisible worlds meet–if we take care.  I suppose there is a model for when we don’t take care.  Bon Appétit!

Oh by the way, sections of this post have appeared before on my blog.

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