Thinking About Who’s Sitting Down To Dinner In North Carolina

The first thing you notice about Pieter Aretsen’s painting A Meat Stall With The Holy Family Giving Alms (1551) is all the meat–an ox head with eyes staring at us, pig trotters on a cabbage leaf, whole side of a slaughtered pig split cleanly down the spine, a large ham shank, sausage, smoked fish, herring; then hanging on a metal rod we have pig’s head, esophagus, lungs, heart, slabs of fat, and a curling intestine; below there’s poultry yet to be plucked and a bowl of lard on a three-legged stool; finally, to complete the picture, a scattering of bread, butter, cheese, pies and pretzels.  As Leon Kass notes in The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature,

We omnivorous human beings, who transform much of our food by cooking, mixing, and seasoning it for tastiness or edibility, cannot fully hide from ourselves–or at least from our butchers and meat packers–that we eat cows, sheep, and pigs; chickens, fish, and shellfish; in addition to radishes, rhubarb, radicchio, raspberries, and rice and countless other roots, stems, leaves, fruits, and seeds. (21)

And transformation is the key when it’s about nose to tail eating.

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To quote Fergus Henderson,

‘Nose to Tail Eating’ means it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the fillet.

Read Jane Grigson on the pig head from in Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery:

The skillful and economical housewife can buy a pig’s head for less than 50p; this is what she can make from it–pig’s ears with a piquant sauce, brains in puff pastry, Bath Chap, 1 1/2 pd. sausage meat for making pate or crepinettes, and some excellent Rillons which are more usually made from the belly of pork. There is on average 4 1/2 pds of boneless meat on a pig’s head.  And an excellent clear soup or aspic jelly is to be made from the bones.

And yes, she has recipes for a pig’s tail.  Chef April Bloomfield on a whole suckling pig:

It may sound difficult, roasting a whole pig.  You might imagine giant smokers or spits suspended over roaring fires.  But a little pig like this one becomes a riot of juicy meat and golden-brown, cracker-crisp skin you oven in about 3 hours.

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Nordic Cuisine guru Magnus Nilsson from his book and restaurant Fäviken offers a memory of a particular kill,

When I got back home I realized I was crying, which I had never done before after dealing with an animal or its meat.  I felt deeply moved by the event, and understood that when you kill an individual that you have come to know and like for your own benefit as food, you gain a new respect for the animal, the meat and the process of obtaining it that you cannot get in any other way. Sometimes, when I look at the way people treat meat inefficiently by neglecting the simpler cuts, or just be over-indulging in it, I think there should be some kind of equivalent to a drivers’ license for meat-eaters, for which the test would be raising and getting to know an animal, then killing and eating it.

In Heritage Sean Brock dwells on the sacred business of how we raise food,

To be a chef means to buy and cook meat, and that means we have a choice to make.  The differences between the animal that modern agribusinesses produce and animals raised on pasture and humanely treated cannot be understated. Commercial animals are treated horribly, given inferior feed and no attention, and confined in huge warehouses where their feet never touch the dirt.  If horses were treated this way, someone would get arrested.

The great Southern Chef Edna Lewis remembers the shared work of food in The Taste of Country Cooking,

The spirit of pride  in community and of cooperation in the work of farming is what made Freetown a very wonderful place to grow up in.  Ours was a large family; my parents, my grandfather, three sisters, two brothers and cousins who stayed with us from time to time, all living under the same roof. The farm was demanding but everyone shared in the work– tending the animals, gardening, harvesting, preserving the harvest, and, every day, preparing delicious foods that seemed to celebrate the good things of each season.

Italian butcher Dario Cecchini carries on the family business, quotes Dante, and extolls the whole animal.

So, what of that ox eye?  The figure in the painting who looks out at us, acknowledges us, breaks the fourth wall and indicts us–with what?  It’s death?  Is it a look that whispers, this could be you?  According to those who make their livelihoods transforming the living into the dead and the dead into food, this is a sacred business when done right.  A way of being in the world, I suppose, founding the world in a moment of existence, that is, with each kill and knife to the flesh a world is created distinguishing what is food and what does the eating–a world created where what lives must die to feed and continue life.  And the place we take life and feed comes into being as well–there will be a butcher, there will be a meat stall.  Consider the baskets, stools and tables stacked with meat as a threshold, a boundary area where we gather animals then through our chemical process, cook them into what passes into us.  Consider this a frontier occupied by the living and the dead, the whole and the parted.  And in the very presentation of this food the sacred irrupts again and again.

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We find crossed fish on a platter–sign of the cross: ichthys, two intersecting arcs as a secret symbol of Jesus–note the crossed smoke fish, crossed pig trotters, and crossed trees.  Moments of sacred food accumulate through this painting and the New Testament.  In Luke 24, soon after his resurrection, Jesus is offered boiled fish.

“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

At the feeding of the five thousand, a boy is brought to Jesus with five barley loaves and two fish.

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

In Matthew 13, a parable is drawn from the gathering of fish in baskets.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In John 4-6 it is related the disciples fish all night but catch nothing.  Jesus instructs them to cast the nets on the other side of the boat.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

In these examples, the act of eating and the abundance of food signifies the sacred, the presence of the holy on earth.  The divine and the moral fuse into a shared meaning of physical and spiritual nourishment.  The animal marks an extraordinary transaction between immortal and mortal, between absolute and contingent.  Mircea Eliadae in The Sacred and The Profane writes,

A sign is asked, to put an end to the tension and anxiety caused by relativity and disorientation–in short, to reveal an absolute point of support.  For example, a wild animal is hunted, and the sanctuary is built at the place where it is killed. Or a domestic animal–such as a bull–is turned loose; some days later it is searched for and sacrificed at the lace it is found.  later the altar will be raised there and the village will be brought around the alter.  In all these cases, the sacrality of a place is revealed by animals. (27-28)

Look further, past the pig’s head.

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In a story without a clear, specific source, Joseph leads a donkey which Mary carrying her baby rides.  Dressed like a nun, she hands a loaf of bread to a little boy,  while at the right, a beggar sits with his beggar’s cloth spread before him, hands held in prayer.  Behind the Holy Family, watching this act of charity, pilgrims dressed in Sunday finery, walk to the left.  Note the two trees above them that cross like the fish on the platter.  What do the animals reveal?  Consider grace.

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Antonio Canova’s The Three Graces represent splendor, mirth, good cheer presiding over banquets delighting guests and gods.   In a footnote Leon Kass follows-up on this notion of the Graces.

From here it is but a short step–as we shall soon see–to the biblical notion of grace, that unmerited divine assistance that regenerates and sanctifies ordinary human life, and, in recognition of this possibility, to the saying of grace before a meal, by means of which diners give thanks for (unmerited) food and companionship or ask for a bestowal of grace upon the present dinner and their fellow diners.

He continues thinking about grace and offers a few pages later writes, Grace is impossible both for disembodied minds and mindless bodies.  Our thoughts need grounding in flesh, our flesh and the flesh of other animals and the green produce of nature.  At the same time, our bones and organs need the brain and its attendant illusion, the mind, to preside over all that is touched and tasted.  Is this necessity or a gift?  Here are words of Simone Weil from her notebooks published as Gravity and Grace,

All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity.  Grace is the only exception. (1)

The giving away, the feeding of another does not occur as a mandate, as a given in nature overall or human nature.  It is an offering, a sacrifice, a gift to another.  In his introduction to her writings, Gustave Thibon writes,

In order to come to us God passes through the thickness of time and space; his grace changes nothing in the play of those blind forces of necessity and chance which guide the world; it penetrates into our souls as a drop of water makes it through geological strata without affecting their structure, and there it waits in silence until we consent to become God again.

We eat to nourish ourselves, that is the gravity of necessity.  To offer food to someone else, to take nourishment away from us, to set out a meat stall for others to receive their nourishment–that is grace; and a grace that through our giving transforms us into the divine.  Think meat stall, think a slice of bread.  A mercy seat at the banquet, if you will.  Bon appétit!

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