Monday 17 February 2014

Bones, Fat, Disgust, Comfort: Props for Navigating Difficulty

It was dark into the night before surgery; fine focus was not foremost in mind.
On the night before a surgery to repair a torn hip socket last fall, after I had prepared my daybag for the hospital and finished all the paperwork, I drove the half mile to my food co-op, and, on my crutches, collected all of the hip joints I could find in the store. 

“How much soup are you making?” the cashier asked as he piled my many pounds of bones.

“Enough to heal I hip I’m having repaired tomorrow.” I spent the next month healing on bone broth. (The bones here are a part of the pile I boiled down into cylinders of gelatinous fascination.)

I tell this story—and I carried it out—for a few reasons. First, I’m thinking about what kinds of food experiences cause discomfort and disgust, and, in contrast or in compensation, which ones give us comfort beyond sustenance? So many food practices carry meaning far beyond food. And as I was starting off on the unexpectedly novel path to relearn walking, I decided I ought look more closely at other habitual patterns that help provide comfort in the face of challenges—or that reinforce discomfort or make it harder to find havens from it. In the spaces of gratitude, comfort, horror, and disgust, I explored some of the ways that dealing with the stories we tell ourselves—the catastrophizing narratives that exclaim over how gross things are and how we should move along without further engagement—can be richly rewarding, and might help build not only the capacity to face difficulty, but also enjoyment doing so.

Feeling grateful the cows and pigs and for the people who raised and cared for and procured them over many processes so I could benefit—I also realized that the story of this bone soup was important because of the value it showed in premodern practices of using parts of foods. In this case, extracting not only the connective tissues but even the minerals from bones was something I learned from a neighborhood ramen shop near the university, where their opaque and delicious tonkotsu broth takes over a day and half of boiling.

The comfort of such a wonderful milky soup with the added bonus of feeling like somebody really cared to make it seemed like a good layer to add to the appropriate hip components for rebuilding and the generally handy easy-to-eat nutrients for my recuperation, especially given the multiple layers of challenges I faced. I am unfortunately allergic to the shells of lobsters, one of the sources of the commercially available modern supplement marketed for the healing and repair of fibrous tissue, since bottle labeling leaves space for market fluctuations. Further, before even getting to the repair step, it was remarkably difficult to get a diagnosis. Hip injuries are a significantly underdiagnosed injury for women, partly because pain “down there” is apparently as painful as the acknowledgement of pubic hair, and so I felt doubly lucky: I had a source of hip building materials not dependent on the marketing value of the Maine state license plate icon (toward which I held some antagonism, beyond the annoying allergy, since I am relatively certain that it was my account of the need to hold down thie lid while cooking lobsters that reduced my desirability as a travel writer for tourists during my college summers—while perhaps also maintaining me some local friends). In addition, I had medical care ungrossed out by facing imperfections in womens pelvic infrastructure.

I had already started writing about the need for contemporary food movement participants to come to terms with discomfort and disgust enough to talk to each other across some differences of opinion—via the topic of “pink slime.” The odyssey of setting out to repair a hip while also teaching about building comfort with food systems in my university courses made me think about all sorts of ways we produce and reproduce comfort and discomfort. Some things were almost silly—but then they’d get you right where you’re vulnerable—like while eating a really good dry fatty sausage. When I moved to the upper midwest, Italian sausages were something I really missed. People kept directing me to St. Paul, where I found people making familiar sausages and importing to the midwest the same cheese my grandmother used to send my father to the market to buy with a pierced cone scoop. I also found dry Italian sausages that remind me more than dimly how pervasively fears about eating fat are peddled, and how much even I am exposed to them. Eating the raw fat of fermented salamis can be very tasty, as well as carrying the comforts of the familiar and the delicious, but in the presence of the mouthfeel of that much fat, it is suddenly viscerally clear how thoroughly the horror of fat is propagated in our society: although we clearly need and crave fat, a mouthful of animal fat feels like a mistake, something to spit out.

And yet it’s so tasty, and perhaps even more tasty because of the effort required to get over the hump of initial disgust. Likewise, sipping a cup of plain broth on that last night before surgery, looking ahead to many subsequent days of broth sipping, I was struck by how much flavor could be held in that bone soup, how overwhelmingly umami it could taste without any salt, how nineteenth century I felt to be drinking teacups of broth, and settle into the dissonance of something simultaneously so banal and so foul. (I tested the fowlness further over the Christmas holiday, reboiling chicken carcasses until the bones softened and broke down so that their entire composition could be seen—and eaten, again, making something delicious but remarkably difficult.) The emotional terrains landmarked by some of these outstanding examples are filled in by many more mundane potential meaning making moments with food: textures, tastes, smells, past experiences, and the relationships of production and exchange embedded in foods all influence how we encounter them. And settling in to observe how to navigate this terrain made it clear to me how overwhelmingly important the shape of time has become in food.

Hairy Popcorn
For all of the massive effort we put into growing food, and particularly livestock, we are usually too hurried to use it well, and, contributing to our loss, our sense of orderly time and a well-told meal do not usually include the ragged ongoing tasks of breaking down the inedible parts into rich sources of nutrients, skills, and practice dealing with discomfort.

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