Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Thematic: Eating and Being

The Distance from Our Food

Stepping into the mud of a moral ecology of production and consumption.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Le Poulet plumé (The Plucked Fowl) (detail), 1918, by Chaim Soutine (1893–1943); Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo.

“You probably shouldn’t cook the animal whole,” Andrés told me over coffee, contemplating a whole pig he had just acquired. We were sitting in a hotel in Volcán, a mountain town in western Panama. Chef Andrés Morataya, whose seaside destination restaurant in another part of Panama is called Panga, was getting ready to cook for a big party. I was one of the guests. Andrés reasoned that it is difficult to cook a whole animal and achieve the same level of doneness through all its parts. An animal had died, and deserved our respectful treatment. Better to butcher it and cook the parts separately.11xThe well-known Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini is widely quoted as arguing that the animals we eat are owed four things: “A good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook.”

We cleared our breakfast dishes, and Andrés went off to work. He started by building an open oven out of bricks and bamboo, his style of cooking being so personal and idiosyncratic that I hesitate to call his presence at the hotel “catering.” I reflected on the dozen or so animals I have seen cooked whole for celebrations and gatherings, often spit-roasted, but sometimes buried with hot rocks luau-style, waiting to be unearthed after a wedding ceremony. I have pulled meat off the flanks of whole pigs cooked this way and observed how the collagen jellifies, as if this rough cookery were nodding toward that more refined dish, a plate of aspic. Andrés’s comment surprised me, only because I have become used to whole animal cookery serving as a rather theatrical but sincere gesture of respect for a creature that had died on our behalf. But whether whole or in parts, an animal cooked snout-to-tail is different from the form in which most denizens of the developed world get their meat: trim cuts wrapped in plastic, cradled in Styrofoam, juices absorbed by a thin layer of green or white sponge-like tissue unpleasantly clammy to the touch as you toss it in the trash. Whatever your attitude to nonhuman animal life, it is hard to describe such packaging as respectful treatment.

Later that day I watched as Andrés built his fire and cooked chickens and myriad, fully butchered pig parts. Andrés had met the farmers who raised the animals; the chickens and pig would be eaten just a few miles from where they had lived. If there is a Chiriquí version of terroir, the “taste of place,” it must have been present in their fat, and in the development of muscle tissue you see in animals that can roam. We were in high country where the climate is right for growing coffee, and also good for raising cattle. We were inside what the anthropologist Heather Paxson has called a moral ecology of production and consumption, a kind of virtuous circle linking land, farmers, and eaters in a circuit of sustainability, respect, and value.22xHeather Paxson, The Life of Cheese: Making Food and Value in America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013). I was part of a visiting group of North Americans who do not eat this way regularly, up close and personal with the animal body. When we looked at Andrés’s chickens, which were suspended from a bamboo rod by strings that were tied to beer bottles stuck in their body cavities, we could not help but recognize ourselves as the beneficiaries of animal husbandry and slaughter. We were standing near a circle of moral regard, and if we had been close enough to those animals in life, we might have stepped inside that circle’s chalk. I am not sure what living inside that circle is like, but I imagine it begins with paying farmers enough, so that they need not work in ways that exhaust soil or water, nor oppress their animals unduly.

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