a few weeks back, my roommate Nicole and i got together with a couple of friends a ol’ pig’s head soup. the friends had acquired a half a hog back in the summer and butchered it all themselves, but hadn’t gotten around to doing anything with the head, and we figured that it had been lurking about in their deep freeze for long enough. we decided to make something along the lines of a Mexican pozole, which involved stewing the head for the better part of a day, then removing it and stripping as much off the skull as possible. to this we added achiote and tomatoes and hominy, then finished it with avocado, fresh cilantro, lime, tortillas and cabbage.
up until fairly recently i had spent much of my adult life as a vegan. i have only scant, but growing, hability with meat preparation, and i had never seen, handled, or eaten a pig’s head. i really had no idea how i would handle the process. a pig’s head has eyes, and teeth, a nose, eyelashes, a whole face. and how does one face such a face, on a terrain not so much of recognition but of consumption? one is reminded of the old vegetarian slogan “I don’t eat anything with a face,” and gets to thinking about the inversion that could well apply to many a meat eater – “I don’t eat the face of anything.” i won’t go so far as to say that this is cowardly, but i am happy that i had the opportunity to face up to what was left of this particular face (despite the uh, lack of skin and ears, which made for a slightly more gruesome than sympathetic visage), and surprised that it didn’t give me greater pause.
as it turns out, i was able to approach the whole affair with alacrity, a sense of curiosity and of irreverent humour. somewhere along the line, though, whether it was when we were wrenching out teeth to make jewelry with, jabbing around the inside of the skull with a chopstick to free the what was left of the brain from its cranial safety, or putting sunglasses on the head and taking pictures with it, we of course had moments of “is this right? are we going to hell? we’re definitely going to hell.” one friend’s response to the “cool pig” photos (see below) was along the lines of “Oh, that is just wrong,” but i wonder wherein does the wrongness reside? is “irreverent” truly the best way to characterize it, and is this irreverence the same as a lack of reverence for life, or for that matter, for death?
on the one hand, i think irreverence is important. humour is important, it can help us handle the world, to put things into different perspective, to cope, and even to heal (of course humour can be hateful and hurtful as well, but i don’t believe this nullifies its other potentials). on the other, i think that some measure of reverence for life is important, but what do we mean when we talk about reverence for life? what do we assume about how reverence is experienced, and how it is expressed?
is it all hushed tones and deference and platitudes? this hardly seems the appropriate response where food is concerned. and on the face of it (pun intended, duh) is this any different from playing with one’s food? or perhaps i should say beneath the skin of it, is this any different from playing with one’s food? because it is the face that arouses our moral sentiment, that challenges us beyond food with disgust, empathy, horror. but then, we can say “beyond” food only if we have already accepted and normalized the separation of food from life, from lives. where in this chain of fragmentation, of transformation from an entity to edibility, does it become, or cease to be, in poor taste to play with one’s food? to joke around with a head, rhyme and revel with the dead?
in the end, it was in a way more about the head anyway. more so than it was about investing a whole day into creating some outstandingly delicious meal. i mean, don’t get me wrong, the soup was pretty good. hearty, rich, by times mysterious (is this a gland? cartilage? muscle or myelin or brain matter, maybe?), but for me it was really more about the process – about working with a challenging cut of meat, or rather a part of an animal that often is excluded from consideration as meat, and coming to understand just how much there really is to it, but also how much work you have to put into it to get it, to turn it into meat. to see how it comes apart, is broken down. this was a challenge, and in its own way, a celebration. an homage to the pig that says not for squeamishness alone will any part be deemed unfit to eat.
and what says “celebration” like sunglasses, right?