So I’m heading to mexico tomorrow morning, and while I intend to eat all of the things while I am there, sadly there shall be no updates from the field, for I am looking forward with an almost unsettling zeal to not being around a computer for two solid weeks. I have packed a pencil and a piece of paper, however, and tend to take copious notes, so expect some reports upon my return.
My friend Adam, recently returned to the pleasures of seafood, is fixated on the idea of eating as many of the urchins which apparently are prolific in the waters of the town we’re staying as possible, provided we can solve the mystery of why the urchins do not seem to already be a prominent part of the local cuisine. For generally things edible get ate, particularly in poor towns bordering on the bounteous sea (technically an ocean. whatever.), and for an area renowned for its pig-stomach soup, we shouldn’t assume that it is a matter of squeamishness.
I have another mystery to contend with, myself, and strangely that is sympathy. a short while ago I read, in the 2006 proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, an short essay by Christa Weil entitled “More than One Way to Crack an Urchin,” that provided a culinary and historical naturalist overview of the sea urchin. and within mere paragraphs of her statement that “the sea urchin is heartless, brainless, and otherwise lacking in organs that might inspire our empathy” I was finding myself strangely emotionally interpellated by descriptions of these quite alien-seeming creatures. In fact, I was beginning to feel quite guilty over the idea of eating them, but for the life of me I have no idea why. Why something like an urchin, rather than any of the much more morphologically similar creatures that I eat on a regular basis? Even the smug vegetarian slogan “I don’t eat anything with a face” implicitly excludes the urchin from consideration, and small wonder, as it has something like a mouth (described in still more strange-making language as “aristotle’s lantern”), but ultimately it resembles more a medieval armament (such as a mace or caltrop) than anything would confront us with the ineffability of the ‘fellow living thing.’ as such, it takes the ‘heteronomy of the other’ into pretty far-flung ethical terrain.
I am suspicious that it may actually be the wonderful strangeness of the urchin that excites this sympathy – some true sense of wonder at the alienness of its engineering (Five fold-symmetry? An endoskeleton of crystalline plates?), that it seems a shame to destroy such a weird little creature. if this is the case then it is effectively exoticism that is doing the work, and that is poor stuff of which to make a moral engagement, although I am intrigued by the suggestion of the aesthetic exciting the ethic. with its intensely Lovecraftian manufacture, the urchin seems like a little emissary from an ancient age or alien lineage, and one should well know not to meddle with peculiar and paradoxical-seeming artifacts or entities. one might unlock a gate or or grow a perception-bending spawn of madness in one’s brain. It is funny, though, that this sense of the arcane and primordial is not at all universal among those who encounter the urchin; see W.N.P. Barbellion on his dissection of the thing:
Very excited over my first view of aristotle’s lantern. These complicated pieces of animal mechanism never smell of musty age – after aeons of evolution. When I open a sea urchin and see the lantern, or dissect a lamprey and cast eyes on the branchial basket, such structures strike me as being as finished and exquisite as if they had just a moment before been tossed me fresh from the hands of the creator. They are fresh, young, they smell new. (The Journal of a Disappointed Man, 1919)
Or maybe it is less the exoticism alone than the manner in which the urchin is dispatched, occasioned by the tragic ingenuity of design: for fresh eating (of which we damn well will avail ourselves the opportunity, if it be available), what one basically has to do is stab the thing in the mouth and, this purchase gained, crack its shell apart. for the mouth (and just around it) is the only unprotected, fleshy patch available amidst of a battery of prickly spines. there is something sad and sort of poignant in a creature so seemingly well-arrayed for its own defence, undone by the anatomical extravagance of having a mouth. Perhaps, absurdly, it is this that awakens my sympathy: a creature undone by its own mouth?
Ah, but you wouldn’t trade it for the world would you, you spiny little bastard?