Thursday, April 28, 2011

Eating Face to Save Face

"Mm ba ba de / um bum ba de." — Freddie Mercury, "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie, from Hot Space (1981)

Let me begin by saying that I don't want to tell you a story that involves a lot of suspense, or that climaxes with a terrifying vision, or that involves any sort of narrative tension, so I'm just going to lay out exactly what happened on a certain night in Huangshan and retrace a few steps afterward, going into detail and discussing what exactly was going through my head at a restaurant with an unrecognizable menu and tight-lipped fuwuyuans (waiters/-resses). The day my travel companion Emily and I returned from climbing the mountain (Huangshan), we ate a big bowl of duck heads. 
A series of events: eat a delicious noodle/beef/pepper lunch; wander aimlessly around the city (Huangshan); spot pagodas; climb the tower of a bank; stand around an elementary school; eat cake; waltz through a construction site; reminisce; nap; go in search of dinner (enter restaurant; guess at what we're ordering; ignore snickers of waiters[-resses]; receive bowl of mysterious food; realize food is duck heads [consider leaving; whine; remember eating scorpion; think about how cows also have heads; a young child in basketball shorts with a full fish in hand; using corn as bait; mallards off a dock's-edge from youngerdays]; take tentative bites; give up and try to leave; waiters[-resses] give you more food; eat vegetables; leave restaurant); return to hostel; discuss day's events.

So, Duck Heads, now you see how we arrived at this. Entering the building, what should have first tipped us off to the curious nature of the restaurant were the ubiquitous Donald Duck images; certainly the character wasn't legally being used at this place—Disney probably hadn't signed over any rights—but he was everywhere, pants-less, welcoming guests with an outstretched winghand. China is full of such uses of other people's (or companies') creations, so it wasn't extremely bizarre to see D.D. hanging out there, and we assumed we'd be eating duck (a popular dish, especially Roast in Beijing). I remember thinking that Donald Duck was a traitor to his species, like Charlie the Tuna ("Eat my people," they seem to shout, "Take my own flesh, my own blood, and eat, please."), but I didn't know D.D. was willing to go so far...
The other mistake we made was assuming that if we ordered blindly, despite trying to converse with the waitress ("We also like chicken and beef," I recall saying, hoping she'd point it out to us, and she didn't), we'd get something we had before, or at least something not too unfamiliar, something palatable. Emily told me we ordered some sort of duck in addition to vegetables and some sort of vegetable-ball thing, and, remembering childhood Christmas Days, remembering the denouement of that filmic institution A Christmas Story, I joked: "I hope it doesn't have a head," and, minutes later, when served, the exclamation (after the realization): "It's all heads!"

And speaking of realizations, here: the bowl arrived, a great silver half-moon, and in it a potpourri: spices, vegetables, unknown slices of unknown things, and, atop the melange, a dozen-odd T-rex-skull-fossil-shaped pieces of... something. I pulled one out with my chopsticks and commented on the odd shape and texture of the meat. We wondered if it was some sort of liver, or, well, we only knew it was a hard object. I flipped mine (I had been looking at the bone), and saw a cross section (they had been split down the middle, all) of what looked like a head, and, in the half-intact beak, I saw a lolling tongue (lit. lolling out the bottom) and what could pass for a brain, and as my mind raced, I looked at Emily, who was poking around the cranium with her own chopsticks, and said, "These are heads. I'm pretty sure these are heads." And after a brief spell of unbelief, we both accepted that they were, indeed, the heads of ducks. I poked around the bowl desperately for other meat, but only found vertebrae, neck, wing, and, perhaps more disturbingly than heads themselves, a full-on foot: a webbed spindly clawed end. Where was the rest of the duck? Where was the breast, the meat? I thought of ditching out on the place, of DFW's "Consider the Lobster," of all the animals I had eaten before that were, when served, already sans head.

I remembered that every time I eat meat, I'm eating something that had, at one time or another, a face. Eyes, nose, mouth. An identifier. An expresser. I thought that the burgers I eat regularly and the chicken I have almost every day probably lived a rougher life than did these ducks, probably were prepared in less hygienic ways, probably had more chemicals pumped in them throughout life, yet I found this, the duck head, disgusting. I came face to face, pun horribly terrifically intended, with my own meat-eating, and I considered, briefly, that eating meat might be something I no longer wanted to do.

Then I bit into the duck head. Never had I cracked a skull open to get to dinner, but that night in Anhui Province, at the lower-lying regions of a mountain range, I did, and it wasn't as bad as I had worried. I learned that what I find delicious isn't what others necessarily do. What delicacies are served in China are not the delicacies of other nations. That different cultures think about what they put in their mouths every day for sustenance differently, natch, and that, though I thought it'd be disgusting, I just needed to learn to try something new, something other people crave. 

Who am I kidding, I hated it. I was horrified by each bite I took, and I'll never eat something's face-meat again.

Emily ate a heart and gained the courage of a duck. This courage allowed her to eat more heads than I. 
The waitresses(-ers) had a station near us, and they watched the entire time we ate, giggling.
When the vegetables were served, they did so by removing the duck from the big silver bowl and filling it with some sort of red broth (I worriedly thought blood), brought it to a boil, and chucked the veggies in.
We cleansed our palates with Oreos later at the hostel.
Weeks later, finally prepared to write, tiny pages of notes next to me, I'm still too focused on the event, the spectacle (to me) of eating heads, to focus on what sort of insight may have been gained, what sort of conundrums were raised about my own meat-eating and carnivores in general, and what I learned about anything.
Duck heads, head-ness aside, don't have a bad flavor.

Memory, speaking, has too soft a voice.

1 comment:

  1. Josh, I'm no doctor yet, but I have frequently heard that eating nervous tissue (brain, spinal cord, etc.) will mess you up. These tissues foster prions that give us the chronic wasting diseases (e.g. "mad cow"). Although, some people we both know have told me I worry too much, so decide for yourself.