Thursday, June 13, 2013

Playing Possum?

This story is about the opossum living in our garage. And the Joy of Cooking. And about food, and modernity.

I know that there's an opossum living in the garage because it smells like possum (a delightful combination of musk and "uncleaned horse barn") Also, the possum is not subtle, and somehow tracked white paint over the concrete floor of the garage.

I have an intense dislike for opossums.* Luckily, however, I have found a useful way to deal with it! My mom has an edition of Joy of Cooking from the '70s, and I found this recipe**:
Recipes for  opossum, rabbit, squirrel, porcupine, muskrat, and beaver are included here, including illustrations on how to skin and clean the animal. How useful! Most of the recipes involve braising or stewing, since the meat tends to be very lean and dries out easily--contradicting the medieval rabbit-on-a-spit-over-a-fire imagery in movies. (if you're offended at this point by my murderous attitude toward innocent woodland creatures, please read the footnotes)

Really, I want to talk about human beings and food, starting with the original Joy of Cooking. It's a great book. It was originally published in the 1930s. It will tell you how to cook almost anything, and sure, it's not gluten free or paleo, but it's not shy about fat, either. It will tell you how to cook any cut of meat, how to butcher a whole chicken, side of beef, pig, or rabbit, and ten or fifteen ways to preserve produce. A year or two ago, my mom wanted a new Joy of Cooking, since hers has a broken binding and is in three parts after 30 or 40 years of use; the one I got turned out to be the "New Edition," and I ended up returning it. It had no section on game (no opossum recipes!!), and a lot of the recipes were edited to add more sugar. I ended up special-ordering the older edition.

Okay, big deal, the cookbook changed, nobody skins and eats rabbit anymore. Big deal! Yeah, yeah, I know. But I feel that this is part of a bigger shift in the way that our society cooks and thinks about our food. If 50 or 80 years ago, Americans needed a section on game, that meant that they were killing and eating their own food (extreme locavores!). The fact that it's no longer in the book is part of the fact that meat is something we buy in the supermarket in a shrink-wrapped styrofoam container-and we don't have any contact with the animal that it came from. We don't even have to think about where it came from.

I know that in Paleo-land, we talk about out pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer ancestors, but I want to take it just a few generations backwards. My grandparents and great-grandparents lived in an era where, when they visited relatives in the country on a Sunday afternoon, a Sunday dinner meant wringing the neck of an old hen, plucking it, and roasting it up. You'd take care of the bird from the time it was an egg until it was on the table.  There's a family story about my great aunt, now passed, but born in 1900, who was served a hen that she and her brother had raised as a chick a few summers ago-- Penny the hen--and they refused to eat a bite. One of my great grandfathers grew up in the boonies of New England, and he and his brothers used to hunt for squirrels and rabbits in order to eat (because their father spent all his money on liquor), and their mother would turn the rabbit fur into mittens for the winter. I don't want to romanticize it, any more than I'd romanticize slaughtering an elk or wildabeest, but that way of life is so far from the way that my family lives now.

It amazes me how far we've come from their idea of food to the modern idea of food. What on earth would they think of Doritos? Of eating a cow raised thousands of miles away, rather than one or twenty? It seems to me that our society is disconnected from many of the issues surrounding our food is because we are disconnected from the process itself. Frankly, I'm not likely to go hunting for rabbit, like my great-grandfather, or to wring the neck of a chicken for Sunday dinner. I'm not going to eat the opossum or the squirrels that live in my garage. But I do care about where and how the cows that became my beef were raised, and I care about how they were cared for. I care about how the hens that lay the eggs I eat in the morning were bred, raised, and fed. I drove out to a farm, to see the chickens that laid my morning eggs, and I saw them outdoors, scratching for bugs and grubs--and frankly, what I saw is the reason that I'm willing to pay more for those eggs, even when I'm not exactly rolling in the dough.

So, I took a tangent away from opossums in this post, but I hope that it was a tangent worth the while.

*You have to understand, dear readers, that despite the fact that I love animals, I have a primal loathing of possums. For context, I spent four years in New York City, and I thought that the subway rats were adorable. But the pointy, rodential faces of opossums, their long scaly tails? No. Okay, when I was four, an opossum (probably rabid) chased me across the yard on a spring afternoon, and I climbed over a four foot fence to get away from it. Analyze that, Freud.

**I am not actually going to kill this possum. Possums are relatively harmless, and eat bugs and other pests. We may trap it in a Havaheart trap in August, after it would have raised its litter, if it has one, and bring it to a state park a few miles away. Or, we might just ignore it.

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