Issue 23 / Fall 2020
(Written in March 2020 when California started sheltering in place)
My friend is an animal-rights advocate. This week, she posted these two news items on Facebook: the petition to stop China’s dog-eating festival starting in three months, and an article about China promoting bear bile as coronavirus treatment, alarming wildlife advocates.
My heart sinks. It has to do with me being Chinese. I know my friend didn’t mean it this way, but I take these posts very personally.
Being Chinese, I’ve found myself having to explain about China a lot lately, about my parents who have been staying at home since this January, about my uncle in Wuhan who said he was infected by the novel coronavirus (I still don’t understand what happened, but luckily he is fine now). I also took on the role of explaining the cause of coronavirus. I paid attention so that made me an “expert.” I know the virus was possibly from the bat, passing through some medium—other kinds of animals, such as pangolins or snakes—before attacking the human body. When I explained it to my mentor, she promptly shook her head, “Oh, you don’t want any diseases that come from snakes. No…” She was disgusted.
We Chinese are disgusting. We eat snakes.
I eat snakes. They are delicious. To describe the taste and the look of the snake meat, it is between white and red meat but without any fat. When we think of shredded pork or chicken, their texture is very close to snake meat. Of course, the long snake body can only produce a long shredded-like meat shape. When you eat it, you can’t avoid biting the bones. The meat and the bones are so closely intertwined. But when the snake is chunky, or you find a part that your teeth can grip, you can tear a long piece out of this animal. The taste is no huge difference from that of chicken, only better. It’s a delicacy that you shouldn’t miss.
My husband, Italian, tried snakes for the first time when I brought him to China ten years ago. My best friend brought us to a typical restaurant in southern China, one with an overwhelming selection of live animals and freshly butchered meat on the first floor, mostly fish and seafood, poultry, and all dark meats we know such as pork, beef, or lamb—but also snakes. Customers can pick an animal, and the staff weighs them right before racing to the kitchen. Yes, time is crucial, as on the second floor, in less than half an hour, the dish of Vermicelli Steamed Scallops will be on the table for you to enjoy. Although you won’t see the actual killing in the back, you know you’ve ordered an execution. The animal you pick is the animal you eat.
On this day, the staff held up a snake by the top part (should we say by the neck?), while my best friend and her husband inquired about the type and weight of it. Scissors came out of nowhere. The staff cut off the snakehead and sent out the wiggly body to the kitchen, as quickly as any other items handled on the first floor. My husband blurted out a “what?” Not self-aware at all, but quickly, he laughed to cover his astonishment. In only about twenty minutes, the salt-and-pepper deep-fried snake appeared on the table, sprinkled with fresh red pepper and green onion over the golden-brown sizzling meat sections. We ordered a beer to go with it. It tasted crispy but not greasy, and we couldn’t help but continue for the second chunk, then the third.
Since then, my husband tried it boiled, stir-fried, but the deep-fried salt-and-pepper one is still his favorite. I can’t blame him. It’s my favorite, too. I also like the snake hotpot: the soup base can be herbal or spicy. Your choice. Cantonese like to eat snakes starting in the fall, then continue all through the winter, as it is the season when snakes grow to the chunkiest. Chinese medicine says it’s restorative for our health.
Southern Chinese started eating snakes centuries ago. Northern Chinese initially were disgusted (I wonder whether it was the same kind of disgust as my mentor’s). Now, snake-dish is common everywhere in China, and “Snake Banquet” is exquisitely presented for special occasions. Eating snakes is a treat, not an everyday thing, but it’s normal for us. Like going out for sushi in America, once an exotic experience half a century ago, now it has become not only normal, but delightful, even refined.
With the possible connection to COVID-19, my husband and I don’t feel comfortable eating snakes now, and if proven to be a health hazard, sadly, we may not eat it anymore. Eating snakes doesn’t disgust us, though. We’re making a conscious decision, like when you hear about salmonella contamination on meat or E. Coli on Romaine lettuce. You decide not to buy and eat these foods.
On the other hand, I don’t eat dogs. The dog-meat festival in China completely disturbs me. I don’t use bear bile for medicine, and I feel offended when people assume we all do. I don’t eat bats either, and I don’t know anyone who does. I feel the same horror, if not more, when talking about bat-eating and will ask who the hell would do such a thing. I may be talking like an annoying city girl to these people, but what actually sets me apart from them? Why do I think I am better than them?
When I was a little girl in China, I heard that in America, Chinese people were criticized for handling a live chicken by its feet and carrying it upside down. I recall the laughter from relatives, saying, “They have to carry the chicken on their chests like holding a baby! Hahaha!!” It was one of those moments when I began learning what civilization meant to Americans. The young mind could not help but asked my father, “Do they still eat chicken? Who’s killing the chicken?”
It must be cruel to slaughter a chicken and therefore disgusting to eat. I couldn’t and still cannot make a complete mental separation between the two—the execution and the digestion. The kind of intentional deception, as if not seeing the cruelty makes us morally acceptable.
Collective deception is powerful. Somehow, we’re raised not to ask this kind of question at the dinner table. No one wants to think about the screaming or crying of a cow when the server introduces filet mignon on a white cloth fine dining table, elegantly set up with a glass of red wine during a wedding proposal.
I cook Penne Alla Vodka tonight. There’s a smidgen of pancetta in it. I have learned to cook this pasta since the first time I had it in Il Fornaio, an upscale Italian chain where I always feel I should dress up a bit for dinner. It was one of my favorite pasta dishes on the menu. Pancetta is meat from the pork belly, the tummy of a pig. I also cut chicken meat into cubes yesterday to cook with curry. In light of the shelter-in-place, in the freezer, I stocked up beef stew cubes, individually packed salmon fillets, Italian sausage, and different parts of a chicken.
I cooked Bolognese last night. My husband judges my Bolognese cooking skill as good as his mother’s. I used 80% fat and organic ground beef. Not many people know—ground beef is made from less popular cuts of beef, which means it could be from cow muscle, skeletal tissue, connective tissue, and blood vessels, basically anywhere from a cow.
The bag of cow meat, possibly from many cows, was chopped and ground before packaging. I smeared and stirred, smeared and stirred so the meat wouldn’t stick together in the pan. The pieces of the cows.
I enjoyed the Bolognese with my husband and my son. I had a glass of wine.
Could we not talk about the cow? Or would that make us disgusting?
Ching Ching Tan is a Chinese immigrant living in the U.S. for fifteen years. Her journey of education and writing began in taking ESL courses in community colleges. She received her undergraduate degree in Linguistics at the University of California-San Diego, and her M.A. in Communication Studies at San Jose State University. Currently, she is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at SJSU. She was a nonfiction lead editor for Issue 153 of Reed Magazine. “I Am Disgusting” originally appeared in the San Fedele Press’ anthology, Art in the Time of COVID-19.