I have a complex and confusing relationship with meat. Make no mistake: I love to tackle difficult recipes, treasure-hunt for great hole-in-the-wall restaurants, poke around at farmers markets and swap “you’ll never believe what I ate” stories. But I’ve also been a mostly-vegetarian for almost as long as I’ve been allowed to choose what I put on my plate.
What is a mostly vegetarian? The word “pescatarian” applies; the word “flexitarian” is closer. The true answer is exhausting: I have read so much literature and absorbed so many opinions on sustainable eating that I now feel guilty no matter what’s on my fork (or, this week, between my chopsticks). I avoid factory-farmed meat, out of concern for climate change, animal welfare, human rights, environmental quality and public health. After reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s immensely disturbing Eating Animals, I suspect I should be giving up seafood also. I waver on things that are not kosher, though I do not currently actually keep kosher. But I will occasionally happily eat wild game or harvested animals (like clams) if a friend offers to share their bounty, or sometimes meat from reportedly responsible small producers … not only because I want to, but because I feel that independent, responsible producers need support from me and everyone else who wants to see their methods survive.
The veg thing becomes a source of much ado and embarrassment when I’m eating with others, particularly when I’m traveling. I don’t like to hold the group back from ordering what they want; don’t want to appear un-adventurous or uncultured, and certainly do not want anyone to ask me to explain my neuroses at the dinner table, because I have a really hard time not launching into details, which is – I know – intensely annoying to people about to enjoy a meal.
For various reasons, I also tend to relax my menu micro-management while traveling. Food is a powerful tool for connecting with other people, and a revealing window into a foreign culture. And sometimes there are just no vegetarian options.
But of course, being a non-committal vegetarian brings all sorts of new confusion to the table.
All this boils down to last night’s meal at a seafood restaurant in Mong Kok, a neighborhood several MTR stops to our north. There was no paper menu; there were only these Styrofoam bins full of living, swimming sea creatures.
To order, you point at them (and not just in the general direction of the bin, but at the ill-fated creature itself). The host scoops your selections into a bucket, disappears into the kitchen, and within 20 minutes, those creatures reappear … smothered in garlic.
If you’ve read this far, you may understand that this was challenging for me.
It was also, however, one of the most memorable dinners I’ve ever had. I appreciate the importance of recognizing where food comes from, and although of course fish and crustaceans are not born in Styrofoam crates, the ability to stand face-to-face with animals that are about to become restaurant food is a pretty unique opportunity for an urbanite. The meat — sea snails, razor clams, two unidentified crustaceans and a rockfish — was unbeatably fresh, expertly prepared and presented with pride. It was truly delicious, and not a morsel was wasted. I even saw at least one group-mate lick the empty shells.
I know there are many readers who will disagree, but I think there is something to be said for the sustainability of food that is recognized for what it is, and deeply enjoyed as a source of nourishment, camaraderie and delight.
There are many things that are broken about the global food system, almost certainly including the supply chain that brought these fish to Hong Kong’s sidewalk and eventually our bellies. Nurturing conscientious appreciation of each bite, however, is — I think — one collective step in the right direction.