Brains, Heart

By Marcia Nehemiah
Posted 7/19/19

Technically, my husband and I are not vegetarians. We’re vegetarians with a dash of hypocrisy. Pat will wolf down a turkey sandwich, but he recoils at the sight of the lifeless, roasted …

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Brains, Heart

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Technically, my husband and I are not vegetarians. We’re vegetarians with a dash of hypocrisy.
Pat will wolf down a turkey sandwich, but he recoils at the sight of the lifeless, roasted Thanksgiving bird on the table sans head and feathers, retaining the shape of the live animal that saunters through the woods around our house. It can once have had bones, but he doesn’t want to see them or touch them. He brooks no reminder of an animal’s erstwhile animalness.
Sushi is allowed—no bones, no face, no eyes.
I vowed, for a few hours, to cross sushi off the menu when it occurred to me that the tender, orange slice of salmon perched on perfect mounds of the whitest rice was once a creature trapped in a net, flopping and gasping for breath on the deck of a ship and speared between the eyes just before its entrails slithered between the fisherman’s gloved hands into a refuse barrel.
How did I, who grew up eating organ meat and whose first memory involves animal slaughter, develop scruples against ingesting flesh foods? The year, 1956. The place, North Bergen, NJ. Two things fascinated me at the kosher butcher: the designs I made by scuffing through the sawdust-covered floor and the way the beheaded chicken ran in a circle before toppling onto its side, after which I lost interest as the bird became less and less bird-like. The butcher de-feathered it, cut off its feet, gutted it, and handed my mother a round bundle wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string. At four years old, I did not understand that the thing doing its death dance on the wooden butcher block was connected to the juicy drumstick I ate with my fingers later that evening.
I watched my mother scrape scales off the chicken feet before she immersed them in water with the rest of the chicken, including gizzards, hearts, and the neck, to make a hearty base for matzoth ball chicken soup.
A real treat was stuffed derma, or kishke, a combination of onion, flour, salt and pepper stuffed into beef intestines, sliced and fried.
Cow’s tongue simmered in a pot for hours. Once cooked, a thick membrane was peeled back to reveal a pink replica of my own tongue, but Jack-in-the-beanstalk-Giant. I stroked my finger along the sandpaper bumps. Fascinating for a child of eight.
Mother never liked my friend Susan because Susan was rich, which we were not, and not Jewish, which we were. I liked Susan because she wore overalls when girls were just beginning to wear blue jeans. I liked her wild side, which my mother found troublesome. One afternoon Susan walked into our kitchen where a plate of uncooked calves brains rested on the counter.
“What’s that?” she asked.
It never occurred to me that there were families in the world who did not savor fried offal, so I answered, “Brains,” as I opened the refrigerator for some Kool-Aid to accompany our Hostess Twinkies, the door squeaking on its hinge like one in a haunted house, perfect orchestration to Susan’s accompanying scream. She ran from the kitchen, shrieking, “Brains? Brains? You’re joking, right? Brains?”
I helped Mother make a delicacy called calves foot jelly, succinctly known in our house as “Foot.” This dish required hooves, boiled for three or four hours. Unimaginable amounts of garlic, paprika and black pepper was added to the resulting grey liquid into which was scraped any meat from the bones. Mother slid the bowl into the refrigerator and waited for it to gel. At dinnertime we savored giggling wedges with horseradish and matzo, crunching on the occasional morsel of gristle.
Another favorite, both to make and to eat, was heart and lung stew. My job: mince the mass of raw, bloody organs mounded on the kitchen table. My tool: a scissors. I snipped the lung, heart and milt (a.k.a cow’s spleen) into bite-sized morsels, ruminating over the alveoli of the spongy lungs, the density of the heart—slippery, dripping innards which my mother combined with other magical ingredients that a few hours later yielded a stew with very brown gravy.
I did not eat brains, but I ate heart, lung, spleen, foot and tongue. (Cannibalism anyone?)
I can see you gagging and laying aside your liverwurst sandwich. But really, what’s the difference between eating the meat that surrounds the organs and eating the organs themselves? What’s the difference between lamb and dog, or horse for that matter, commonly eaten throughout Europe and Asia?
The suburban supermarket where I took my mother shopping in the last years of her life catered to a wide range of ethnicities. I spotted chunked goat wrapped in plastic, looking quite like beef, and jokingly suggested she buy some. But of course, this devout carnivore, this gourmand of foot, brains, heart, spleen and stuffed beef intestines, demurred. What is the difference between eating the bearded billy goat or the uddered cow, I wondered, almost tempted to try the goat myself—does it cross the nebulous line I’ve drawn when it comes to flesh meat? The chicken and fish thing O.K., but the cow and lamb thing not O.K.? Where would goat fit into the complex scheme? I demurred as well. Too red.
My hypocrisies and epicurean ambivalences niggle at me. Why chicken and not veal? Why salmon steak but not steak au poivre, which at one time I indeed savored? I don’t know why I turn my back on beef. Perhaps it is their deep eyes, their patience. Perhaps I’m put off when I see them standing knee deep in mud and manure.
I have long pondered: Are dogs sentient? Absolutely. Chicken? Totally. Shrimp? Yes? Snails? Ants? The Jainists of India won’t eat carrots because lifting them from the soil might kill the larvae around them. Yes, yes, yes.
I suppose I don’t need to explain myself. I’ll just be an ovo-lacto-sometimes-pesco-fowl vegetarian.
That’s what I am.
No explanations.
No excuses.

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