Our strong appetites for every fish from tuna and salmon to orange roughy and monkfish are upsetting ocean ecosystems and polluting the seas, as Jonathan Gold discussed at a Zócalo event. We asked five food lovers — Kogi Chef Roy Choi, photographer Charlie Grosso, Teenage Glutster Javier Cabral, Eater LA’s Kat Odell, and Artbites’ Maite Gomez-Rejón — to tell us: What is the cruelest food you’ve ever eaten? Read their answers below.
What’s so cruel about killing a goat?
When I was in college everybody wore Amnesty International T-shirts and had World Wildlife Federation and Greenpeace stickers but they hung out at pet stores, ate bologna, and went to the zoo. Everybody was against Apartheid yet they clutched their purses when I and my homies from the hood would roll up.
We can eat cows and pigs and chickens and turn a blind eye. But foie gras and whales are cruel? What about all the senseless turkeys we kill for Thanksgiving, our national holiday that glorifies the myth of the Puritan warm heart? Rattlesnakes and alligators and buffalo to be hip. Ducks, crabs, lobsters, tuna, sea bass, lamb, baby cows, squab, quail, trout, elk – these are all beautiful creatures yet we eat them and kill them in abundance.
I’ve killed a goat with my own two hands. I chased him around a dirt field in the desert, wrestled him to the ground, got him in a head lock, looked him in the eye, and slit his throat. We hung him, skinned him, drained his blood, gutted him, butchered him into primals, then sub-primals. We packed him up and took him across the border to Mexicali where we made birria, the most delicious birria.
This was not a cruel moment for me. It was seven in the morning and I learned about the spirituality of cooking and what my responsibility is as a chef. I did not kill this goat out of haste or carelessness. This was a tradition that my dishwasher Salvador’s family has been doing for many generations and he trusted me enough to show me. I had to dig deep to see how special this animal was to the cycle of life and when I looked in his eyes I took his spirit and he became a part of me.
This may sound cruel, but it is not. It is only cruel because it makes you cringe. What is cruel is killing animals on mass-production levels. What is cruel is being numb to the destruction of life.
Buddhist philosophy extols the virtue of living without hurting other forms of life. I try to live that way. I don’t step on spiders or deliberately run over people on the street in my car.
I am making steps each day as a chef to try and serve more vegetables and buy the most humanely raised meat that I can. It is hard, but it is not impossible.
I killed a goat. But that is not the cruelest thing. The cruelest thing is a Chicken McNugget.
–Roy Choi is the chef of Kogi.
Better to eat than to waste
A favorite dish at any Chinese banquette is the shark fin soup. I have eaten plenty of it, year in, year out. Ever since I was young, I knew it was a delicacy. It was special because we didn’t see it often and there was always a bit of ceremony when it is served. I often thought it was just called “Shark Fin” soup and the bits of stringy gelatinous strands were just made out of some unknown matter. After all, Chinese cuisine is filled with imaginative names for various foods. The tapioca balls in the ever-so-popular Boba tea were called “Frog Eggs” when I was young. Frog legs were called “Field Chicken,” and given how much it does taste like chicken, I really believed that it was some form of free-range bird.
It was not until I was much older that I realized that Shark Fin is not a euphemism for anything. Shark fin actually is the fin of a shark. Then at some cousin’s wedding banquet one day, I discovered that the sharks are often caught, their fins cut off, and then released back into the water to meet their untimely ends. I think I was appalled. Yet I believe I finished my portion of the soup that night.
What trumps cruelty-free in the Chinese mind is the waste-not mentality – especially when your grandparents left everything behind in 1949 and porridge is usually what is for lunch. I am certain that I have had shark fin soup since that fateful day when I learned of the shark’s sad end. However, as most of my relatives are now married and my life veers in a direction where Chinese banquettes are few and far between, it has been quite a few years since I have had any shark fins.
Would I eat it again? I think I would. Not because I have no compassion for the shark but because not consuming my bowl of soup in a banquette of a hundred would not have stirred the consciences of the restaurant or the other guests. The only conscience that would be disturbed by my meager objection would be my own – at the fact that I wasted good, clean, edible food.
–Charlie Grosso is a photographer whose latest exhibit is Wok the Dog.
Is it cruel if the prawn is drunk?
It was during my innocent early years of food blogging. I had just turned 18. A select group of food bloggers were called up for this British Television series. The theme was the “Seven Deadly Sins” and this particular episode was for “gluttony”.
And it was television drama at its finest! They portrayed us as some sort of food fetishists who would only eat raw food, and I’m not talking about raw vegan food. We went to a seafood restaurant out in Rowland Heights. There were some native Chinese speakers among us who had heard about their “off the menu” items. And when the dishes came, I think I knew why they were strictly off the menu.
The first dish was “Drunken Shrimp”, where a brimming bucket-full of kicking and screaming prawns were drowned in a pool of potent rice wine. They were done as soon as they were drunk and plastered. You would fetch one of the less-twitchy ones, break its head off, peel off its sticky shell, eat the sweet fresh meat, then suck its brains out like you were sucking a double-wide boba straw. But! Nothing is really cruel when you’re drunk right?
Which brings me to what I think is the most inhumane thing I’ve ever eaten in my entire eating career: live lobster sashimi. This dish made full use of those murky lobster tanks that are synonymous with seafood Chinese restaurants. The chosen lobsters were brought to our table for our approval, taken to the back of the house for five minutes at most, then brought back to the table, severed in half and facing each other. Not to mention still pinching with all their translucent flesh scooped out and served on their dislocated tails, all ready for our top-of-the-food-chain chow down. Their beady eyes followed our chopstick ends and they attempted to defend themselves one last time as we nonchalantly reached over for their ultra-fresh sinewy flesh.
None of us really got paid for anything, but we ended up scoring a several thousand dollar sushi meal at a prestigious sushi restaurant. And that was good enough for me!
–Javier Cabral is the Teenage Glutster.
Hm, good question! Cruelest, well, certainly veal and foie gras can be filed under cruel foods. What a lot of people don’t know about me is that I was a vegetarian for seven years in high school and part of college, simply because I didn’t believe in eating animals. However, toward the end of college I decided I wanted a career in food and that there was no way I could write about food and not eat meat. So, right now I eat anything and everything, though when I am not at a restaurant I do tend to gravitate to veggies. Since I eat out so frequently for work, I eat a lot of foie gras and I do have to say I love it. There are more humane ways to produce foie that have been mostly explored in France, and it’s a shame that people in the U.S. don’t consider this alternative method (save for Dan Barber at Blue Hill). Every time I eat foie, I do feel a tinge of guilt about what I am eating, but I also feel as though it’s my duty as a food editor to eat everything. To me, foie is like this savory, unctuous butter, it simply melts in your mouth and easily fancies up simple crostini. Some of the best foie I’ve had has been at WD-50 in NYC, I love Bouchon’s tub (that jar is huge!) of foie, I’ve had good foie at Cut, oh and I just love the foie gras cotton candy lollipops at The Bazaar.
–Kat Odell is editor of Eater LA.
Crueler than Annie Hall
The cruelest food I’ve ever eaten is live lobster at Sanuki No Sato, housed in an obscure strip mall in Gardena. Did I mention the lobster was live, as in alive? When my friends and I somewhat nervously placed our order I romantically imagined the famous lobster scene from “Annie Hall” being reenacted in the kitchen. Always game for trying new foods – especially those that will give me a good story to tell – I was anxious for our lobster’s arrival. When it came to the table it was enormously regal, its eyes staring straight at us, antennas moving as if pleading for help, its now useless armor cut open revealing perfectly sliced flesh. Lobster sashimi. In my head, Diane Keaton screamed.
I was at once horrified and couldn’t get my chopsticks ready fast enough to dig in. It tasted of the essence of the sea, in all its bountiful glory. It was… fresh.
Did I feel guilty trying it? Yes. Would I try it again? I don’t think I’d want to look into those teeny tiny black eyes again but if presented sliced and on a plate, sure. Does that make me a horrible person, or a mere honest human full of contradictions? I wonder what Alvy Singer would think.
–Maite Gomez-Rejón teaches art and culinary history through ARTBITES.
*Photo of Roy Choi by Aaron Salcido. Photos courtesy Charlie Grosso, Javier Cabral, Kat Odell, and Maite Gomez-Rejón. Photo of lobster courtesy Dalboz17.