At the Estrellas de San Nicolás restaurant the cuisine was what I would call faux haute cuisine, or piss elegant in the vernacular. The menu was a bulky, leather-bound tome, and the entrées printed in a fine, curlicued cursive type that was nearly illegible, and seasoned with lots of French that had me going from Spanish to English and back again, trying to figure out what to eat. The prices were certainly haute, culminating with desserts for 12 euros, or 15 dollars, and up.
Worse, most of all the food was mediocre, falling far short of its pretentious billing. The one compensation was the view: The panoramic and unforgettable sight of the Alhambra at sunset.
What dawned on us yesterday was our unspoken but similar reactions to the menu. For a variety of reasons we wouldn't touch most of the items offered. We don't eat lamb, veal, or God forbid, suckling pig, or snails, clams, octopus or fish served whole with its head intact, one eye looking at you pleadingly, or pretty much any animal-based dish that too closely reminds us of the original. And those are just a few of our dietary objections.
Yesterday Stew and I agreed that we could be in the middle of yet another one of our vegetarian epiphanies, which in the past have been brief and predictably thwarted by the appearance of an irresistible dish, like Cuban-style pork roast or Southern fried chicken.
|Say "no" to soy bacon.|
More recently, a friend here in San Miguel invited us to dinner without warning us that, in a fit of concern for all living things, she had embraced veganism just a couple of nights before the engagement. It was a disastrous, rice-based concoction that triggered the lamest of compliments: "Gee, that was interesting!"
Veganism is out of the question. It's a noble aspiration, very close to sexual abstinence, and it would take a lot of research and development unless we hire our own $100,000-a-year vegan chef as Ellen DeGeneres or Bill Clinton have done.
But another stab at vegetarianism is an idea that keeps coming back, reinforced by childhood memories and recently, living in a small ranch in Mexico.
Stew's uncle Harvey and my dad each imprinted in us our deep love for animals, which of course conflicts with killing and having them for dinner. Customers at my dad's printing shop in a small town in Cuba periodically brought live gifts from the farm, such as ducks, rabbits, chickens and even kittens and puppies.
Once a chicken arrived at home and duly given a name, it was hard to kill it and eat it, though there were exceptions. My maternal grandmother Herminia, a short, stern character with her gray hair always tightly collected in a bun—and who was a phenomenal cook—would prepare arroz con pollo when we visited. Nothing would do but fresh chicken, the kind of freshness that required a live bird that, shortly after arrival, would let out a shriek reminiscent of a bris, on its way to be plucked in a bathtub of hot water.
|Arroz con pollo anyone?|
When arroz con pollo arrived no one talked about animal welfare. Even my dad tried to assuage his own feelings by explaining that the business with the chicken, ahem, was quick and painless, nothing to get weepy about.
Reading and watching shows about animal welfare have compounded our carnivore qualms. "Milk-fed veal" involves the confinement of a very young calf to ensure its meat is tender. "Suckling pig" means offing a piglet before it even knows how to oink. To get fois gras you need to force feed a goose to abnormally enlarge its liver. And so on; perhaps too much information.
Stew and I find other dishes just repulsive. Octopus tentacles with the suction cups staring at you? Sucking the innards from snails? Brains, liver or tripe? No thanks.
In fact, the end of our lamb-eating days came in a farm in Scotland when we arrived in the middle of the lambing season and the kelly-green landscape was covered with hundreds of the meandering little buggers, cute as bugs and innocent and dumb as rocks.
Right now our ranch here is surrounded just-born lambs and goats and veal-grade calves that remind us of our dietary misgivings. Our gardener Félix, an animal softy himself, has a more agrarian view of things. They run around grazing and whatever, he says, until they are killed and eaten. It's silly to go around naming one's individual lambs or goats. For his wedding blast his in-laws contributed a whole cow and someone else a pig.
Stew and I have talked about some carnivore alternatives that respect our concern for animals. But that is a difficult rationalization to follow in Mexico where the animal rights movement hasn't even left the barn. Range-fed beef, humane slaughtering, free-range chickens and other Whole Foods niceties are not on the table. Pigs and cattle are "processed" at a city-owned slaughterhouse and you don't want to even think what goes on there.
Maybe gradual flirting with a vegetarian diet is our most realistic approach, like one or two days a week. Pastas, vegetarian chili and other meat-free dishes.
It's going to be a long, arduous road though, to give up roast pork, ham or fried chicken.
Plus Stew and I are pushing seventy: We'd better find the exit to Vegetarianville pretty soon.