Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Carnal Knowledge: a "butcher's hook" at a Mexican meat market

Mexicans are a meat loving people. They don't often eat it in large, thick, juicy cuts, but as often as they can afford it, in smaller, thinner cuts and portions. Nor do they have a visceral antipathy, but relish odd cuts of offal meats; tongue, cheek, tripe and pata de cerdo (pig's feet).

For those Norteamericanos accustomed to buying their meat is small, plastic trays, sealed in transparent film, the scene in a typical carnicería can be somewhat unnerving. It's a little disconcerting to have a scalded pig's head hanging next you you as you banter with the Jefe de Carniceros and place your order. They are often flanked by various dangling sections of of viscera and cecina, thin sheets of dried, salted meats. It's a very customized experience: name your cut or grind, and the staff will do it while you wait. If nothing else, meat in Mexico is fresh.

You get a pretty good slice of reality in these meat markets. Occasionally you must dodge wheelbarrows of porcine parts pushed by porters though the pulsing pasillos.

My first encounter with a carnicería was in Cuetzalan, Puebla in 1980. It was earthy scene: basically a wooden stall with various cow parts strewn about. I patiently waited my turn, doubt racings through my mind, as the butcher hacked away at a furry cow's leg for the customer ahead of me.
My turn came, and I got a really gruesome looking, raggedly cut of pot roasting beef, with many veins. It ended up in a slow cooker as Carbonnades a la Flamande, simmering away as we explored cave systems in the area.

There are some people who believe that if you eat meat, you should understand and experience the whole process. I absolutely agree in theory, but I definitely prefer to blind myself to the animal's moment of Ultimate Sacrifice and subsequent butchering. That's the way it is. My upbringing didn't prepare me for watching the slaughter.
As a child, I used to revulse at the bloodied spring lamb hanging in the Italian butcher shops, but now I am hardened to the sight of animal parts hanging from hooks. I wouldn't eat chicken for many years after visiting the Kosher live chicken store in Bensonhurst, NY.

Some of our Mexican friends offered us a live guajalote (turkey) last Sunday. Really. We could take it home, fatten it, kill it, pluck and eviscerate it, cook, freeze, whatever, etc. We thanked them, but no, I didn't want to do that.

In the end, we eat less meat here than we did back in the U.S.A. Part of it comes from lingering squeamishness, but part of it is that beef of a quality to which we are accustomed is hard to find. It's also expensive; and with a nice selection of vegetables and fruits available in the mercado at very low prices, we are encouraged to eat more vegetables and less meat. We have not, by any means become vegetarians, but our diet refects a healthier outlook than it did in the Old Country.

More photos of Carnicería La Norteña in the Pátzcuaro mercado here.

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