Wednesday, February 5, 2014

My Almost Vegetarian Moment in Making Stuffat Tal-Fenek (Rabbit Stew)

I still can’t get over the fact that I’m living on my own and by myself. No parents. No Significant Other. No cats. No plants. Every day I come home and it’s just me to look forward to.

For the last month, I have had to deal with a lot of things. While Skyping and connecting with people online or in person, I have struggled with learning to live with myself. It has been both exhilarating and painful, but I’m starting to see my value and honor who I am as a person. It’s sad that I had to move halfway across the world to finally get to this point, but there you have it.

But then you split them into three categories: emotional, mental, and physical. It’s the mental part of the struggles I wish to share a story with you.

Now, everyone who knows me personally is aware that I am fond of rabbits (see photo to your left for proof). As a child, I grew up with rabbit toys I could put into my pockets or cuddle up with at night. Even the live-in nanny I remember the most had a rabbit for a while. In high school, I had this doodle I made called Super Bunny whenever I wrote in yearbooks or drew in class. Besides having kitties as part of the family, I sincerely hope I get the chance to give a rabbit a loving home when I have the ability to do so.

But here’s the thing: I also enjoy rabbit as a protein source. Rabbit is practically all white meat and the industry of producing rabbit for eating isn’t as industrialized as the others (chicken, beef, pork, etc.). In Malta, it’s a very small farmer sort of deal. For one thing, there just isn’t the space to have a lot of animals on any given farm, and for another, rabbit seems to be only available by demand. You don’t have factory-like conditions for slaughter. You just have single families making ends meet.

For weeks after I came to the island, I was so excited to make stuffat tal-fenek, or the traditional rabbit stew of Malta. But every time I went to the store and inquired about getting a rabbit, they were always out. By chance I went to the Lidl by my work and found the butcher nearby to be open (I still haven’t perfected when stores are actually open… there really isn’t a specific time or day). I walked in to find two young boys and their father behind the counter. The man looks like the stereotypical local butcher: tall, big (like a bear or an ox), muscular, and very friendly. I briefly looked around and asked about rabbit, and he said he had some on hand. Ecstatic and not really observant, I purchased one, and he cut up the carcass while I played peek-a-boo with his little boys (two and four) who were giggling behind the counter.

The rabbit was put into the freezer and saved for a day when I wanted to make it. It wasn’t necessarily labor intensive, merely time consuming. I opened the bag and marinated the thawing rabbit in red wine, garlic, salt and pepper. Again, I didn’t really pay attention or think anything was amiss, and did other things while the meat soaked up the liquid.

After eight hours (I should have done longer like the recipe stated, as the meat was still a little dry for my taste), I cut up the veggies and heated up my large pan to brown the meat. I drooled at the lovely smells of searing meat with the tantalizing aromas of the wine and garlic as I placed them one by one in the pan. And that’s when I realized I should have paid more attention to what the butcher put into the bag instead of letting excitement blur my observations.

He gave me the head.

I stared at the pan for a brief moment in absolute horror, resisting the urge to have the infamously comical “Eek! A mouse/spider!” moment. I looked at the glazed look of the long dead eyes, the teeth with the little tongue lolling to the side, and feeling my stomach turn as I considered the possibility of the brain still intact. And I was still dealing with what I thought was the ears. 


Yup... definitely ears.

Maybe if I had paid more attention and was aware of the head being included as part of my purchase, I wouldn’t have freaked out or almost lost my appetite. But I wasn’t and I  pretty much did. I was suddenly faced with a borderline-vegetarian experience. That head put a face to the meat I was consuming. It wasn’t just a nameless protein source, but once a living thing with a cute twitching nose, floppy ears, and my one of my favorite animals on the planet. A complete being had been in my freezer for a couple of weeks and I hadn’t known.

This is probably the first time I experienced cognitive dissonance so powerfully. I couldn’t handle having a head browning on the pan and threw it away, its eyes looking up at me from the garbage like a horrible zombie nightmare. Then the idea of having a head in my trashcan was even worse, and so I put it out on the curb and went back inside to resume cooking my now faceless meat. As I put the now browned meat, veggies, and the rest of the marinade in a large pot (note: Maltese recipes tend to make copious amounts of anything), my appetite was practically gone. The tantalizing smells were now nauseating. I felt guilty for how easy it was to simply throw away what made me feel so uncomfortable.

Luckily, I had CK and our mutual friends were online and talking on our group conversation via Skype.
Me: So... I'm strongly strongly considering vegetarianism.
CK: Why?
Me: It's because of this stew I'm making. Rabbit stew. The butcher left the head and I didn't realize it. It... startled me.
CK: Eeew.
Me: Yeah... I don't know if it was due to putting cute fluffy thing and dead thing to eat together or that I was legitimately startled by it. I think I'm experiencing cognitive dissonance...
CK [forever the teacher]: Learning is going to happen!
Me: I actually feel the struggle of turning the rabbit into a faceless chunk of meat now…
CK: I'm sorry.
Me: … that I threw away its head because it made me uncomfortable. This is... so new.
CK: Still doing the stew?
Me: Yes. I'm just feeling reflective. And besides, that would be wasteful… and it smells yummy. But it still affected me in a way I've never felt before. I mean, I've seen meat with the faces. I have. In freezers, and when Uncle R roasts a whole pig. But for some reason, this time it affected me. I am more grateful.
CK: *nod*
JS: It may have rattled you because you weren't prepared for it, like you were with the pig roast. You knew that was coming.
Me: yeah...
Later, after much reflection:
Me: Am I a bad person for choosing to eat meat even though I had this realization?
CK: What do you think?
Me: No. I'm not a bad person. [Sudden realization] CK, the reason why I don't eat meat while we visit one another is because I don't -need- to eat it. I enjoy it from time to time, and I can go without it. It's like you and eating gluten free... it's real food regardless. But I'm starting to see that meat was once a living creature with a gender and a life.
CK: I've never thought ill of you for eating meat, Love.
Me: I know that. I'm just worried about thinking ill of myself, which I'm not.
CK: Just be sure that, whatever choice you make, you do it because it is what feels right to you.
Me: Of course, CK. I'd only make a decision like that -only- because it's for the betterment of how I live my life.
The truth is, at this moment I don’t feel the need to go vegetarian completely because it’s so rare for me to eat meat unless I have leftovers. After my experience, I still ate the leftover chicken I had in the fridge. I still heated up the stuffat tal-fenek after a chilly walk home to warm my core with. I still have milk with coffee. I still use eggs in my pancakes. I still add honey to my tea. When CK and I are together, we make vegetarian and gluten free delights because making the foods we love is a way to connect. When we go out to eat, sometimes the only thing I can eat has meat whereas his only option is gluten and/or soy. We don’t think less of each other for it, and it makes enjoying the foods we can eat together that much more special.

But I get it. I do. I understand that there are a number of studies that try to prove that their diet is The Right Diet. I understand why it’s important to know where your food comes from, whether it’s from an animal or from the ground. I also understand this awareness is starting to alter how we look and feel about what we’re eating. There was a passage I read from Jaclyn Bauer’s (2014) “Marshmallow Dilemma: A Vegetarian’s Argument for Realistic Expectations” that really helped me deal with it:
“In the end, I told her everything only mattered as much as she believed it to matter and cared to think that it did. It is of the utmost importance to establish within your own mind your ideologies and morals, but it is equally vital to be flexible to the extent that you don’t drive yourself crazy and make yourself miserable on account of some external thought, idea or action.

Hold on to who you are, but let yourself transform with the passage of time instead of hanging on desperately to one idea you once held on to.”

My concern with going vegan is turning it into a form of control of my diet, and further restricting nutrients and making it a form of disordered eating. With orthorexia just behind me, it has been a slow but steady process from removing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as labels for food and simply honoring what my body needs. And I know there are many practices out there that are absolutely terrible in regards to raising, maintaining, and slaughtering animals for sustenance. I’ve seen the pamphlets. I’ve read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But it doesn’t necessarily make me want to become 100% vegetarian/vegan, although I respect and honor those that do take that path. If anything, it wants me to help create a better environment for animals that happen to be used for food: less process, more compassion, and with human caretakers that treat them with dignity and respect. Those photos and videos simply show what cruelty humanity is capable of, and how important it is to create localized farming movements and dispatch factory farming practices. It makes me want to show the importance of quality farming practices, perhaps basing the sales by orders and need instead of killing in mass quantities to maintain uniformity and expected waste or loss. 

And it also depends on what you grew up with. Family pets in certain places are part of the cuisine in others. Some people see animals as part of the labor force or as nourishment, and some see animals with the same rights we have.

Perhaps it’s only typical in the United States, but I don’t think the average person thinks of the cow that became the hamburger, or the countless chickens used for spicy chicken wings. And to be fair, we don’t ask what goes into our fruits and veggies either. But something shifted in my awareness, because everything I’ll ever eat from this point on had a path before it ended up on my plate. It had roots. It had a face. It lived. It died.

And for what went into this dish, animal and plant alike, I am grateful for the sacrifice in nourishing me.

Stuffat Tal-Fenek (adapted from this recipe) 
1 rabbit, (approx 1.5kg, cut in small portions)*
Sea salt and freshly
500ml red wine
1 tsp. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 Red onions, finely chopped
1 790 g can/5 large tomatoes, finely diced
2 tsp. kunserva (tomato paste)
5 potatoes, cut into small (1 cm) cubes**
3 carrots, coarsely chopped
200 g peas, fresh or frozen
6 bay leaves
Pinch mixed herbs***
Marinate the rabbit eight hours to overnight in the red wine, garlic, salt and pepper in the fridge.****

In a large pot, heat the olive oil, and add the rabbit until slightly brown.
Add the onions, carrots, potatoes and the tomatoes, and pour half of the marinade on the ingredients.
Bring to boil on a high flame for about 15 minutes
Add the remaining wine, peas, bay leaves, kidney and liver and simmer on low heat for about 2 hours, stir occasionally and add some more wine if the sauce begins to dry up.
Serve hot with grated Parmesan cheese.

Makes 6 - 8 Servings.

* Mind the head and organs. While the head startled me, I was excited to have organ meat (such as the heart and liver) since they are so high in nutrients.
** Naturally Maltese Derbies. The original recipe called for peeled and quartered potatoes. While it depends on my mood how big I want the potatoes to be, I hardly ever peel potatoes (unless I’m making gnocchi). I’m of the personal opinion that the peel is the best part.
*** Mixed herbs: parsley, rosemary, thyme, mint, basil, oregano, marjoram, pepper husk
**** I would recommend marinating the meat for at least 12 hours or more. Since rabbit meat is so lean, it can be on the dry side. 

1 comment:

  1. Field dressing an animal is another zen moment. Your hands are inside of something that was living and breathing a few minutes prior. Skinning it is even more of a trip. I respect every bite of meat for the animal that it used to be so much more now for having done that.