One year ago today on Round and Square (21 April 2011)—The Ending of Argonauts of the Western Pacific
|[a] Back track RF|
|[b] Beak to the Future RF|
On the other hand, I do not want to take another approach that a number of sinophiles favor—papering over cultural differences, and especially those that cast Chinese culture in a problematic light from the perspective of Westerners. I wrote this note because I saw "heads" everywhere back then—and more of them on a dinner table than I had ever seen in my life. Understanding that was my top priority. I was naive enough to assume that should settle it.
The duck heads haven't gone away as I have continued in Chinese studies. They are a common beer house appetizer, and have done as much to further "ethnographic" conversations I have had as anything else. Not that it matters, but full disclosure compels me to say that I have never gotten over my resistance. I don't eat them. I must admit that I am not above ordering a plate and a pitcher in the hopes of stimulating conversation among peers, though. I should not be shielded from criticism.
|[c] Eyes RF|
I had already begun to think about these matters a few years before, after reading Claude Lévi-Strauss's The Savage Mind and Marshall Sahlins's Culture and Practical Reason in college. This note only begins to tap into the analytical issues that flow from there. I urge anyone interested in these matters to read these two books and start working back through the details of the world we see (and eat).
|[d] Heads up RF|
"I love fish eyes" is something I have heard from more than a few Chinese friends. Interestingly enough, every time I have told this story to Western students over dinner in China (I have overseen several groups over the years) a seemingly macho young man has headed straight for the eyes and popped them into his mouth. This has happened four times (four different people). In every case, the triumph was followed by unease and lengthy silence. Culture (and the culinary) is like that. So is individuality.
When it comes to Peking Duck, nothing is left to waste. This has gotten me thinking about heads in the kitchen, as well as on the table. I let my host have his fill of the duck head and most of the fermented doufu. The latter is all about texture and smell. The former, though, is more problematic. Eating heads is not peculiar to Chinese culture, but it certainly is new for me. Cultural barriers still tower over my understanding, and this is one area that remains particularly fuzzy.
Some of my friends are quite passionate about heads, and this appears to be the other side of a significant cultural gulf. For example, the Chen family—very wealthy, urbane, and discerning when it comes to culinary matters— took me to a Taiwanese restaurant one afternoon a few weeks ago. Among other things, we ate a whole fish, which is the common way of preparing the beast here. Skillfully wielding her chopsticks, Mrs. Chen lunged immediately for the head and poked out the eyeballs. (“Out, vile jelly. Where is thy lustre now?”). Chomping happily, the iris presumably tucked in her gums, she turned to me and said: “I can’t help myself. I love fish eyes!”
|[e] Tails up RF|