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Mundane Atrocities

5 June 2011 11,097 views 3 Comments

by Purun Cheong

I’ve done some terrible things in my life. I’ve dropped confused lobsters into pots of boiling water, watched without remorse as they flailed around in a desperate but ultimately futile attempt to escape a searing death, and eaten their sweet, chewy flesh with melted butter. I’ve watched with fascination as a live octopus was hacked to pieces with a cleaver, dumped into a spicy red broth, and eaten with sesame oil as each individual limb wrapped around chopsticks reflexively, as if in disbelief of its own death. I’ve smashed crabs open with a wooden mallet, dug through the broken shells for the slightest sliver of meat, and tossed the rest without any remorse onto an growing mountain of bodies. And no, I don’t regret committing these crimes against seamanity.

I love seafood. Some of my favorite eating experiences have revolved around devouring critters of the sea in ways that would upset children who have just watched Finding Nemo or the Little Mermaid. Come to think of it, the scene where Sebastian nearly gets cooked alive by the outrageously French chef in the Little Mermaid always struck me as funny rather than horrifying.

Lunch, May 15th, 2010. My cousin Clara decided to treat me to a meal, as it had been my birthday a few days prior. Clara had made it her mission to show me the best that Washington, D.C. had to offer, so I found myself at Hank’s Oyster Bar, one of the better seafood restaurants in our nation’s capital. Perhaps it was inevitable that, as two former New Englanders, we gravitated towards an orgy of gastronomical violence against shellfish.

We started off with a round of oysters on the half-shell. Everyone should have the opportunity to taste a few raw, slippery, briny, oysters served on a bed of crushed ice. Sprinkle a little lemon juice, a dab of cocktail, then slide it down the hatch, and enjoy the sweet taste of the ocean without all the saltiness that comes with drinking seawater. And then have another, or a dozen. Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the 18th century author of The Physiology of Taste, wrote of French revolutionaries who would eat a gross (that is, a dozen dozens) of oysters in one sitting before starting their meals. Even though it was the food of royalty, it was a lot more affordable back in those times, before years of overharvesting and several diseases depleted the oyster beds, sending oyster prices through the roof to the altitude we’re familiar yet uncomfortable with today

Oysters are bivalves—two-shelled mollusks, whose ranks also include clams and mussels. Because they have extraordinarily strong muscles that allow them to stay safely shut in case some predator wants to eat them, we don’t show the mercy of killing these shellfish before cooking them. Instead, we leave them to die somewhere in the cooking process, coaxing them out of their shells by boiling them alive or smoking them out. You can immediately tell which bivalves were alive and thus unlikely to give you food poisoning when you drop them in boiling water, because they react visibly to the sudden and deadly change in environment. So it’s often necessary to cook these animals while they’re alive and happy inside their shells, even if you want to smash each individual one open with a rock à la sea otter. You just can’t take chances.

Growing up as a New England-Korean, I enjoyed my fair share of clam-based dishes. Clams in spicy seafood stews, clam in plain seafood stews, creamy clam chowder, clambakes, deep-fried clams, I could go on and on. Every single time we cooked clams, my dad would explain why we prepared the clams a certain way. He’d explain that the clams sat in a pot of water before we cooked them because “that’s how we get the sand out of the guts.” When the only thing you’re digesting for hours is water, whatever else was in your system is naturally purged, helping those who are about to eat you avoid an unpleasantly gritty experience.

After we dumped the sand-free clams into the boiling water, he’d watch as they cooked, pointing out, “Look, you know that they’re ready because they’re waiting, and then the heat is just too much for them, and suddenly they open up as if to say, ‘Ouch it’s hot!'”

He’d chuckle as the clams open up one by one, suddenly and at the same time slowly. It always gave him so much amusement for some reason, but all I see is their shells gaping wistfully as if to say, “But so much was left unfinished…” I never understood the expression ‘happy as a clam.’

In Japan, there is a rich tradition of ikizukuri, sashimi that is prepared alive. The sashimi is the freshest that it can possibly be because technically, the flesh isn’t dead yet. I saw on TV how the chef nets a fish out of the tank and stuns it, usually with an acupuncture needle applied to a strategic pressure point, before filleting the still-living fish. The sashimi is then presented on the platter, sometimes arranged on the body of the fish in a macabre mockery of its former self, the fish’s heart still beating as it flaps weakly (it doesn’t have the muscles to move any more than that) to the delight or disgust of the customer. In some cases, the chef puts the skeletal fish back in the tank to let it swim around while the customer finishes the first course, in order to keep it fresh for the next course, a soup. Either way, I can’t imagine waking up to find that all my muscles have been surgically removed. It’s a great way to remind yourself that what you eat comes from a living creature (in this case, still-living as you eat it), but I don’t know, it sounds expensive.

On the menu that day, there also happened to be a soft-shell crab sandwich served with homemade coleslaw. The crab is at its most vulnerable when it has just molted, like someone who has just taken off their clothes to change into a new outfit. No one wants to be discovered when he or she is exposed like that, but crabs are delicious when you catch them that way and deep-fry them in oil. I wonder who first discovered that freshly molted crabs could be eaten shell and all without severe gastric repercussions. It didn’t seem completely intuitive or safe to me.

I decided to get it since I had never had a soft-shelled crab before, and they happened to be in season. As I looked at the crab legs sticking out from between the lightly toasted buns suggesting that the sandwich contained one whole crab, I wondered whether the crab had somehow willed its new shell to grow harder before someone snipped the soft area between the two eyestalks to kill it instantly, which would make my digestive system extremely unhappy. But I shouldn’t have worried, the crab was rich and crunchy and entirely edible but ultimately too fleeting an experience.

For my transient pleasure that day, several oysters who had been chilled into a stupor were violently opened with a knife and severed from the shell that protected them, a couple who might have still been alive asphyxiated in shot glasses of sake. A crab’s worst fears were confirmed when it was caught at its most vulnerable and deep-fried. It could have been a different meal, but the end would have been the same, empty shells left on beds of ice like broken bodies and puddles of bluish-black hemolymph pool in the middle of plates like blood at the scene of a crime, mixing with drops of butter or tartar sauce. Even if it isn’t so obviously violent, like a lobster roll with its warm, rich chunks of lobster slathered in mayonnaise and placed lovingly in a soft bun, if you think about it, that’s pretty messed up.

Some people consider eating a luxury item like lobster as sandwich filling to be a bit extravagant. Then again, lobster wasn’t always a food for the rich. Back when lobsters washed on the shores of Maine and people could pick them up from the beach by the bushel, lobsters were a food of the poor. In fact, back in the 18th century some lucky servants had agreements so they weren’t forced to eat lobster more than twice a week. When the wealthy started to notice that lobsters tasted delicious, the lobster was overharvested to the point that now the cost of lobsters at restaurants is always the dissuasive two words ‘market price.’

But lobster was relatively affordable in the New England of my childhood. My family would often go to the outlet stores in Kittery, Maine, and we would always have lobsters for dinner at a nearby lobster shack. We’d order platters of shiny red lobsters with steam still rising from their bodies, smelling like warm seashells. As a kid I loved cracking the bright red claws and legs with a nutcracker and picking out the meat with my fingers and dipping it in melted butter. It was so much fun, I always insisted on having the claws and legs, leaving the less interesting tail and body portions to my parents. I always thought I was getting the better deal, but only now do I belatedly realize that my parents weren’t particularly upset about being forced to eat lobster tail since it’s the tastiest part.

Although cracking lobsters open and seeing the clear juices flow out can be a lot of fun, it can get tedious by the second or third set of lobster legs. I always wondered how lobster shacks prepared so much fresh lobster meat for their rolls. The simple guess would be that they shuck them all by hand, spilling bluish hemolymph and green organs all over their hands and clothes as they coaxed lobster meat out of the shell. Seems like a lot of messy manual labor. But a few months ago, I read an article in Wired Magazine about a machine affectionately known as the Big Mother Shucker to the employees of Shucks Maine Lobster. It’s a water compression chamber that pumps the water up to 40,000 pounds of pressure per inch, or twice the force felt at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. At such pressures, the lobsters are instantly killed as cellular activity ceases and the flesh disconnects from the exoskeleton, allowing the meat to slip off like a crustacean glove. There was no mention of how quickly the water pressure rose, but I’m guessing the lobsters would feel it a bit as they were stripped alive and their organs exposed to very painful amounts of water pressure. It sounded like one of the freak accidents in sci-fi horror films where someone accidentally gets trapped in a pressurized chamber, though the movies have messier results. There was a picture of the shucked lobster in the article, and it looked surprisingly like an intact lobster, only its body was a fleshy pinkish color. The naked lobster would have blushed with shame if the Big Mother Shucker hadn’t already blasted it into oblivion.

On occasion I have gone beyond idle curiosity and felt what some may call a “pang of conscience.” I was at a seafood buffet in Thailand, picking up some rock lobsters off the grill. Rock lobsters are the grey, flat, ugly but perfectly acceptable cousin of the regular lobster. I flipped one over and noticed a clutch of shriveled white eggs attached to its belly. It was a mother. To be precise, she would have been a mother. She had been carrying around her eggs, protecting them until they matured and hatched, at which point she would be released from her maternal duties.

But it was not to be. She was caught by a Thai fisherman who sold her to the hotel restaurant along with other rock lobsters. Imagine her fear as she fought for space in cramped quarters with other rock lobsters who were no doubt eyeing her eggs to see if they would be a tasty meal. She thought the worst was over when she was taken out of the bin, until a chef tossed her onto a red-hot iron grill. She curled up and died in the flames, trying her best to make sure her children avoided the same fate she was about to face. Even though I had no direct hand in her death, my first thought was, “what have I done?” My second thought? “I seriously hope those eggs don’t ruin the taste.”

The undisputed king of roe is obviously caviar, the black pearls of the sea extracted from sturgeons. Served with champagne or vodka, fine caviar is so expensive that even the smallest tins are priced at exorbitant numbers, and those that come from Beluga, Ossetra, or Sevruga sturgeons seem more like abstract concepts than actual food. There has been no time in recent history where caviar has enjoyed anything close to the peasant food reputation of lobsters or oysters. After all, was it not Shakespeare’s Hamlet who, regarding a play unappreciated by the masses, quipped “twas caviar before the general?”

My opportunity to actually try caviar wouldn’t come till much later. My family was having dinner at the Walker Hill Hotel in Seoul, and my dad noticed almost immediately that on one of the serving tables was a small container of black caviar, complete with bone spoon. I tried a little and found it to be salty but otherwise unworthy of a revisit, but my dad had other ideas. Per usual dad buffet logic, eating as much of with the expensive dishes would result in a profit so naturally, eating a lot of caviar should be the perfect solution. And that is precisely what he did. While the rest of my family was trying out different dishes, there my dad was, piling on as much caviar and crackers on his plate as was socially acceptable, perpetuating a meal that never reached its main course. By the end of the night, to my mother’s great embarrassment his tongue was stained blue with the juice of who knows how much caviar. If the caviar was indeed genuine sturgeon caviar, he must have cost the hotel hundreds if not thousands of dollars worth of caviar. He kept on reminding us on the drive home and many days after that how much caviar he had eaten in monetary terms, although I don’t know if he was telling us or himself.

A while later, my dad returned from a business trip to some Eastern European country and brought home a small tin of caviar. We spread a little dab on some crackers and tasted it. The caviar was oily and salty, but I didn’t know what else it was. My father made a face, and said, “You know, I don’t think the caviar at the Walker Hill buffet was the real thing.”

The “real thing” is harvested from sturgeons in the Black and Caspian Seas. Historically, caviar was produced by clubbing a female sturgeon and extracting the ovaries while the fish was stunned, making the sturgeon somewhat of a nonconsensual egg donor. This usually meant that the female sturgeons were no longer of much use to the fishermen, so they were killed if the clubbing hadn’t done its job already. Nowadays most caviar farmers surgically remove some of the roe from the females in a procedure similar to a caesarean section, allowing the sturgeons to live to produce more caviar to be surgically extracted. Apparently we can’t harvest the eggs that the sturgeons have already laid like we do for bird eggs, I’m assuming because that would ruin the taste.

I have a theory that we do such terrible things to seafood because they are in many ways mysterious and incomprehensible to us. Human beings have had a history of acting rather unkindly to that which they don’t know or understand, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we managed to make a culinary tradition out of doing awful things to the unknown. After all, we know more about the moon than we do about our oceans, which are filled with fantastical and terrifying creatures. Some of the ones that have been discovered look and act in absolutely horrifying ways, like the giant squid, the giant clam, and the giant jellyfish. There are a lot of giant things in the watery depths, things that wouldn’t think twice about taking a bite out of a small human child or push around a researcher trapped in a tiny, tiny submersible miles below sea level. Underwater, no one can hear you scream.

But scary things don’t always come in large packages, and they’ve been discovered far before we invented deep-sea expedition vessels. You may not have seen a lamprey, but you’ve definitely seen creatures inspired by its funnel-like mouth filled with endless rows of sharp teeth in countless science fiction/fantasy horror movies, like the sarlacc in the Return of the Jedi. Eating a lamprey wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind if I found it caught in my net (more likely I would be screaming and sobbing hysterically while bashing it with an oversized object before flinging it as far as I could back into the water), as it seems more like a creature that you would put into a pool in large quantities for the purpose of torturing a dashing British MI6 agent and his buxom companion. Vedius Pollio of ancient Rome had a similar idea, but his plans to execute a clumsy slave by tossing him into a pond filled with lampreys was thwarted by the emperor Augustus.

But people do eat lampreys. Supposedly lampreys have a meaty flavor that many noblemen in the Middle Ages enjoyed while refraining from eating meat during fasting periods. Queen Elizabeth II was served lamprey pie for her coronation in 1953, and to this day lamprey is a highly prized delicacy in southwestern Europe. But if you are the type who would enjoy lamprey stewed with rice and Portuguese spices, don’t overindulge. King Henry I of England died after eating too many lampreys.

When I was in Bangkok with my family, we took a tour by boat through the canals, a day or two before the rock lobster incident. We paused briefly by a Buddhist temple and saw a local guide from a nearby boat toss a loaf of bread overboard into the water. The water immediately exploded in a roiling mass of arm-length fish flipping and twisting over each other as they tried to grab a bite of the loaf. The guide told us that these were temple fish, because they could be found near temples where people would throw offerings into the water, and a popular fish to eat in Thailand. Sounded harmless enough. I learned later that they were actually snakeheads, ferocious aquatic predators that ate a variety of smaller fishes, rodents, and birds, and most disconcertingly, could breathe and move out of water. Supposedly they’ve attacked humans (albeit underwater and only when protecting their young), leading to some hysteria in the US about killer fish that could crawl on land to attack our dogs and our children.

It would be funny if it weren’t so terrifying. Good thing that they’re eaten with impunity in Southeast Asia. Snakehead grilled on a skewer sounds delicious.

Here’s another heart-shriveling fun fact: scallops can swim. If you thought their piercing blue eyes and rows of teeth-like feelers gave you the creeps, try watching a video of a scallop flapping madly as it propels through the ocean, no doubt prowling for a human toe to bite off. I feel like eating a plateful of seared scallops and enjoying every salty sweet bite just thinking about it. Every scallop I eat will be one less trying to kill me. “But scallops are plankton eaters,” one might argue, “there’s no reason why they would try to eat you or any of us.” This is true. They don’t try to eat us, because they know that we eat them. As long as they fear us, we won’t be overtaken by them.

Because I am convinced that one day the sea people will emerge from the ocean to enslave mankind. They’ll go after the Japanese, the Scandinavians, all of those seafaring people to exact bittersweet revenge on those who have decimated untold generations of undeserving fish families. And of course, they’ll come after me. I won’t-no, I can’t make any excuses for the horrible things that I’ve done to their brethren. They’ll sentence me to a swift death for the inexcusable atrocities I’ve taken part in. They probably won’t honor my last meal request of clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, thinking it monstrously cheeky. If I had any last words to say before a burly crustacean executes me, they would be to that expecting mother rock lobster I ate in Pattaya: I am sorry, I will always be sorry because I know you didn’t deserve what happened to you, but you were delicious with hot sauce.

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  • Young Jin

    Could your cousin Clara possibly be Clara Chung? The singer?

  • Clara

    Unfortunately not Ms. Chung, although she does sing, on occasion.

  • Bong Soon & Clara

    Well Done Purun! Congratulations on your graduation.