Animal, The Restaurant

A couple of nights ago I had a dream about a restaurant where a whole animal, fur and all, was curled up as if asleep in a giant frying pan.  It's no mystery why I had the dream--my bedtime reading was an article in the New Yorker about an L.A. restaurant called "Animal."  Not "Jim's Steakhouse" or some such. The point of the name is to shout out "we turn animals into food."  Of course, most restaurants do that, but this one is proud of the fact.

And boy do they ever--turn animals into food.  Here's a meal ordered by Mario Batali, another restaurant owner--five pork bellies, the "poutine" (huh?), two pig ears, two gnocchi, two sweetbreads, two quail, two fluke,  two crispy rabbit legs, two pork ribs, two flat irons medium rare/rare, two veal breasts, "and no fuckin' vegetables."

What else does the restaurant serve?  There's "lamb-tongue ravioli, lamb-heart paprikas, deviled lamb kidneys, veal brains grenobloise, " and recently the chefs have been experimenting with veal testicles.  They seem to be a sensitive couple of guys.  Here's one of them, waxing poetic about tofu--

"I had this weird thing last night" Dotolo said recently.  What, did he have sex with his wife?  No. "I was, like, eating tofu, and I was, like, thinking about how much it reminded me of, like, bone marrow and, like, brains and, like, that weird texture--like, soft, a little bit gelatinous.  But the flavor of tofu is, like, so yelchth.  I'll think about that now for, like, maybe a year befire I think about something to do with it. I think it'd be fuckin' hilarious to do tofu at Animal, just because it throws people off so much."

Hilarious!  Or maybe even, like, fuckin' hilarous!

Earlier that day, I had read a post about food at Jerry Coyne's blog.  It was an interesting reminder of my former self.  That used to be me--the attraction to super-authentic food like barbecue, and szechuan cookery, the whole thing. In fact, I grew up eating the sort of stuff Mario had for dinner--the pigs ears, sweetbreads, quail, rabbit, everything. In "real world" terms, there was no difference.  But there was a difference of attitude.  We never relished the idea that we were turning real live animals into food. To tell the truth, the animals were "out of sight, out of mind." The only thing I couldn't get into was tongue.  When you see a tongue lying on a plate it's impossible not to think of the mouth that used to house the tongue.

I am repulsed by Animal and it's ostentatious animal-to-food conversions, but feel a bit nostalgic about my former self's approach to food.  Having food rules is particularly a problem when traveling.  I will be visiting Italy soon, and hate to miss the local food. And yet, and yet.  Here's Barbara King, talking about the problem of carnivorous Italy.  And I'm just a vegetarian. A vegan would miss out on far more. Here's an ex-vegan talking about how the travel problem became a deal-breaker.
Bologna, Italy (known for its amazing food): I convinced my partner to go to the only vegetarian restaurant I could find out about in all of northwestern Italy. It was a total throwback to the 1970s. A tofu sausage rolling around on a plate with some boiled vegetables and alfalfa sprouts (this was listed as the hot dog option). I think the only thing that tasted good was the mustard.
Levanto, Italy: We were staying at a beautiful agriturismo olive farm up in the hills above the town. The woman who owned the farm came by our patio in the morning while I was having coffee to offer us fresh eggs, still warm from her hens. She had this lovely smile on her face and when I had to turn them down, her face just dropped and I felt like such an ungrateful asshole. We then walked to the horrid supermarket nearby to buy stuff for breakfast. How I couldn’t see the lunacy of this at the time completely baffles me now.

I wouldn't set foot in Animal. I'm not going back to being my former self, despite some nostalgia. But I don't think I want to become a person who turns down fresh eggs at an Italian olive farm.   I'm not sure I can defend that, philosophically, but that's the way it is.


What? I surfed over to the Animal website, and couldn't believe my eyes.


Unknown said...

A lot of my veggie friends are surprised when we go to Chinatown or Flushing and all the tofu dishes are served with tons of meat. It seems tofu was used to extend meat and absorb its flavors, not to replace it, in traditional Chinese cooking.

But overall, I would think the Animal approach is a better one. It makes it clear you are consuming an animal, which is bound to lead more people to vegetarianism. I honestly think the presence of various organs in my fridge is what drove my roommate into that diet.

Last time I went to a farming conference we also had a few vegetarian converts after the chicken slaughter workshop.

If people aren't comfortable eating animals, they shouldn't eat them. Too many people continue eating animals because they are in the form of filets or chicken tenders.

Jean Kazez said...

OK, I can appreciate the honesty, but there's a sort of boastfulness here. It's the difference between wearing leather shoes and wearing a fox stole with the head of the animal intact. The name "Animal" says "We kill animals here!" Why so proud?

Taylor said...

Why the boastfulness? A number of reasons. I'm sure you've read Carol Adams and other like-minded feminists: it's a macho thing. I eat meat, therefore I'm a real man. I dominate animals; I dominate women; I dominate nature.

In his book Meat: A Natural Symbol, Nick Fiddes argues that meat is esteemed not in spite of its consequences for animals but precisely because of those consequences and what they symbolize: our mastery of the non-human world. Think about that. It's not an uplifting thought but I believe there's something profound there: we like to harm animals. It makes us feel special. Which brings us straight to Wesley J. Smith's "human exceptionalism". Our right to harm non-humans the guarantee of our special moral status.

Then there's the reaction to a feeling of unease about some issue: one makes jokes about it; one boasts about it.

To put it simply, perhaps these guys are just jerks with small appendages.

Jean Kazez said...

I can understand wanting to show that you're not squeamish (brains? big deal...why's that especially gross?). But I think you're right there's more to it. Macho, domination, etc...but I think Carol Adams underestimates how much women like steak. Me, 17 years ago--I used to like hamburger raw. A very rare steak was my favorite thing.

I love (using the word in a special way) that stuff about human specialness (we're so moral!!) and how it means we can kill animals. It is wondrously twisted.

Taylor said...

I love your "wondrously twisted". It's the kind of phrase William Morris might have used to describe some ancient woods in medieval England. But it perfectly describes the pretzel logic of Smith et al.

s. wallerstein said...

Eggs on an Italian farm are probably not factory-produced, so enjoy.

It's better that people who eat meat eat animals, maybe not better for the animals, but better for us, that is, for us, people. It's better for us that the cards are on the table, that everyone is clear about what they are doing. A dialogue is possible with someone who eats animals, but it is difficult to talk with someone who is unaware of what he is eating or who in general is unaware of what he is up to. A life filled with those who are clear about the options that they have taken is perhaps more frightening than one where people are unaware of what they are up to or repress their awareness, but it is more enlightening. Being aware of what one is doing, whether it be good or bad, is a positive ethical value, for me at least. In any case, the impact of the animal rights movement has been such that less and less one will meet innocent meat eaters and more and more one will meat animal eaters, just as today one does not run into 1950 machistas (totally unaware that they are machistas), but with conscious machistas.

s. wallerstein said...

That should read "meet animal eaters", not "meat animal eaters".

Jean Kazez said...

Taylor, I was going to say "wonderfully" but I wanted to make sure I wasn't misunderstood!

Better to eat animals...Hmm. I do detect a boast in the restaurant's attitude, and I do think that's unadmirable.

Mel said...

Taylor: Sounds like an interesting book. Is it wrong to take a more sympathetic view of humans' carnivorous ways in light of our evolutionary history? While we do enjoy the feeling of mastery over nature/animals, is it really as sadistic as what you describe? Afterall, we are "thrown into this world." Does the polar bear like harming seals, or do spiders like sinking its fangs into its prey? Luckily we have the freedom to create ourselves -- our humane vegetarian selves or our conscious omnivore selves.

Faust said...

I think this dominion stuff plays a role, but I think it's way over reading things. It also raises the "HEY LIBERAL ELITE IVORY TOWER OVER HERE" flag a a little too high.

Here is a fact:

(F) Humans are biological omnivores.

As it happens some people feel like they are flourishing (in the Aristotilian sense) when they eat meat. It makes them happy. They are OK with killing animals. They see no problem with it. It's NOT connected to "exceptionalism." You can create complicated psychological profiles of their unconscious Freudian drives all day if you want, and there might be some truth in it, but it's also spinning a lot of BS. It's frequently a hell of a lot simpler. It's just animals (humans) at the top of a food chain eating other animals and celebrating it.

Are there lots of "rationalizations" generated by the culture to deal with the discomfort generated by violence? Yes. Same way we generate the same rationalizations for situations where we go and drop bombs on other people. LOTS of other people.

But the base logic is simple:

Us/Not Us. It applies equally to animals as it does to ANY tribal exceptionalism. And in the case of animals it rides easily on natural humans drives that can be overcome, but which some people see no reason to overcome. If you don't see the reasons, if you LIKE hunting, and skinning, and packing, and preparing meat, then you're just not on the same plane as someone who finds those things disgusting.

Faust said...


rtk said...

I'm not a bit surprised by the Animal Chefs joining with Jeremy Fox. If you love to cook, the idea of doing veggies only is exciting, or using only wild food, like turkey with agaricus and dandelione - that sort of thing. One restaurant I went to specialized in chicken everything, nothing but chicken products to make soup to dessert. Fun idea.

But in my ideal world, we would only eat meat from animals that dropped dead of old age. Yes, the brains, offal, the whole thing.

Jean: ever had chocolate covered ants and bees?

Bottom line: cooking is fun. Occasional limitations are challenging. New ideas, Yes!

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, any time you have to cook within a set of constraints, it's fun. For example: there are exactly 3 edible items in the fridge. What can you do with them? I confess to being a fan of "Iron Chef" on the food network. It's all about constraints.

Will said...

I'm a vegetarian, mostly-vegan (vegan outside the home), and was more or less completely vegan for a good 16 years. I think that, over time, my opinions have become slightly more moderate; certainly, dating a non-vegetarian for over 4 years has forced me to do some thinking about ethics and diet, and some of the recent writing on food (Michael Pollan, though I disagree with some of his conclusions, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mark Caro's "The Foie Gras Wars") has also been very thought-provoking.

But while the brashness of Animal (and the insanely animal-heavy concoctions they come up with) is definitely a macho thing, I think it bears keeping in mind also that they are working with a lot of offal; things which a lot of people would ordinarily refuse to eat.

I personally think that the refusal to eat the "whole animal" is part of the problem with our current system. While I'd love to see everyone become vegetarian, I don't think that's likely to happen in the forseeable future. Therefore, the only way move towards some level of balance to our agricultural system is for people who do eat meat to eat more parts of the animal. Folks who are cooking with a lot of offal are, in their own tiny way, helping to offset the impact of our incredibly wasteful society.

And yes, I also think it's a good thing for omnivores to understand / recognize that they are eating an animal. I don't necessarily think, though, that all, or even most, people who make this connection will become vegetarian. In China, for example, people have historically eaten less meat than the current American diet, eat more of the animal, and people are confronted with entire animals (live or dead) in markets and restaurant. Yet even so, aside from religious vegetarianism, mostly practiced by monastics, vegetarianism is almost unheard of. So I am not sure that the "if slaughterhouses had walls..." statement is entirely true.

Will said...

ps - I am going to the dinner that Jeremy Fox is doing this Wednesday, so if I remember, I'll try to post about how it was.

Jean Kazez said...

I'd love to hear about Jeremy Fox night! Re: offal. Interesting point, but wouldn't it wind up in pet food if people didn't eat it?

I also find Michael Pollan appealing, even if not 100% convincing.