Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Primordial Soup

My wife has been taking anatomy classes this fall, getting me closer to embracing a fact that I've been secretly flirting with for a while now: the human body is just fucking disgusting. It's true that people, and mammals in general, are less unappealing than the rest of the biosphere by virtue of being occasionally warm, soft, and dry on the outside, but it doesn't change the fact that we're still each of us a nasty sack of salty meat, every body filled up with a squishy assortment of quivering globes and slimy pustules shooting humors and ichors at one another. It's not pleasant to think of animals like this, nor to think of ourselves as animals, but we eat other animals with abandon, slurping them up in liquid bites, sucking down their nerves and veins like spaghetti, invading them on the cellular level with enemy acids and enzymes, apoptosizing their fundamental components, bursting them in our foul gaping maws and slowly turning them into excrement in our own fetid and swollen guts. Milk is one of the most wholesome fluids we can name, right? But thinking about it, it's foul: secreted out of a cow's gland, just like bile or spit, it amounts to a network of microscopic loogies suspended in a chalky plasma, flocculating and floating, splotching onto the sides of the glass, sliding down like a viscous slimy plaque across our equally slimy tongues and lips. Ever drink it warm and fresh? Might as well be sucking down blood or pus.

Our macroscopic topologies are simpler than the scrambled-eggs confusion of the subsystems of organs and tubules would have one believe, with the "insides" and "outsides" defined more by elaborate folds of the same gelatinous sheets than by actual closed-in geometries. On the microscopic level, a bunch of spiderwebbed protein networks and sloshing lipid membranes twist and congeal to make the twelve dozen or so kinds of specialized amoebas that work together to comprise people, transferring information around by nothing more than electrochemical diffusion and redox chemistry. True, a cell has the decency to be walled off and isolated by a little sheet of organized fat, a glorified soap micelle, with other little bubbles floating in it like tiny disembodied eyeballs, chasing around with other biomolecules a gummy little pile of DNA.

The body is, I can hardly deny, a fabulous machine, but the details of it seem needlessly complicated. I don't know what sort of addlepate could look at that pile of Rube Goldberg goop and scream "design," because frankly, it's such a mess that the miracle is less how it works, and more the fact that it works at all. It's as if one could shake up a trillion vats of biomolecules, and one of them might splatter around just so and manage to effectuate oxygen transport or waste removal or process some other damn thing we slathered into the soup, and now it's called life. Woo hoo. The fact that everything's chemical, that everything's diffusion screams inefficiency to an engineer. And isn't each one flawed in some way? Is not a defect-free individual a rarity worthy of celebration? A billion intra- and extracellular chemical signals and channels are a billion things that can go wrong. Never mind the usual macroscopic design flaws (the proverbial recreational areas built on waste sites, the bad knees, the self-destructing prostates, the dissolving bones, the myopia), but the microenvironment is also a mess. One botched transmission mechanism, and it's cancer, palsy, or a hundred horrible and debilitating varieties of autoimmune depth charges ticking away in half the population. Yuck!


None of these things, I'll add, makes me enjoy the experience less, it just makes the whole thing a little more absurd. This grotesque meatbag, beyond all expectations, is conscious, it garners sensation from it's ropy inefficient networks, lets its sloppy gelatinous computer feel a million variants of pleasure, enjoys the existence of all these other grotesque meatbags quite well, thanks very much. The medium is gross, but it doesn't mean that living in it isn't transcendent. In another little bit of divine or cosmic humor, the slimiest bits of us are also the most exciting ones. The drippy twitching orbs in our forehead are our most gorgeous and mysterious aspect. Our slippery, oozing genitals and that overmuscled sphincter of a mouth give the most tangled, overwrought, wrinkly organ of all (our brain) the most sublime perceptions of existence. And there's nothing wrong with that. A smile or a kiss? Making love? Who doesn't live for that sort of thing.


Somewhere in his scathing inside take on restaurant and food culture, Anthony Bourdain made a few points to would-be gourmands wondering why their food isn't as appealing as high-class chef's fare. One of the suggestions he makes is make your own stock, making the point that it's both easy and it tastes far better than the salty yellow or brown canned garbage that they peddle for convenience.

I'll add that the convenience is really overrated at that. Yes, it's easy to open up a can of broth, but it's easy to pull something you've already made out of the fridge too. It takes time to roast bones and to simmer things, I suppose, and there's cleanup at the end, but it's not as if the whole thing requires very much attention. And if you don't go through the minimal effort of making stock, then you'll fail to suffuse your home with the wonderful aroma of roasting things. This alone is worth it--you could go ahead and chuck out the pot when you're done, and just do it to enjoy the savory air freshener of caramelizing carbohydrates, denaturing proteins, rendering fats, and volatilized aromatics. The marketing assholes that brought you GladeTM have a lot to answer for.

If you go into the supermarket with the intention of producing your own broth, you'll find the items that go into it are suspiciously overpriced: it costs almost as much for a pound of marrow bones as it does for an (admittedly subprime) one-pound steak with a bone in it, as much for fatty ham hocks as it does for an actual ham. I'm convinced it's a ploy to sucker the casual cook. If your goal is to cook this way, with stock, it actually requires a cultivation of habit--prep your own meat (within reason--I'll admit I don't always have time) and utilize the scraps instead of throwing them away and then buying bones. I'll try and make stock whenever I cook meat, or sometimes when I've built enough vegetable matter that it has to be used. I've taken to saving the onion tops, carrot peelings, celery leaves and that sort of thing too. Along with the bones and offal, you're giving those foods one last fling at getting some flavor, getting just a bit more out of them, ennobling, perhaps, the poor dumb beast that gave his life for it all. Keep the fat even, and sauté with it, even for that very dish. I've got a goal of preparing a perfect meal this way, with nothing thrown away that I couldn't have extracted an atom of deliciousness from.

All those structures that were once so perilously balanced in the living organism now get broken down into fundamental bits, and you don't need a pound of psychobabble to understand how satisfying it is to smell them, to taste them. I'm bothered by eating some organs (but not others), but the stock pot is an equalizer in that regard, so chuck in the giblets and turn them into broth. A lot of that irrationality (if not all of it) disappears when the meats are broken down into constituent fats and proteins, all the same stuff in the end, and getting them there has such pleasant effects. Maybe in a more just universe, we could absorb all those primordial bits without having to first render plants and animals down to get them. But we are what we are, we have to draw the 'what's food' line somewhere, and it's perhaps an even bigger sin to consume without cognizance, enjoyment, or respect. As the man said, it's only messy when you're doing it right. When it comes to living this life, get the flavor you can.

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