As our regular readers will recall, my partner, Marina, and I are travelling for the summer throughout South America as a means to celebrate the successful defense of both of our PhDs (Read about our travel adventures). Last week I discussed the dietary habits on the Galapagos islands.
This week I will discuss my experience at a local indigenous food market in Latacunga, Ecuador – a town a couple hours south of Quito.
Sitting on a filthy butcher’s table with legs spread open, a toddler drinks fresh cow blood out of a plastic cup. Our eyes meet, as he finishes a gulp, and his face breaks into a grin while blood dribbles out of the corners of his mouth and adds to the Pollock-like splatter of drying blood on his shirt.
“That is the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen”, I tell Marina.
The vampire boy was just one of the interesting sites we witnessed at the Latacunga market, which we crossed on the way to Lake Quilotoa after sleeping among volcanoes the night before. Although the large produce market, containing a myriad of colourful fruit from the coast along with vegetables from the mainland was interesting, it was the meat market that we found particularly alluring.
In North America, we’re used to seeing our meat completely separated from the animal to which it belongs. For all I know, chicken breasts, salmon steaks, and pork chops were grown on a tree. It is certainly easier on the conscience to separate the grilled chicken breast on my plate from the fuzzy, sometimes obnoxious and funny looking animal which likes to run in front of passing cars.
Not so in Ecuador.
If you want to purchase some pork, you better have the guts to stare into the eyes of one of the decapitated pig heads on the counter. Not only are these pig heads massive, many of them exhibit disturbing expressions; mouths open in a grin, tongues sticking out through the crooked teeth, almost mocking you.
I must admit that this kind of close connection between the whole live animal and the piece of carne on your plate would certainly encourage me to at least significantly limit my meat intake. There is simply a much greater level of guilt experienced in purchasing a pork loin, when the decapitated head of the animal is staring at you during the transaction.
Also, while much of the animal goes to waste in North America (or otherwise ends up in a hot dog), every single tissue is consumed or at least sold in Ecuador. Apparently, soup can be made with the most random of animal parts. Also, you can eat deep fried pig skin.
When I think of how industrial and mechanical the processing of meat has become in North America (see Food Inc. documentary for an example), it certainly feels as though we have lost something in the process; particularly, appreciation for the animal from which the meat is derived.
In Ecuador the animals live among the people, and can even be seen grazing on the side of major roads. Even on the Galapagos Islands, the number of chickens I saw easily rivaled the number of blue footed boobies. On the other hand, despite the amount of beef or chicken I may consume back in Canada, these live animals are a complete novelty – I never really see them.
This in itself seems somewhat perverse.
The beef section was equally interesting.
Of course there were a few cow heads hanging around to see how their remains are sold off.
There were also a few calf fetuses on sale.
These are sort of like the fetuses you saw in high-school science class. Unfortunately, these were not in a jar of formaldehyde, but simply laid across a cold metal table right beside the uterus which once contained them.
One calf fetus goes for $15, and makes an excellent soup, according to the woman at the counter.
While it may seem odd to most of us to eat these other parts of the animal, it certainly makes more sense than slaughtering an animal just for its breast, loin, or wing.
Right after posing for a picture with the calf fetuses, I noticed the sound of flesh and bones being decimated at the butchering station in the corner of the market. Three individuals worked in tandem, almost like an assembly line, smashing open the heads of cows and then separating the contents therein.
Apparently even the insides of a cow’s skull are an ingredient included in some recipe (probably soup).
While I openly commend the locals for not letting anything go to waste, I’ll be the first to admit I have serious reservations about consuming many of the animal parts I saw on display – regardless of the deliciousness of their preparation.
Years and years of buying my meat deboned, neatly cut into parts, and Ceran-wrapped has clearly left its mark on me.