Last week I packed up my bags and my crocks of gizzards. I bade farewell to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, lined with its stately brownstones, bookstores, and bistros, and drove to my new apartment in Flushing, Queens.
A culinary mecca that easily surpasses the breadth of Chinatown Manhattan, Flushing abounds in fresh produce, food stalls, and restaurants. Like any respectable Chinatown, Flushing's storefronts display roast ducks glistening with crispy skin and suckling pigs hanging by the half-side, their porky juices dripping down their snouts. But here in the far reaches of Queens, the variety of food from other Chinese provinces and Asian countries is even more impressive. As I walk down the streets I hear people speaking Mandarin, Cantonese, Fukinese, and Shanghainese among other dialects that I don't quite recognize. For the first time in my life in America, I forget that I am Chinese.
Yesterday on my way to the subway I passed by a shop specializing in dry goods. There was the usual display of jujubes, cinnamon sticks, and wood-ear mushrooms, but on the corner I spied a cardboard box containing dried deer foot. I'd never seen deer feet or considered their culinary and medicinal benefits, but it warmed my heart knowing that should my appetite ever change, I lived just a few blocks away from the source.
I spend a lot of time at the butcher's counter, looking but not buying. It's difficult not to feel affinity with a Chinese meat counter. All the parts that I love are displayed out in the open. Wrinkled pale pink stomachs, like newborn moles, snuggle together in one bin next to heaps of pigs ears and trimmed down snouts. Oxtails are piled a foot high and there is tripe in all its various sections: the honeycomb, the omassum, the lesser-used reticulum.
Behind the counter the butchers are busy hacking with their giant cleavers. The blood of live frogs and fish stain the same counters where pork and beef are cut to size, so water nozzles must be kept at the ready to hose down the surface between orders. Sometimes the smell is bearable and sometimes it is not. The bearable odors are those of tacky floors covered in a sheen of fat and meat juice. Sanitation is often overlooked in favor of the bottom line and when the cleaning does occur, the fumes of bleach mix with that of fresh pork.
The vibrancy of the ethnic market scene can lull you into a sense of familiarity about the meat. Even though the butchers are brusque and matter-of-fact, the rate of the transactions, the openness with which everything displayed behind the glass counters, makes the meat seem more accessible. Yet we know little of the provenance of the meat from Chinese markets, though we can assume that the majority is factory-farmed. I used to buy much of my offal from Chinese and ethnic markets, but once the ideal of sustainably-raised, organic meat is implanted, it's difficult, maybe impossible, to go back.
This problem surfaces in my conversations with butchers, chefs, and conscientious eaters. The consensus is that eating responsibly cannot always take precedence to eating well. You have to go to Chinatown and try things, they say. You have to sit down at the dingy mom-and-pop shop and order the specialty. If it were as simple as seeking culinary pleasure, then we would all find it easier to eat only when we know where our food comes from. But in avoiding Chinatown and other places where terms like "locavore" seem decades away from taking root, we also preclude the revelatory possibilities of a meal. We give up the chance that something as humble as a bowl of noodles, prepared by people who come from foreign lands and speak foreign tongues, can change the way we view not only food, but also cuisine and culture.
I have no answer to this problem, only the intuition that when it comes to our ethical choices about food, we do the best we can. And perhaps it is only by exposing ourselves to the wondrous ways in which people around the world use the whole animal that we can better learn how to waste less of it ourselves. My freezer is filled with meat from sustainable butcher shops and green markets, but my belly is less pristine. So tomorrow I will sit down and eat at a food stand where a few days ago, I watched all the customers order platters of pigs ears and soups swimming with tripe.