I’m used to looking at menus for lunch. Today, lunch was looking at me.
On my way to work today, I got a phone call letting me know that class was cancelled. Rather than turn around and go home, I elected to get lunch…at my favorite restaurant, the joint that makes the soup. I asked the taxi to drop me off at the corner, I walked up the stairs and there it was, a head with horns, the hide and what seemed like ten hooves, all sitting in a pile at the bottom of the portable barbecues rack on the sidewalk.
Seeing a dead face staring at me was, admittedly, a little uncomfortable and a lot unusual. I was wondering if I had lost my appetite…until I turned to the left, where hanging on a rack from hooks, was the carcass. It was hard to believe a head so small housed an animal so sturdy. The body was large and carved into sections. In some parts, it was still dripping blood. It reminded me that it was less than an hour away from walking. I inquired and it was confirmed; the slaughter had just taken place. My immediate and other question was “who did it?” Who cut the throat of this creature for my taste buds? “He left” they said. “The butcher brought it, killed it, skinned it, hung it on the hooks and left.”
There was something unfinished about a sheep’s carcass hanging from a hook. The blood, the butcher’s absence, the fact that the body was hanging in a public square. All these things led me to peer and stare waiting for something to happen. I didn’t know what, but I kept expecting something. Something finally did. This gruesome, violent, inedible carcass started to change. It looked less like a ram and more like a meal. Soon, I found myself wanting to go primal, to descend on it and devour it. Fresh meat, freshly killed food, I’ve had none fresher. “Would you like some for lunch?”, Loor, the restaurant owner asked. I hesitated for a moment wondering if I needed permission then I realized he had just given it to me. I agreed and he instructed the chef to slice off a portion to be included in a noodle dish I picked off the menu. I was going to eat a freshly killed and fattened what used to be calf.
I sat down and wrote, a different piece than the one I’m writing now. Not much later, lunch was served. I let it sit to cool while I was mid many sentences and when I was ready, I asked the waitress for a knife. At first, she knew immediately what I was talking about. She nodded then she caught herself. I could see she was questioning, trying to make sense of what she thought was a curious order. “Why would you want a knife for a plate of pasta with fresh vegetables and small pieces of meat?” I could almost hear her say it. It didn’t come out of her mouth, but it could have. Instead, she dutifully gave me what I asked for, waited for me to acknowledge it was what I wanted, took a seat at the table next to mine, nudged her friend who had been buried in her tablet and they both became my audience. I looked at my food, looked at them, turned over my hands and said “What?” The only smiled and waited intently. I proceeded to cut…not my fresh lamb or my fresh vegetables but my fresh pasta. Last time I ordered this, I had bottomless strands of pasta hanging from my mouth and I was determined not to let it happen again. My audience didn’t know what to make of me and my knife. They half laughed, half teased. They looked at each other and then me and my now cut pasta. I paid them no mind.
The lamb was good, but the pasta is what struck me. As I struck them with my knife, the pasta struck me. It was like few pastas I’ve had before. Though no bigger than fettuccine, it was incredibly thick and extraordinarily dense. “Al dente” didn’t do it justice. In the States, Al dente means “not mush”. Here, it meant firm and almost uncooked. It was as if they dipped the pasta in boiling water rather than cooked it. It was delicious! My college pasta puzzle was solved. That geography professor who visited from Italy, who ordered spaghetti, tasted it, dropped his fork in disgust and refused to eat what he wouldn’t call lunch, opting instead to drink only water? He now made sense to me. Compared to what was sitting on my plate, what he was presented with wasn’t pasta, it was long strings of floury white insult.
In the States, I thought I knew so much about meals. Chickens have no feet, feathers, necks nor heads. Lamb comes from Middle Eastern restaurants and pasta comes from a box. In my travels, I’ve seen something a little different; chicken feet vacuum packed snacks hanging from shelves in convenience stores, sheep heads sitting on sidewalks and pasta that’s been blessed by less water than a parishioner under a Catholic priest’s hand. And once over my confusion, shock, horror or dismay, maybe I’m a little better because of it.