Cruel food

Dear Uma: Your American Girl Scouts are getting deeper and deeper into the palm oil; it is now revealed that many of the plantations use child or slave labour. The US Girl Scouts PR people may be a oily bunch, but they are not very bright.

Dear Uma:

Your American Girl Scouts are getting deeper and deeper into the palm oil; it is now revealed that many of the plantations use child or slave labour.

The US Girl Scouts PR people may be a oily bunch, but they are not very bright. When the story broke about the palm oil in the Scout cookies the US Girl Scouts highly trafficked Facebook page was soon plastered with comments and suggestions from individual Scouts, their parents, and cookie buyers regarding this questionable ingredient; no one wanted to be forced to choose between their Thin Mints and the well being of orangutans.

With the news of the slaves and children as a labour force, the whole issue became even more inflamed. The response of the PR folks was to erase all the comments from the page, a move which has led to the exposure of even more corruption and nasty doings on the part of many of the businesses concerned in the manufacture of Girl Scout cookies.

When I learned that the annual sales of the cookies is $700 million, it all made sense; there is almost always a bad smell when there is that much money involved. That sum guarantees enormous financial gains for someone other than the young women who sell the goods. The Girl Scouts are the bottom of this pile of profits for certain; one need only look at their uniforms to realize they are only getting a narrow slice of this pie of profit. With this sort of cookie dough they ought to be wearing designer duds and carrying Prada bags.

All this reading about cookies reminded me that I am hosting a dinner this weekend. It was to be a celebration of spring but the arrival of several inches of snow changed all that. The venue is now indoors, and it has now been dubbed a celebration of ‘sprinter.’ The menu also needed to be altered from one of gazpacho, salads and cold cuts to one that would give some warmth and comfort for my downcast guests. I went in search of something that would not only be suitable but might also be different from my usual safe culinary endeavours, something that would not only perk up my diners but would also offer me a challenge in its creation.

Some substitutions will be called for, but I am used to that by now and have become fairly good at finding things that work. There have been some odd results from time to time, but on the whole my efforts have been edible, and have even been described as memorable. OK, there have been some less-than-perfect presentations at my dining room table, but there is no one in the North who has not experienced a similar event. Yes, I have had possibly more than my share, but you cannot deny my perseverance, my willingness to continue the quest for fine and novel food.

The first really interesting recipe I found was a French one, though it is also said to be popular in western Asia. This is truly a rare and special dish; a diner will pay up to $4,000 for a single meal. Although the sale of the main ingredient, ortolans, was illegal once they achieved ‘threatened species’ status, it was not illegal to eat them, a fine point which only the French understand.

I feel I must warn you, this recipe is not reading for sissies; if you are feeling particularly tender-hearted, skip it and come back on a day when you are feeling stronger. I shed some tears in the beginning but I believe we must embrace the universe of foodstuffs around us, and in doing so respect the cultures that create it. In our own era of industrial meat, with its bolt guns and injections and so on, we cannot really say much about how other cultures treat the creatures they eat.

Firstly, if one is a purist, one must find a source for ortolans, a tiny bird that belongs to the bunting family. I understand larks or warblers will do as well for those who do not want to risk the penalty of being caught with the illegal ortolan in their possession.

The birds are captured alive and kept in a dark place in order to rearrange their feeding habits. This rearrangement makes them gorge themselves and when they are three or four times their normal size, they are ready. The next step is to drown them in Armagnac. At this point, I stopped weeping; there are far worse fates than to eat as much as one can and then drown in the finest cognac.

The wee bodies are then roasted for six to eight minutes and served whole, and hot. They are eaten whole, bones and all, after a ritual biting off of the head. Traditionally, the diner’s head is covered with a linen napkin in order to fully experience the exquisite aromas of the dish, although some said the wearing of the napkin was to hide from God.

After this reading, and a big glass of wine, I toyed with the idea of trying to cook it for my dinner party. It would be a triumph: all local ingredients, and certain to be something no one at my table would have had before. Chickadees are tiny and plentiful, Yukon Hootch is readily available, and I have a good supply of linen napkins. In the end I gave it up; I don’t know what chickadees eat, there probably wouldn’t be the time to fatten them up, and I realized that it would be my hands that would have to hold those tiny heads down in the booze till they drowned.

I eat beef, pork, veal, lamb and chicken in this country, even knowing full well how these animals are treated before reaching my plate, and in other countries I have happily dined on snake, alligator, puppies, drowned prawns, durian, haggis, and who knows what else but if I had to kill what I ate I would join the ranks of the herbivores. It is only by refusing to watch your PETA videos and avoiding too much thought about what my food is before it reaches my plate am I able to continue being a meat-eater.

In l998, a week before dying of cancer, French president Mitterand held a banquet for 30 people. The menu featured foie gras, capons, raw oysters and orolans. A year later, the eating of orolans was banned.

However, foie gras, another French delicacy that involves some cruelty in its making, is still in full production despite the controversy over gavage, the force-feeding of the geese. French law states, “Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France.” It seems it is the threatened species aspect of the orolan recipe that has led to the outlawing of this dish, though I imagine it is still being prepared using other tiny birds.

I confess myself just a wee bit shaken by this information, this reminder of what is involved when it comes to eating meat, and you will be happy to know I have decided to feed my guests a vegetarian chilli on Saturday night. I am not giving up on meat, just taking a break.



Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.

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