I may as well confess there is a cook in my family, although I’m not going to be so reckless as to identify him (or her).
The reason I withhold the identity is because this person had decided we are not going to have turkey today but rather braised pork belly, and I don’t want this person exposed to calumny or opprobrium.
I know as well as the next fellow that turkey is the officially sanctioned dish for Thanksgiving and that not to serve it is almost as bad as not standing for the National Anthem at a baseball game, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I was not consulted.
Of course it’s true that I spent part of a previous life in Asia, where pork belly is known as tung po, and during that time I did acquire a taste for it, so it’s not as if I object to the food itself. Far from it. I count tung po as one of the finest things there is to eat, and my only discussion with the cook on this subject concerned whether it is more or less sweet and succulent than the jowl meat of the pig.
The cooks says tung po is sweeter; I say the jowl meat is sweeter. I’m going to be in Mexico City soon, and one of the things I’m looking forward to is a steaming bowl of pozole made with meat from the pig’s head. In fact some people accuse me of being such a stubborn purist that I don’t accept any pozole as genuine if it’s not made with the cabeza, as we say, and I don’t argue with that charge.
It’s just a matter of degree, really.
I’m not sure how the cook is going to serve it — again, I wasn’t consulted — but the usual way to serve tung po is in a small block, like a hunk of cake. The bottom or cake part is the meat; the top or frosting part is the fat. Except that the fat is just about as thick as the meat.
When I was a little kid I was always punctilious about cutting fat away from meat on the grounds that it was disgusting, as well as unchewable, so it took me a little while to adapt when I settled in Asia.
Occasionally I would get served a big plate of rice with a small cube of tung po and I was appalled that anyone could put such a thing in front of an innocent stranger, until I finally tried it.
The fat is rich and sweet almost like candy, and the meat is succulent and tasty well beyond what a pork chop could ever hope to be. I haven’t been the same since.
Even now, all these years later, when I get a craving for it, I will either talk my wife into preparing it, which actually doesn’t take a whole lot of talking, or the two of us will repair to Ala Shanghai restaurant near the Latham traffic circle, where it is prepared to suit the most discriminating taste.
It’s not something you eat a lot of — it’s just too rich — which is one of my objections to making it
the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving dinner. The idea of Thanksgiving is to stuff oneself, as a sign of gratitude both to the Pilgrim fathers and to the good Lord. (Good Lord, I can’t eat another bite!)
In my experience you eat a little tung po and a lot of rice, but what kind of Thanksgiving dinner would that be? I don’t know what the cook in this case has in mind, but it’s probably not rice. I think I heard something about cranberry sauce.
As for turkey, well, I’m glad we don’t have to dispute about whether to buy a frozen specimen from the supermarket or a free-range one from some hippie farmer or even a “heritage” turkey directly descended from a bird eaten by the Pilgrims.
That would be too complicated. Someone would say the oversized breast of a supermarket bird is a grotesque deformity perpetrated by agribusiness. Someone else would demand the equivalent amount of white meat in any substitute, and so on.
One thing I don’t understand is the presidential pardon that is accorded every year to a symbolic turkey presented to the White House.
Can anyone explain that to me? I do a Google search and learn that it’s not much of a tradition. It began only with the first President Bush, in 1989.
But every year since then the president has been shown a turkey and has mock-seriously pardoned it for the benefit of the television cameras — before sitting down to a turkey dinner.
I mean, if he pardoned it and then sat down to a vegetarian dinner, I would understand.
Now I’m wondering if we should rustle up a pig today and ceremoniously pardon it before we sit down to our tung po dinner.
The problem would be what to do with it after the ceremony.
Supermarket turkeys, I learn from my researches, have very little in the way of love life, since the oversized breast they have been bred for prevents them from getting close enough to each other to consummate whatever affection they might feel.
That seems to me a poor deal for them, but then a tom turkey only endures on this earth a little more than four months before coming under the ax, and a hen turkey a little less than four months. So if they’re deprived, they’re not deprived for long.
Those that reap a presidential pardon live out their days in some idyllic setting like George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, which is where last year’s went. Before that, according to Wikipedia, they went to either Disneyland in California or Disney World in Florida, where they served as honorary grand marshals of the Thankgiving parade.
I think it would be nice to have a pig as an honorary grand marshal, though I certainly wouldn’t want it to be the pig that was going to supply my tung po. Let it be a purely decorative animal, one made of papier mache, maybe.