Sunday, January 8, 2012

Live Ingredients

My Singaporean lady friends and I have an insatiable appetite for lobster. Here in New York, we make it a point to do our in-house 'clambake' at least once a year. Last night was our first for 2012. I was enticed by the $11 per lobster sale at Pisacane and therefore, rallied my niece and my dining companion to come over. Alas, by the time I got up from my afternoon nap, the $11 lobsters were gone and I had to pay the full price.

Undeterred, we went through with dinner. The high point for such lobster boils is the actual dunking of the live lobsters into the pot of scalding water, heavily seasoned with Old Bay. This time, the 2 pounders got a tad aggressive, tried to snap, jerked a bit, foamed at the mouth. Luckily, their claws and pincers were restrained by the rubber bands that add on to the flavor of the stock. My friend Peggy would ask each time, if I had heard a squeak. Someone had mentioned that lobsters make a sound when they drown in the boiling water. No such drama.
Yet, this time around, the lobsters' stronger struggle made me feel somewhat bad. I was about to partake of such a decadent, butter-loaded, high cholesterol meal at the expense of sea creatures dying on the spot, in my kitchen.

All this reminded me of the types of live ingredients I have witnessed become main meals soon after. There's the story of the Christmas turkey that gurgled the whole night in the backyard. It had arrived late in the night boxed up in my father's car. Then there was another time my father came home with another box.....which later revealed jumping frogs sent over from Indonesia. My father seemed like a bad Santa full of frightful animals.

My most memorable experience was of course, Hanky and Panky. These were chicks I had picked out in an egg store (or something like that), around the time that I was learning about the life cycle of chickens at school. Hanky and Panky were later sent off to live with our maid because the neighborhood stray cat had set his eyes on them. The chicks matured, only to come back to my home as chicken curry served up during Chinese New Year. My mother did indeed commission the slaughter of live chickens at the back of our house, in the wash area. Sometimes, one could hear the screaming chicken being executed. Family legend has it that one tried to escape with its head dangling halfway off its neck. Talk about a headless chicken.
Another time, I witnessed the maid coming out to the front porch with a bag of bloody poultry. Apparently, the just-slaughtered chickens had been rejected by my mother for being too skinny for Chinese New Year.

Wet markets were even worse. I hated passing through this narrow passageway in Siglap market because it cornered the cages of chickens sitting beside the huge tanks of boiling water used for 'the process'. You could only sense the screaming the entire time and the stench of blood and guts pervading the humid air. And let's not forget those famous fish tanks in many Chinese restaurants. Kids would love to see the jumping shrimp caught in the net. I would instead monitor the fat fish bellying up. When I lived in Beijing, the most awful part was having to pass by the tanks of grass snakes greeting you at the front of the restaurant. Considered a delicacy at wintertime, I did not need those 'Indiana Jones' moments to contend with, given my phobia of snakes.

All the stuff we live to eat. Perhaps, I should have written this for Halloween.

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