February 25, 2013

Pig's Feet and Window Friends

During our first grocery shopping trip on Saturday morning, James instantly steered our whole troupe over the "meat" section and picked up a large package of two pigs feet (1/2 of one four-footed pig), as well as a medium sized package of chicken's feet.  

I know, I know, the immediate obsession with feet.  It is rather odd, but I was not surprised in the least.  I can't pretend that I have the same affinity for these animal extremities that James does, but I have at least figured out how to enjoy them.  This is by far the largest hurdle to overcome.  I was however a little surprised when these were the first items to go in our cart, prioritized over such things as bread or milk.  

(On a side note, I was once given two large bags of cold chickens feet in Chengdu as a special gift for my children, being told that they would LOVE them.  Since I was going to be flying back to Beijing that day and I was having a hard imagining Ari and Jude gobbling them down, I re-gifted them to a different Chinese colleague.)  

Back to the story.  My policy is that if James buys them, I am more than happy to let him prepare them.  Today he made a fine soup broth from them using Chinese Five Spice, a main ingredient of which is anise seed, and rice vinegar.  The seasonings were a great combination of sweet and savory, and the end product was very aromatic and flavorful.  Bad quality picture, but good food.

The trick to eating and enjoying pigs' feet, is to reject the notion that you are eating "meat".  The contents are mostly made up of thick fatty skin (ideally shaved of all bristles, but not always), collagen, connective tissue and bone.  There are a few delicious tender morsels of meat, but all said and done, these might be easily collected into a small spoonful.  The general consistency of a well cooked pigs foot is that of gelatin, with scatterings of crunchy connective tissue.  You are probably grimacing right now, as I certainly did before acquiring this taste.  You have to change your mindset, so that the thing that you find least desirable is actually the very quality that you seek! 

For example: North Americans enjoy the thick creaminess of a good Cream of Broccoli Soup, or the different textures that are added to oatmeal by adding nuts or fruit.  So it is with pigs feet that the jello-y-ness of the skin and fat are the best feature.  It soaks up the flavor of the broth the best, similar to how the skin of a roasted chicken or turkey is the best part.  It also leaves a warm, pleasantly full feeling in your belly, from only a very small portion.  

I theorize that it was a "waste not, want not" society that developed an appreciation for food portions that we would consider to be undesirable, such as Thousand-Year-Old eggs (read: rotten egg) which are considered a delicacy in many parts of China.  It makes keeping a nutritionally adequate diet on limited resources an achievable goal.  If you're going to butcher a pig, why not use it all?  The same mindset would be the one to figure out that we can use the natural spoilage process of fermentation to our advantage.  Just as we now purposely spoil grapes to make wine, and many cultures still love eating pigs feet, even when there are other options available to them.

Incidentally, Russian Mennonites (my background) have a traditional mode of preparation for pigs feet which involves pickling.  However, I have never actually encountered it before, so I don't believe it is all that common anymore.  Most Mennonites don't have a regular butchering season like they used to.  The recipe is still found in the Mennonite cookbook however.  

Chinese people hold that eating pigs feet is an especially desirable thing for women, since the consumption of pure collagen is supposed to lend itself to amazingly smooth and healthy skin.  We knew of a Chinese university student in Winnipeg who acquired a whole barrel of pigs feet from a butcher for a steal of a deal when there were none to be found in grocery stores.  Her skin was AMAZING (just kidding, I don't actually know!)

On to window friends...
While we were eating our pigs feet we noticed that Ari was lost in some kind of fantasy world, staring off into space, winking, grinning, posing, posturing and doing jaunty little dance moves.  He seemed very impressed by himself, which was in itself very funny.  However, his utter lack of awareness that he was doing this all in front of his family, who had all stopped eating to watch him, was probably the funniest part.  I knew there was a mirror behind me that he could see himself in, but he seemed to be "making eye contact" in multiple directions.  Finally I asked him, "Ari, just how many reflections can you see of your best friend over there?"  

The total answer, to our amazement, was NINE!  The mirror behind me was set inside a cabinet that had three glass shelves in it, so he could see himself in the mirror and on the undersides of each of the glass shelves.  Then there was the dining room window to the left, the cut glass divider to the entrance on the right, the glass table below and the two fake gold posts of his chair behind.  NINE ARI's!  All dancing and smiling and winking and making passes at each other!  James, Jude and I couldn't stop laughing at him, thereby fulfilling all of his lifelong dreams of having an audience (although the three of us made up only a quarter of that audience!)

Now I know what you are thinking about all the glass I just mentioned.  All I can say is take it up with our interior decorator (aka landlady), who tends to "overdo it".  Oh, and for those of you who remember the crystal ship... its back!  

Before we left last time, I sailed its heavy glassy bulwarks into a dark closet space where it suffered a broken mast during some closet rearrangement.  I silently thanked my lucky stars that I didn't have to face the landlady when she discovered it.  But it seems that sometime in the last 2 1/2 years, some loving hand repaired the broken mast and it is back in its place of honor - on a glass shelf... what else could be more logical? 

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