The Marriage of Music and Meat or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Swine
It’s amazing how the most random experiences in life are often the most memorable. For a 25-year-old American I like to think that I am fairly well traveled. I’ve seen the Roman Coliseum, stood in the shadow of Picasso’s looming “Guernica” in Madrid, smelled the air that flows through the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., to name a few “must witness” essentials. Still for every monument visited, cathedral climbed, painting seen there are countless captured moments of everyday life.
For as long as I live I’ll never forget driving in a cramped Euro hatchback with four other tall Americans as we headed from Northern Spain to its Southern tip. We survived numerous close-call lane-changes, saw the back roads of Iberia and learned a thing or two about driving in Europe. I still remember approaching Cadiz, driving on fumes and listening to Muse’s appropriately chose song, “Time is Running Out” as we desperately tried to find a filling station.
There was the final night in Warsaw where my friend Paul and I sat outside our youth hostel with the three Polish hostel workers, a guy from Bangladesh, a Frenchman, a brash Texan, and an Aussie card shark, sharing travel stories, drinking Żubrówka and apple juice and eventually singing favorite songs from our individual countries of origin (in their native tongues), eventually culminating in a multi-lingual rendition of “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King.
I remember being taken off the tourist grid of Rome by the proprietor of the dirty hostel I was staying at to a “mob run” neighborhood and ultimately drinking Peroni with a bunch of hash smokers in the streets, fearless of any police interference due to the confidence of the mob’s rule over the turf.
There was the hostel from hell in Dublin and the Indian family searching for their “lost” son at 4AM in our cramped 16-bed dorm room. “Wheeerrre is my soooon?!??!!”
I can distinctly remember The Proclaimer’s “Sunshine on Leith” being played not once, but twice at a pub after a local football match in Edinburgh and how I remember seeing everyone around me, old and young, singing every lyric and raising their pints into the air, pride for their Scottish heritage and their hometown band’s unofficial city anthem. I also remember the chills that ran down my spine after the occasion had finally soaked in.
Life in Taiwan is full of similar moments impossible to find in a guidebook, real life experiences that are instantly burned into the eternal psyche. Two weekends ago was no exception.
In a previous entry I mentioned a bar called Maybe that I discovered. Summed up for those who know me: this is my kind of place. While not as good as Definitely, Maybe is ten times the bar that Certainly is and for my money it serves a meaner gin and tonic than Perhaps, its rival to the South (I’ve clearly been teaching too much English). The drinks all have promising names like the aforementioned, Baby Sleeps for Three Days, and the proprietor and head DJ, Bruce, is the kind of music fanatic that I could happily spend hours talking to, the kind of fanatic who single handedly spent hours loading the lyrics to every song in his massive iTunes library, thus creating Taipei’s most refined karaoke jukebox. Bruce and I hit it off right away and I now have the luxury of skipping the queue of songs waiting to be played. If I have the sudden urge to belt out Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” or Petty’s “Straight Into Darkness,” Bruce is there to deliver.
Two weekends ago my buddy and Mandarin school classmate, Michael, invited me to a birthday party at Maybe for his girlfriend’s friend. The invitation basically read: stop by for a BBQ on the roof and some good music. Sure.
BBQ could technically mean anything in this part of the world and to be fair I didn’t plan on eating. When my eyes fixated on what the gang was up to on the roof all bets were off.
Anthony Bourdain, that oh so fortunate foodie and traveler, has often commented that the pig is a magical animal. Even if you look at its contribution of bacon to the world, a global net positive ingredient that might just be the only portion of flesh food that would make vegetarians exclaim, “just when I thought I was out, it pulled me back in.”
Pork, as you might assume, is very big in Taiwan and Mainland China. Like most things eaten regularly or out of habit, pork here can get a bit tired. When a 100LB sacred being is skewered and slowly roasted over an open fire to the delight of a handful of drooling Taiwanese and foreigners, pork (or zhurou) takes on an entirely new face.
I’ll set the stage for you. I enter Maybe, pay my respects to Bruce in the DJ booth and notice a heaping pile of shredded white meat sitting next to his computer control console. Hmm, bit curious but then again it is his bar.
I grab a bottle of Taiwan Beer, find my friends and am eventually led upstairs. A whiff of heavenly smoke has filled the upstairs private party area and it’s the kind of aroma that could make heads spin. I step out onto the porch and see what is at one second grotesque and then suddenly beautiful.
(I’m doubting that any of my vegetarian friends have continued this far but in case you have I am not responsible for any toilet hugging the following prose might instigate. Animal cooked over fire is a primitive thing of beauty and is, if you believe what Michael Pollan, the author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” has to say, the spark (literally) that started the rise of civilization and the birth of the food culture as we know it.)
Back home I probably wouldn’t know how to go about acquiring a whole pig (though my Bucktown apartment was down the street from a sketchy live chicken shop/coop, which may or may not have doubled as a crack den) but here I’m pretty sure I could get a pig by cocktail hour.
My friends had brought some local Taiwanese (of aboriginal descent) from down South to serve as roast masters. With them they brought a monster of a porker, at least 100lb, maybe more. As I approach the pit master, a burly, sweat soaked man who clearly knows his way around a rotating hog, I tell him (in Chinglish) that this is a without a doubt a thing of beauty. While others are ooing or saying icky, I’m quickly establishing camaraderie with the folks behind the spinning impaled Babe with hopes of some future under the table samples of the best parts. Some skin crackle, a colossal rib, or a piece of loin perhaps. It’s amazing how quickly one can morph from a sophisticated young man who minutes before was discussing the relevance of the modern day David Byrne with a DJ to a full-blown drooling wild dog, focused solely on the possibility of a handout.
The handouts were heavenly. The tender bits were moist without being overly fatty. The pieces cut closer to skin were crispy with just the perfect level of melt-in-your-mouth fat. Then there was the rib, a generous offering that I was privileged enough to receive–you see most others were busy coaxing poor Bruce to spin another Bon Jovi tune.
Ribs back home come in many intriguing incarnations, BBQ being the true “cultural” food of America. I often try to explain to the locals that Americans don’t just eat hot dogs and hamburgers, that, in fact, there is a national culinary movement that we call our own, one that incorporates whole hogs, beef brisket, and countless variations of the same sauce. The rib that was snapped off this particular hog was a taste experience in itself. For starters it hadn’t been rubbed down with any “mama’s special blend” or slathered with a sticky sweet sauce. It was meat, plain and simple, and it was to die for.
The rib was easily as long as a mid-sized-ferret and was covered with perfectly cooked meat–fall off the bone tender with just the perfect amount bite and pull required, the best of both worlds.
By now I assume you, the readers, are either sitting at work with a grumbling stomach and a preamble to the meat sweats or rethinking your relationship with the writer of this carnivorous homage.
H1N1 (formerly swine or oink-oink flu) is no joke over here. There is a national furor going on in this part of the world towards this rapidly spreading illness, however, the swine part of this flu has been completely overlooked (and to be fair, pigs and the country of Mexico got a particularly bad rep during the flu’s initial rise). Pork is a staple part of the Taiwanese diet. Even something as simple as rice or stir fried greens may just have a surprise piece of pork fat thrown in for a trip to flavor country. This is a pleasant part of eating in Taiwan but one aspect that must make being a vegetarian in this country about as easy as asking for a glass of Grüner Veltliner at Milwaukee Brewers game.
In conclusion, the pig roast and the late night festivities that followed will undoubtedly go down as one of my fondest memories of life in Taiwan. Even if this experience were replicated somewhere down the line–and the meat + bonfire possibilities are endless, especially when one of your housemates is from New Zealand–it won’t have the same lasting impact that this evening had on me.
Seeing the flames tickling the burnt red carcass and tasting the results gave me a newfound appreciation for the consumption of animal. There is something very personal about witnessing the time and labor that goes into such an event and observing just how many souls can walk away from the experience content and with full bellies. The experience has also made me rethink the various times over the years I used to poke fun at my Greek friend, Ellen’s many family lamb roasts, which always sounded brutal and unnecessary, but now seem to be the best way to do things. Ellen, if you’re reading, I take back all my smartass gyros spit comments and sacrificial backyard lamb jokes. You can count me in your next Greek lamb orgy!
Until the next psyche-burned experience, this is your faithful rotating meat enthusiast who never quite makes the cut when it comes to candid photography, signing off.