Monday, June 25, 2012

Tastes like 'Possum

There's a line in the movie The Matrix where one character, Mouse, suggests that the machine overlords that run the Matrix couldn't figure out what chicken actually tasted like.  So to compensate, the machine overlords made chicken taste like a lot of other stuff.  And since we eat chicken more than we do, say, rattlesnake, chicken becomes the yardstick we measure against instead of those other things.  Alligator tastes like chicken, frog legs taste like chicken.

There is no Matrix of course, but it does raise a few questions along the way to its unsatisfying conclusion.  I'm going to step off the topic of the Matrix and step over to chicken.  Chicken...and precedence.

Chicken is delicious.  Some resources describe it as bland, some describe it as "so okay it's average."  It's a very democratic kind of meat.  It's not a mammal with large, sad-looking eyes and a personality you can relate to.  Even some vegetarians will bend their rules for chicken.  You can have a fabulously fancy meal that features chicken as the main protein, or you can have the lowest-common-denominator kind of dish that is Kentucky Fried Chicken, hot, cheap and fast.

I don't consider it bland at all.  Add a dash of soy sauce while it's cooking and even otherwise unadorned chicken is excellent food.  But what does it taste like?

It tastes like chicken.  But why do we say it tastes like chicken?  We don't we say it tastes like rattlesnake?

Domestication of chickens may go back as far as 6000 BC, a goodly long time by any measure.  That's not as far back as, say, cows and dogs, but it's plenty long.  And chickens are almost entirely derived from Red Junglefowl and share some traits in common with them, traits that make them excellent for domestication:

 1) Chickens are flocking birds.  They prefer to stay together.
 2) They'll eat anything: bugs, worms, plant material, small mice, whatever.  If you have something around that you can't eat, that cannot help you survive, let the chicken eat it.  Then whatever it is stops competing with YOUR food, and actually helps grow your food.  That's a double bonus.
 3) Eggs are a great way to eat the same chicken for a good long time.  And then when the chicken stops laying eggs, eat the chicken anyway.

With these facts in mind, it's easy to see that chickens would become a staple in the field of agriculture pretty early.  Not requiring a lot of space or attention, they make it easy for people to feed themselves.  If you can feed yourself on chicken easily, it becomes a large part of your diet.  So large a part, something you get often enough that you don't think that everything tastes only like itself; now you have something to compare other tastes to.  Something that both you and to whomever you might be describing some new flavor are likely to have in common.  So when you eat something that other people aren't familiar with, you can tell them whether or not it tastes like chicken, since it's likely that you both have experience with chicken.

A couple of years ago I was driving Son #1 to a friend's house so he could check on the friend's pets.  On the way, an opossum ran across the road right in front of me.  *thump*  "Dang it!"  I wasn't driving fast and I saw the silly thing zip out across the road at the last possible moment, and though I swerved mightily, it managed to fling itself under my wheels all the same.  I was very annoyed at it, and very sorry for it too.

We pulled over, and stepped over to look at it.  Sure enough, it was dead.  It looked okay, no obvious deformation, just...dead.

Son #1 is kind of into skulls and animal bones.  Go hiking with him someday, he'll find a bone.  It's pretty weird.  "Can I have the skull?"

Still feeling bad for the animal, I said, "Sure."

He goggled at me.  "Wow.  I didn't expect you to say that."

We went on and checked on the pets, changed their water and added to their food bowls.  And on the way home, we paused the truck, tossed the dead 'possum in the back and went on our way.

The next day, we set up the fire pit and and placed a large stock pot on it.

"Why are we cooking it?"

"Just in case of rabies.  If it were an old dry skull, I wouldn't worry.  But this is fresh.  We'll cook it up real good and that'll kill any virus left in the tissues, if there was any virus."

"Okay."  And Son #2 built an excellent fire and kept it going, and Son #1 placed the entire body, fur and all, in the stock pot and covered it with water.  Let me point out at this time, this stock pot is not used for anything else.  I'm kind of freewheeling about some things I eat, but not that freewheeling.

After it had been boiling vigorously for about half an hour, we took the cover off the pot.

Son #1 sniffed.  "That smells ... really good."

I smelled it and did what I always do: I thought about everything else I've ever smelled and compared it to a known quantity.  "Wow.  That smells just like hot dogs."  And it did.  Really good hot dogs.  Not chicken, though the phrase did go through my mind very clearly in light of the situation.

Son #2 leaned in for a sniff and put things into perspective.  "I think you've got it backwards.  Hot dogs smell like 'possum."

Of all of us, he was the rightest.  Opossum have been around rather longer than hot dogs.  To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a hot dog found in the fossil record.  If I am wrong, someone please write in and let me know!  Because that would be awesome.

We didn't eat the 'possum.  Not having field dressed it, it wasn't suitable for eating.  But the skull was lovingly cleaned and polished and now occupies a space on a shelf in Son #1's bedroom...along with many other bones.

And I can't eat hot dogs without thinking about opossums, chicken, and which came first: the possum or the hot dog.  At least in this case it isn't a debate of any kind: possums came first, which means I can say that while hot dogs do not taste like chicken, I have a sneaking suspicion that they do in fact taste like 'possum.

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