A Meaty Day 

Sunday, October 15, 2006

For the last month and a half, I have become mostly vegetarian. Partly for health reasons, mostly for animal rights, I occasionally slip and declare a meat holiday. For example, in a schnitzel restaurant, how can my Austro-Hungarianess resist?

I planned for brunch at the Elbow Room, the bad service satirists who serve the best multiplex eggs in town. Vegetarian choices include the Thelma (poached eggs, sauteed spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms and avocado on a sour dough muffin topped with camembert and feta cheese) and the pesco-vegetarian Ted McLaren (poached eggs, baby shrimp, imitation crab, diced tomato and green onion with avocado, served on a croissant topped with hollandaise). I closed my menu and clasped my hands in front of me, waiting for my breakfast companion to decide.

Matt looked up at me from his menu. "Would you be upset if I order the Brett Cullen?"

The Brett Cullen. Poached eggs, sauteed spinach, bacon, avocado and blue cheese on a sour dough muffin. Topped with hollandaise sauce. The stuff of my daydreams during work meetings, during long commutes, while washing dishes, when I brush my teeth at night. The Brett Cullen.

"Well, if you're having a meat holiday," I said, "Then I can have a meat holiday too."

Confident that I could simply reach over to my breakfast companion's plate and sample the Brett Cullen, I decided to order something novel. The Bryan with two poached eggs on a Bavarian smokie, topped with BBQ sauce, sauteed mushrooms, onions, tomato and melted cheddar cheese on top of a sour dough muffin would round out my familiarity of the hidden corners of the Elbow Room menu.

Forty-five minutes later, as I waddled out of the Elbow Room, I contentedly proclaimed Meat Holiday a success and was ready to go back to ordinary vegetarian living until next year.

Forty-five minutes after that, my soggy self made it to Science World.

For those of you not from Vancouver, Science World is a children's science museum, well, science education centre. Science World is in a shiny metallic sphere full of hands-on exhibits about optical illusions, physics, human functions, animals and the like. Science World, though a non-profit, is one of the few, if not the only, Vancouver-area cultural institution to turn a profit. With Body Worlds, they've clearly met their 2006 budget many times over.

Operating under the aegis of education and health advocacy, Body Worlds 3, the exhibit Vancouver got, has some 200 body parts, sliced cross-section and entire corpses. Surely something someone of my morbid tendencies would revel in the sheer grotesquerie.

Having touched human bones before, the femur at the entrance was nothing. I stared hard at the red veiny things seeping on the femur's extremities. Then my first full corpse.

Well, I am more a fan of goriness in the fictional form, in particular on celluloid, in the guise of a good zombie flick. I've spent a night in Transylvania with a dead body in front of a graveyard, and that got acquainted with the superstition terrors of the night. Anything too nonfictional, however, and I get queasy.

So it was at Body Worlds. I felt weak, as if I couldn't lift my arms. Still I walked around each body, sometimes standing on my tiptoes to peer into cranial cavities and vacated abdomens. I began dissecting my reaction.

It wasn't the gross-out feeling one would get from, say, a burn victim. It was more of, this is meat.

The muscles reminded me so much of food. I kept thinking, I could never eat that. (I am a fan of emergency cannibal nonfiction; Uruguayan rugby players wrecked in the Andes, the Franklin expeditions, besieged Muscovites eating one another, Donner Party horrors, Chinese rumours of WWII-era kidnappings.) I mean, I've helped out at pig and chicken slaughters, and at the time I couldn't wait to eat my favourite parts. Looking at real human bodies reduced to mere meat, I was happy I've become vegetarian.

Then I further dissected my queasiness.

My stint in a law firm, looking at photos of liability claims, instilled in me an understanding that humans are fragile and anything - an escalator, a wedding ring - can become a weapon that tears the body asunder. I'd seen the pictures of a girl's face ripped off by an escalator and a woman's finger separated from her hand by a two-metre-long thread of tendon. I respect the dangers inherent in life, yet intend to live to 85 and pass away peacefully in my sleep.

Body Worlds reminded me that, though I may avoid sipping cyanide or signing up for mercenary service in Iraq, death might come riding as that extra doughnut or that third martini. Hell, I can limit myself to bran and lettuce; birth condemns all of us to death. Part of my fear of Body Worlds was that I began half-expecting that the ceiling would begin raining anvils to pulverize us the audience into snitzel pulp.

Halfway through the exhibit, there was a hands-on table, mimicking the children's displays elsewhere in Science World, only this time with a plastinated kidney, liver and two arm cross-sections. I flapped liver slivers, poked my finger into a gouged-out hole in the arm, and held up the kidney to my nose to smell it.

Beside the touchy-feelies was a book, How Do I Become a Plastinate? I skimmed over the table of contents, then turned to the chapter on reasons for wanting to become a plastinate. Selflessness was the main reason, to educate the lay public and to continue being of some use to society after one's demise. But also immortality. I want to be like the Egyptian Pharoahs, one said. Another, I worked hard to get my body into prime physical shape, I want others to learn from me.

Here's something I have never admitted until now: I have a deep-seated fear that, if I were to become an organ donor, my consent would give a modern-day Burke and Hare a pre-mortem carte blanche. Immortality would not be Pharaonic but meaty.

Other visitors felt the human body reverberated with the trappings of a meal. "The intestines look like sausages," said a young woman in her early twenties.

On the way out were cross-sections of the length of an obese man's body, a warning about the dangers of eating lest any viewers mull the meatiness of the human body too much.

Two hours after Body Worlds, I sat in a movie theatre waiting to see Jan Svankmajer's latest, Lunacy, a horror film about the two opposing methods of running an insane asylum.

The film is live action interspersed with stop-motion animation interruptions of ambulatory meat, the latter scenes accompanied by saccharine carnival music (photos here). The meat parallels the real actors, with tongues, slabs of meat, brains and eyeballs dancing out the travails of the humans. In the end, a hunk of meat in a supermarket pulsates against the confines of plastic wrap, mirroring the nightmare come true for the human protagonist.

"Repugnant palate cleansers," says one of Lunacy's critics of the parading meat. "A counter-melody reminding us that all is decay."

Tonight I ate bread with vinegar.

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Very interesting thoughts on the exhibit -- more on that in my comment to the other post -- but I wanted more to comment on your Meat Holiday fare. It seems like such an odd assamblage of things that it would never occur to me to eat -- but that dish looks fantastic. I just might try to reproduce it myself, if I can learn how to poach eggs.

What's a Bavarian smokie -- is that the sausage links?
I think the Bavarian smokie is the local approximation of the German sausage.
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