28 June 2006

Of rats and mien

A joke so old, you may not know it —

At a diner, two friends are ready to order. "I'll have the tongue," says one.
"Yech," says the other. "How can you eat something that comes out of an animal's mouth?
I'll have eggs."

Rats get worse press than tongue, yet I've seen them sold in three open-air markets as meat.

The first was a busy market with many traders behind trestle tables piled with tomatoes and avocados, chillies and cilantro, tubs of fresh white homemade rounds of cheese, baskets of crusty loaves and sweet rolls. Clean pieces of meat lay on some tables, hacked simply, their sellers flicking away flies. On one table were several rats, pink and glistening, lying on their backs flat as 1960s suntanners at the beach. Mexico, 1976.

The second was in a forested area in Europe where the women wore tight embroidered bodices, cinched waists, long skirts and masses of petticoats. Everything there was built of wood, carved and painted Kuntry Kitsch'n style, but this was a world away from home decorating shops. This particular market sold meat. It had a number of stalls ranged around a little central yard, and against a wall was posted a curlicue-lettered sign with the meats and the prices. First on the list was pork. Second: beef. Third: rat. As we looked around, a woman squatted in front of us, her wide skirts spreading as naturally as a mushroom rots, and she got up after a moment and walked away. Romania, 1980.

The third market was, time and place: the very model of a model modern market. Local farmers stood behind tables quite like that market in Mexico, and on the central table in the front ranks of smiling sellers lay two rats. They were bigger, but as pink and glistening as the Mexican rats; and like the others, these were skinned to perfection — naked as skinned rabbits, shinier than sturgeon roe. They were also on their backs, their long tails straight as pencils.
The Economic Territories near Hong Kong, Chinese-government bus-tour stop, 1990.

Each time I saw meat-rats, they were proudly displayed, almost totally beautiful, and they made your typically goosebumped, slackarsed chicken look like a horrorshow star in comparison. I admit, though, that there was one thing I found disconcerting. Their long teeth were as yellow against their skins as the natural fangs of pale blonde actresses. Perhaps if their teeth had been capped . . .

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