I became a vegetarian at the age of ten “for ecological reasons,” I told people. I was pretentious/ inspired by a teacher who’d informed me that “one field of corn can feed one pig that feeds a family for one night, but one field of corn on its own can feed five families for a week.” Or something like that. So I ate a lot of Amy’s soups and blocks of cheddar until high school, when I nixed the cheese and became a vegan.
I was never really preachy about my vegetarianism/veganism, since it all started for my so-called “ecological reasons” and not because I thought meat was murder. But I was always very strict about what I ate and secretly understood every time a hippie described vegetarianism as “part of leading a cruelty free life.” That sounded awesome and gave me pride in my life-choices.
Then I went to college, and being vegan instantly went out the door. Of course it did… I COULD EAT ICE CREAM FOR BREAKFAST EVERY DAY. (Dining halls, right?) By my senior year, I even gave into peer pressure and started incorporating meat into my diet. When drunk at a party and handed a plate of hot wings, the only “cruelty-free life” I cared about leading was one free from the cruelty of depriving myself of something that smelled so delicious. I’d really forgotten why I was a vegetarian by that point, anyway. I didn’t immediately transform into a carnivore, but as a “recently recovering vegetarian” I slowly returned to eating meat regularly.
Then, last summer, I was in Europe. I spent my first month in Florence and there discovered its famous Central Market, which was always full of vendors selling everything from cow stomach to limoncello. One day, while perusing this exotic market, I was struck with a sudden desire: to buy, cut, and cook an entire dead fish.
It was an odd whim, yes. I was still getting used to a cruelty-full lifestyle. But looking at all the fresh fish in the market, thinking–as they stared at me with their dead eyes–that they’d probably been caught fresh that morning, I was ready to confront head-on the reality of my eating habits, “cruelty” and all. Plus I’d been feeling pretty ballsy lately, alone with my boyfriend in a town where I didn’t speak the language. Buying cheese by the kilogram, weaving between crazed bicyclists, and having a bidet in my bathroom had all equipped me with the cojones to purchase whole dead fish, when delicious-looking pre-cut filets were also readily available.
Or maybe the fumes of the fish market were making me crazy.
Either way, I decided to do it. I chose fish that were in a bin that was easy to point to, and though I couldn’t comprehend the Italian label, I’m fairly certain they were sea bass. Decently sized, they weren’t as intimidating as the salmon, but were big enough to maybe feed my boyfriend and myself.
The vendor didn’t speak English. It seems that most of the Italians I encountered last summer didn’t, or enjoyed pretending they didn’t to watch me flounder (fish pun!) (nailed it). So I awkwardly pointed to my fish and asked for “Due.” Two. The friendly fish-man rifled through the bin and chose the biggest fish he could find. He made a motion to its belly, with an inquisitive face, signaling to me that he might gut the fish.
“No!” I eagerly shook my head. I wanted to do it all myself. I was deluded, I had no idea what I was doing, but even this man’s skeptical face as he wrapped up the fish in paper could not dissuade me. So I went home, two dead fish and a kilogram of cherries in hand.
That night it was time to mutilate the poor creatures. I wanted to say some kind of Native American-inspired prayer thanking the fish for giving their lives to sustain ours, but I didn’t. My boyfriend had had the foresight to purchase a bottle of wine, and he poured me a glass. He was very amused by the whole spectacle, and I don’t think he believed I could do it. But I chugged back the vino and was ready to go. I didn’t even look up what to do on the internet: I was going to wing it.
It seemed natural to go for the belly, I guess because it’s soft. If I’d had a large butcher knife, I might have wacked off the head for dramatic flare, but my kitchen resources were limited. The belly it was. After poking one little hole I immediately regretted that decision. Every elementary school student knows that’s where all the fish’s guts are, but of course, I hadn’t thought of that. I’d wanted to cook the fish whole, but when confronted with that sickening sight, my reason returned and I realized I was being molto stupido. The belly was cut, though, and I was hungry. So I swallowed my regret and disgust and got to work.
I shoved my hand in the fish and ripped out all kinds of organs. It was a slimy, surprisingly colorful mess. With the second fish, I felt a little more scientific and attempted to recognize the different parts of the fish’s interior. But it was still probably the grossest experience of my life. My boyfriend then reminded me of another fun fact every elementary school student knows: fish have scales. I didn’t know what to do about that, and I assumed they weren’t meant to be cooked on the fish. So after thoroughly cleaning the fishes’ insides, I looked up how to deal with their outsides and removed all the scales before putting them in the oven.
I really don’t want to get too graphic, but I want to let you know if you ever decide to gut a fish: the guts are not the worst part of the experience. The worst part is cutting out the jaw. Which I didn’t even learn was a necessary step until looking up how to remove the scales. I’m 99% sure that when I did cut one out for the first time, the fish’s ghost repossessed its body and bit me, with its tiny, freaky teeth. I already have a recurring nightmare about koi fish, so you can imagine how scarred I am now.
Nevertheless, the meal turned out amazing. I coated both the fish with olive oil and rosemary, cleaned my kitchen like a boss, and baked them through. They were succulent and amazing and after eating I felt like a cartoon cat, with a whole fish skeleton in my hand.
The experience was a victory, not only because of the delicious meal I’d made, but because I’d confronted and owned my omnivorous cruelty. I gutted a fish. It was fun and satisfying, the way successfully doing something new typically is. But it also made me feel connected to my primal roots. “Animals are meant to be gutted and eaten by me!” I shouted to the heavens. I remembered Mufasa, when he tells young Simba: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.” By dealing with my fish as whole fish, not as just meat blocks, I had taken my place in the great Circle of Life.
But one month later in Paris, I ate duck confit. Then I saw some adorable baby ducks the next day and felt like a monster. So now I’m a vegetarian again.
You live and you learn.