Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Face of Compassion

Balut photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Mind racing, I stared at the egg my student held out to me.

“I have three of them,” he said excitedly.  “One for each of us.”

He motioned to his friend who nodded excitedly.

It wasn’t an “ordinary” egg.  It was balut, a steamed or roasted egg containing a bird embryo in its final stages of development. 

I take a certain amount of pride at being food adventurous.  With a Japanese mother, anything sea related has always been fair culinary game in our household.  But when I was around eight years old, my sister and I started to actively seek exotic cuisine.  My father, a Marine, indulged us, perhaps believing he was providing survival skills as well as expanding our palate. 

In the first year, we were introduced to rabbit, goose, snake, frog legs and escargot.  My father prepared the food as my mother looked on in stunned bewilderment.  He had never before (or since) cooked anything other than steak on the grill or creamed corn casserole for Thanksgiving.  True, the snake and escargot were canned, but they still required preparation.  The escargot came in a “kit” that included a canister of empty snail shells.  Surprisingly, the only food that got the thumbs down was the rabbit.  It was dry.

College further broadened my dining experiences.  I was introduced to Indian, Greek, and Middle Eastern cuisine.  When three of my girlfriends and I got an apartment, we took turns cooking for each other.  One roommate cooked pigs’ ears.  Crunchy.  She later brought ducks’ feet.  What was there to eat?  There was no flesh.  And having had pet ducks, I couldn’t get past thinking, Do you know where those feet have been?  Ironically, that same roommate drew the line at raw fish. 

I also met a friend who only ate things she could kill herself (based on emotion, not skill).  She felt that letting someone else kill an animal in order to avoid the emotional cost was disrespectful to the butcher and the animal.  Setting a personal rather than societal criteria interested me.  Then I went to eat a Famous Star Burger. 

But my friend’s point became personal during a visit home.  My parents served my favorite, pressed duck from the local Chinese restaurant.  I was enjoying the greasiness and crispiness and picked up another piece.  I looked at it in confusion.  Duck parts look different when they’re pressed.  I flipped the piece over and recognized it immediately.  It was the head.

Live ducks are cute.  Like bottle-nosed dolphins, they always look like they’re smiling.  Their cheeks are plump, making their eyes slightly crescent shaped and the corners of their mouth curl up.  And there on my plate, was half of a smiling face.  I was horrified.  I turned it back over hoping it would make a difference.  It didn’t.  Now that I emotionally realized “pressed duck” was actually a duck, I wondered, Could I kill a duck?  

During middle school, I had raised quail with a neighbor.  When the flock grew too large, we were told to thin out the roosters for slaughter.  We chose what we called “rapist” birds.  We caught them in flagrante delicto and sentenced them to death.  Even so, I couldn’t watch their execution, but I plucked and ate them.

Unfortunately, our cleansing of the “criminal element” turned the flock into an evolutionary fiasco.  The chicks in the following clutches grew progressively weaker until they couldn’t break out of their shells.  In the final clutch, only one chick broke out of its shell and it lay dying from the effort.  It struggled for each breath and I thought it would be more humane to break its neck.  It’s not as easy as people say, especially when you’re not fully committed.

Lookism plays a crucial role in selecting who does or doesn't get eaten.
On New Year’s Day, 1987, I, too, decided not to eat anything I wouldn’t kill myself.  I tell people I’m a vegetarian.   It’s too complicated to say it depends on the face.  I still devour mollusks with gusto.  Despite having performed CPR on a goldfish, I can still kill fish, although now I have environmental concerns.  Thankfully, crab and lobster look like their spider cousins and a California spa death of water and wine gradually brought to a boil seems gentler than the sole of a shoe.  Insects aren’t a regular part of my diet, but I do confess to having eaten grasshoppers without any hesitation.

In the name of “cultural exploration,” I grant myself some leeway for the truly unique.  In Louisiana, I tried alligator, red boudin, and pigs’ lips.  In Ireland, I tried black pudding.  At a Burns’ Ball, I tried haggis (not as awful as it sounds).  In fact, it was a classroom discussion about “cultural exploration” that prompted the balut offering.
The student eagerly waited for me to take the balut.  I couldn’t, but then I couldn’t comfortably refuse outright either. 

 Where had he found it?  I wondered.  Was it expensive?  Rare?  “I’m a vegetarian,” I reminded him. 

He nodded.  “But you eat regular eggs?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Why is this different?” he asked.

“It’s not a chicken yet,” his friend added helpfully.

Chicken abortion?  I wasn’t going to go there.

“When I open the shell,” I said, “I’ll see its face.”  

The boys’ brows furrowed in puzzlement.

“I really appreciate you offering the balut to me,” I said.  “I’m sorry.”

I realized that I was unintentionally rejecting the universal understanding that sharing food is a gesture of kindness, generosity, and fellowship. 

I felt awful.  Torn.
“It’s o.k.” the student said and smiled.  “Don’t worry.”

 I smiled back, hesitantly.  The student and his friend laughed.

 “Really,” they assured me.  “It’s o.k.”

 They left happily chatting about their after school plans, enjoying the balut, and deciding who would get the spare. 

Compassion.  It’s not just what’s inside an egg.

1 comment:

  1. Geez, that was difficult to read - great story, though! You are a much more adventurous eater than me. I felt I was pushing the envelope recently eating candied ginger cornbread with peach butter.


Creative Commons License
The Cranky Cow by Kou K. Nelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at