I just finished reading “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper,” cookbook and food writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir on her experiences living and eating in China.
My favorite chapter comes toward the end of the book. It’s basically one long, tortured complaint about the state of Chinese dining. Here’s an excerpt:
“It’s as if my gastronomic libido is slipping away. In the old days, in Sichuan, my hunger was a free and joyful thing. The food before me was fresh, free-range and wholesome, and I wanted to devour it all. But in the last ten or fifteen years China has changed beyond all recognition. I’ve seen the sewer-like rivers, the suppurating sores of lakes. I’ve read the newspaper reports; breathed the toxic air and drunk the dirty water. And I’ve eaten far too much meat from endangered species…The only way to recover my wanton old appetites is to draw a deliberate blind over all the evidence, to switch off my brain and to eat without thinking. And I’m not sure I can do it anymore.”
Tell me about it Fuchsia. Well obviously I’m not nearly as professionally and emotionally invested in food as her. But this section really struck me because the day after I finished it, I read McClatchy reporter Tim Johnson’s post on clenbuterol in Mexican beef. Scary stuff: “Turns out that massive numbers of teenage athletes who came to Mexico in June and July to compete in the Under-17 World Cup tested positive for clenbuterol, a steroid-like substance used by ranchers to bulk up their cattle before slaughter.”
What’s even worse is sensing that this report is the tip of the iceberg.
Even imagining Mexico as a perfectly safe place for food production, one stumbles upon myriad cleanliness hazards when it comes to serving food: the woman that hacks up your chicken at the market wears no gloves. The pre-cooked meat in your quesadilla clearly has been sitting out unrefrigerated for five hours. The plate that you eat on has a piece of paper as a barrier between you and the germs, since the plate obviously hasn’t been fully washed from customer to customer.
I’ve gotten used to witnessing and dealing with these things. But I haven’t quite accepted them. And those are the problems I can see! Now I’ve started really becoming obsessed with the invisible issues.