Wednesday, January 19, 2011

You mean to tell me fish have eyes?

I remember there was a VHS video of my little brother, at age 3, hunched over our old dinner table in our apartment in Cincinnati, intensively focused on chewing off every piece of meat off a soy-roasted pig’s feet. This was the late 90s, we had been in the States for a few years but not long enough to forget the old Chinese custom of enjoying different textures in what we eat. If you know anything about a pig’s feet, you would know that the Chinese regard its place on the dinner table as some sort of a rare delicacy. It has a soft and jelly-ish texture that would melt in your mouth if it had been cook the right way – usually in a high pressure cooker. The most enjoyable part is working your way through each small bone in a pig’s feet with your lips and tong, to get to the tendons and the thick layer of cooked pigskin in its palm. Eating a pig’s feet is a skill acquired over the years; my father would be able to clean off all the edible parts on a pig’s feet before you can even ask what it is that he was eating.

Those were the good ol’e days before my brother had developed his complex fear for food. Today, he won’t eat anything that is not processed. He only eats white meats, without bones – meats that taste almost like nothing.

It is Chinese custom to have fish on New Year’s Eve. But because of my brother’s fear for food, for a few years now my father would buy and cook a whole fish, place it in a plastic container and cover it to leave it on the side table. Only when my brother has left the dinner table would my father uncover his prize and meticulously work his way around all of the small bones and enjoy his fish. I feel certain shame for my brother, and pity for my father - a man who had once lived off grass roots and boiled old leather belts during the late 50s when China was hit by a disastrous famine, a man who enjoys food for what it is – FOOD.

I had asked my brother once about his fear of fish. He simply told me that he can’t eat anything with eyes staring at him at the dinner table. I replied, “but everything has eyes, even the chicken nuggets you love once had eyes and legs and feet (granted that chicken had probably been fed to achieve its slaughter weight full of hormones and antibiotics, and was probably so overweight that it could not stand on its feet). You mean to tell me you are only discovering that fish have eyes?”

My brother had once loved fish. When he was little and when my mother and father would buy a whole fish, clean it at home. Just for fun, they would let my brother pick the best parts to eat – usually the fish’s cheek. Funny when he was young, food was an enjoyment, but as he got older, food became a fear for him. What was once fun is now a torment and something that is tearing my family apart.

Then I started to think why has an intelligent, straight A student like my brother, developed a unreasonable fear for fish just because of its eyes? He would certainly not eat chicken’s feet, or pig’s ear or anything that is not a packaged square meat item. Then I realized that it was because our industrial food system has so far removed us from our food that we no longer can relate to our food in any sensible way. It is all about economics now, not even the good kind of economics that make sense, but the kind of economics that fattens the few in their pockets at the expense of all of us in terms of health issues and other social costs. We are dangerously testing the limits of our medical ability to treat the newest disease we are farming in our CAFOs.

It had seemed that all of the food scares, the Mad Cow disease, the Bird flu, the Swine flu, and whatever else are flu-ing around, has caused my sensible brother to no longer believe in food. He doesn’t want to acknowledge its source, far removed from its true intent, and has developed a taste for highly processed food. What an irony. His idea is that if it is government regulated, and comes in a clean white packaging, then it must be good. If it does not, and is not a part of the animal that would normally end up in a fast food restaurant, then it must be bad. I grew up watching my grandmother slaughter chickens for dinner, cooking every part of it, with no government regulations on how it should be done. I have eaten everything from a chicken’s brain, to a fish’s cheek, to pig’s feet, amongst other weird animal parts. I have come to appreciate our distinctive connection with food, and my brother has developed a distant with food from the “safeguards” of our government and the interest of our giant food industry. But is the regulated and processed food really a good thing?

Consider the following passage from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, (talking to a local farmer who insist on slaughtering his own chicken and the only disinfectant method for his is the open air and the Sun – the best method in my opinion:

The problem with current food-safety regulations . . . is that they are one-size-fits-all rules designed to regulate giant slaughterhouses that are mindlessly applied to small farmers in such a way that “before I can sell my neighbor a T-bone steak I’ve got to wrap it up in a million dollars’ worth of quintuple-permitted processing plant.”

For example, federal rules stipulate that every processing facility have a bathroom for the exclusive use of the USDA inspector. Such regulations favor the biggest industrial meatpackers, who can spread the costs of compliance over the millions of animals they process every year. . .

Why would a USDA inspector need an exclusive bathroom? It is so that they can have a private place to throw up after watching the horrific industrial operations that manages our food? Why isn’t that sort of things creating a fear for food? Why is it that we are not afraid of Burger King and Tyson?

The farmer goes on to say:

USDA regulations spell out precisely what sort of facility and system is permissible, but they don’t set thresholds for food-borne pathogens. (That would require the USDA to recall meat from packers who failed to meet the standards, something the USDA, incredibly, lacks the authority to do.

This Polyface farmer have consistently swab-tested his chickens for all kinds of diseases, and the result is always better than its CAFO counter parts. My brother had feared for food safety, and relied on government regulation that is not aimed to make food healthier, only cheaper and more profitable. 

All of this has made me realize how much our food industry has failed, how much we are at fault for becoming detached from the things we eat. At least for me, I would stomach eating a pig’s feet and a whole fish any day; but eating a triple-cheese with bacon, I would be so afraid.


  1. The food industry is quite well described as a pastoral fantasy. Where images of cossy homesteads siting in green fields are scattered with the occasional cow or duck or chicken. These idyllic images adorn the produce of one of the worlds most voracious, heartless and poisonous industries. But here is the thing. Unless we all recognize the part we play in supporting this travesty it is never going to change. Never. And as such, 'we' are to blame. Woody Harrelson has just put out a new political documentary that covers all of the systematic issues that work against us, it is an incredible film and I recommend it to anyone who would really like to see our society change for the better. But you will find the logic of the film places almost all of the blame on each of our individual shoulders. The film is free to watch and if people take the message to heart and act on it this film could really make a difference. It is called ETHOS and you can watch it for free at I made a donation because I am so impressed with what these filmmakers are trying to do. Check it out and spread the word, let's get something going here, let's actually do something.

  2. Hi Jin!
    I recently took a number of university courses related to environmental science and alternative energy. I even wrote my 100 page senior thesis on the science of global warming! Since then, I have been writing quick and interesting articles about the advances in green technology, trying to get them published on various blogs to help get my name out in the field. Since The Green Elephant pertains to living a greener life I think some of my articles would be very interesting to your readers.
    If a guest post on your site is something you can consider, I’d be happy to send along an article for you to review. If you have any additional questions, please let me know! Thanks a lot!
    Alan Parker

  3. Hi Alan,

    I would love guest posts. If you can email me some articles, and a short bio of you, I can see what I can do. Email them to

  4. Pete,

    I've visited your site, and I am glad you made the movie. Lauren and I are planning to download it and watch it this weekend. (you can count on our support and donation). Thanks for reading and be sure to come back at some point because I am sure I will have something to say about the movie.