WORDS BY ELI GOLDSTONE
WORDS BY ELI GOLDSTONE
What does it mean to cook and eat meat? Eli Goldstone explores her carnivorous tendencies in a piece originally written and performed for our fourth Voices At The Table event.
I think about cooking flesh. About peeling back the layers of wax paper and plastic film. The red pools of fluid. A relic from when I cooked meat for a succession of people who have been lucky enough to sit at my table. Evenings of sitting on uncomfortable chairs waiting for broth to become viscous. The waiting, most of all. The meals that were often timed badly so that my companions found themselves drunk. Sitting on a lap, late in the evening, with the taste in mind. All those moments kissing empty mouths that were waiting to be filled.
As a very small child I loved meat. I wanted chicken wings, things with bones. I stole a steak from my mother’s plate victoriously and happily. But my parents were poor and that steak was a special occasion.
My family sat at a creaking table every evening to eat. It was an obligation. My father cooked tzimmes for us, a dish that once consisted only of carrots and honey but which has evolved over time, in my family at least, to have a brisket at the centre of it and a large dumpling underneath, similar to kneidlach. The trick to cooking it is to put it in a very low oven overnight, tightly sealed, so that the liquid barely bubbles around the meat. The resulting tender beef falls in pink strands, the muscle surrendering to the broth, the exposed ends burnt, caramelised. Waxy potatoes, matzo pudding saturated with fat. I’ve cooked this meal a handful of times only. Preparing tzimmes is not a declaration of my own skill, and therefore of my worth, but only an intimate exercise in patience. Besides, it only really tastes good to me if it’s made by my dad.
I stole a steak from my mother’s plate victoriously and happily. But my parents were poor and that steak was a special occasion
One New Year’s Eve in a fisherman’s cottage a couple of years ago I worried that my brisket wouldn’t cook in the low oven. I returned to it repeatedly, inching up the temperature with each visit, and by the time six hours had passed, it was ruined.
I ruined two lamb shanks once too, when I lived in an attic room in Hampstead, with only a hot plate and a small combination oven to cook with. Fortunately, the man I cooked those lamb shanks for was greedy and indiscriminate with the things that he ate. He ate everything while sitting on the sofa, watching TV. Cooking for him was a waste of time. I don’t think he noticed that he had to saw the meat away from the bones. I was alone with my misery. What was left, my dog enjoyed.
To cook meat is to be patient, to be hungry, to labour and wait. To spend money, to know that a chicken cost 18 pounds somehow. That the bottle of Riesling it stewed in cost twice that and most importantly that you don't have the money to spend. Cooking meat while poor is so many things – an extravagance, a celebration, a gesture of defiance. It is waiting, aching, burning one’s fingers over pleasure. To gather around a spent life and to know that for the next few days you will be eating only stolen bread. That is a secret I have kept to myself, stirring it into the sauce, inhaling it, heaping it into bowls. Have you ever spent so long cooking a meal that the taste of it was unpleasant? There have been evenings I sat watching other people eat, climbing into bed with an empty stomach.
Once I woke up in a stranger’s house and found that the roof had caved in. I took the pans that I had used to cook meat in off the cold stove and I placed them around the room to catch the rainwater. And then I left that house and I never went back. And I think about the bones in the bottom of the pans, I wonder why I didn’t empty the pans of their bones.
Learning to cook meat was learning to think of myself as a person who cooked meat, to discover and to declare that I was no longer a squeamish child, but a woman who could provide pleasure, a woman who could prepare something that would make another person feel full. A woman whose fingers could withstand high temperatures. A woman who skinned things and who lay them like a cat at the feet of the people that she loved.
To learn to cook meat was to learn that the texture of a steak well done is that of a tensed thumb and to know that once it feels like that it's ruined. To eat meat the way that other people found repulsive, to laugh open-mouthed at the idea of meat the way that it used to be. To think of blood as a seduction, as a provocation. To rest meat like a well-fed baby. To talk about meat as if I knew something that other people didn't know.
My brain belongs to a rational creature and my mouth belongs to a barbarous creature and both the creatures are me
My grandfather and my father were butchers. My dad hated to wring the necks of chickens. I think of the drawer full of knives that I investigated as a child. I think of the hatchet and the hooks. Serious, strange tools that I would show to my friends to thrill and to frighten them.
I learned the best way to separate flesh from bone. I slid my fingers underneath skin and stuffed the cavities with butter, with whole bulbs of garlic that softened and gave in to sweetness there, at the centre of things, hollowed out and smelling rank and gorgeous. I scored fat and disturbed the tread of it with rosemary gathered in the dark, in the rain. I removed feathers from outrageously well-reared birds with tweezers, forcing myself not to flinch at the feeling of the skin still holding tight. I mashed purple mince between my fingers and pushed salt into the necks of birds. I lit fires. I set the table over and over again for men and women who I loved or who I didn’t yet love, those who were strangers to me.
To cook meat was to lick the bones and to suck the cords, the in between places. To force myself to enjoy what used to be frightening. And then, suddenly, to remember why it was frightening. To see the joins of flesh and to consider them as places that once helped a thing run. To smell that smell that once moved me to hysteria, thinking about my pet rabbit and realising that meat was what had been inside him all along. And then to lick that taste from my fingers, smell it in my hair.
This Christmas I carried an enormous forerib of beef from London to Margate. I referred to it as my baby and took numerous photographs of it. When I saw my dad, I loaded a video of it being carved on my phone and we watched it reverently together. “Look at that,” he murmured. “You can tell you’re a butcher’s daughter.” And it’s true, perhaps, that you can.
I have stopped eating meat for the most part. It’s difficult. My brain doesn’t want the things that my mouth wants. My brain belongs to a rational creature and my mouth belongs to a barbarous creature and both the creatures are me. I don’t care for farming practices. I want to live my life carefully. I want the sacrifice, I don’t want anything to be sacrificed. So I try to do better. I make changes.
There is only one way I have found it is possible to give up something. It works with meat, cigarettes, and making inflammatory phone calls. I address the barbarous creature who wants to devour something’s flesh and I say “Not right now – perhaps tomorrow.” Because if tomorrow I can be carnivorous, today it might be possible to practice restraint.