25 February 2010

Chapter from The Cooking School of Life

A Pig Leg in Prague
by Ken Hulick © 2009

I still actually like meat, although I very seldom eat it and we never cook it at home. We recently came close with Escargot (snails), and sometimes our thick, rare tuna steaks are almost meat-like, but I just don’t miss meat or poultry. Much.

Our honeymoon was the first big international trip we took together – about a year after we married. (That’s how it happens when you marry later in life.) Francesca had previously done the hippie-trail travel to New Zealand and Ecuador, and of course the just-out-of-college Western Europe tour too many years ago for her to remember much of any place. I’d been to Europe only once, and really wanted to see Eastern Europe.

We learned about how we travel with each other (we take turns being pissy); about who does the planning (Francesca arranges lodging, I do transportation); and all about our sleep/jet lag/eat/rest schedules (simply too much information).

In Prague, we stayed in a very odd, but nice, “Botel.” This was a floating hotel (a Boat and a Hotel, get it?) built from scratch to look like a large canal boat – porthole windows, dark wood, lots of brass. The Botel Admiral is permanently anchored on the Vltava river, about a 15-minute walk from central Prague across the Charles bridge. We strolled into the city center for sightseeing and dinner several times.

We were dining at an outside table, drinking real Czech Budvar (Budweiser). Francesca had a light Bud (not a "Bud Light"), and I had a dark Budvar (even being a homebrewer, I’d never heard of dark pilsner before). Francesca ordered some oh-so-exciting-looking grilled zucchini and cheese course (yawn), and I decided upon a roast pork dish. I figured, when in Prague, drinking a Czech Bud, well ....

Francesca’s meal came out first, and I was just about to get annoyed about us not being served together. Then I understood – the waiter needed both hands for my dinner. The pig shank arrived, looking like nothing so much as a miniature suckling pig. Yes it was just a leg, about 12 inches long, but was suspended upon a contraption that looked like a medieval torture device. The meat was nearly falling off the bone, the pork was so tender. I think I was actually drooling. And then I took my gaze from the pig leg to look at Francesca.

Although she’s been (mostly) a vegetarian for years, she is not the squeamish type – rare red meat on a plate for the diner next to her; an ex who lived for barbecued meat – these things do not bother her. She has been an EMT, veterinary assistant, and ambulance driver – not jobs for the squeamish. But the look on her face as she watched me watch the pig leg.... We both started to laugh – we probably looked and sounded like really loud and immature Americans.

Only a few months ago, we were reminiscing about The Pig Leg In Prague, and Francesca asked me if there were any “meats” that I really missed. I considered the question for awhile, not wanting to make a flippant response and also to give myself time to really think about my answer and my reasoning. What it came down to was pork. I think pork chops would be the only thing I could really have any interest in cooking in our home again. I enjoy duck in restaurants, and I never, ever pass up a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner. But otherwise, I don’t think I’ll ever really miss beef or poultry (chicken) again.

The pork industry some years ago had an ad campaign about “The Other White Meat.” And I guess that’s why I preferred pork to beef or chicken – I think it’s the most versatile meat, able to be used in myriad ways, with many different sauces, and can be paired with more different side dishes than either beef or poultry.

Pork with a Zinfandel blueberry sauce and a side of red cabbage and apples? Yes with pork, but not, I think, with beef or poultry. Pork baked with tomatoes and onions, and paired with a side of steamed potatoes? Pork talks; beef and chicken walk. Conversely, take most beef recipes – barbecue, shredded in tacos, meatloaf, beef Wellington – and I can probably adapt most of them to work well with pork. Similarly, I’d easily be able to convert a Chicken Cordon Bleu recipe (with cheese and ham) to work with pork. And wine? Pork can go well with a monster Zinfandel, an elegant Pinot Noir, a creamy Chardonnay, or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc. Although the rules of wine and food pairing were thrown out years ago, it is harder to match beef or chicken with “any” wine.

Eating In Europe

Europeans sometimes make fun of Americans for switching hands while eating. We start with our fork in our left hand and cut with the knife in our right (if we’re right-handed), then we set the knife down, switch the fork to our other hand, and eat. Europeans never put down either utensil, and don’t switch hands. The knife is constantly used for cutting and pushing (when it’s not being waved in the air to make a conversational point), and the fork (mostly with tines down) is the stabbing and eating implement.

Of course, most food rules are made to be broken. Who cares how you use a fork and knife? Or whether you scoop soup from the bowl with your soup spoon from back to front (as most of us do), from front to back (as many Europeans do), or drink it from the bowl using both hands (as the Japanese do). I found it pretty funny the first time I saw a Chinese soup spoon offered at a Japanese restaurant in the U.S. No sense bucking tradition and making it harder to enjoy your meal.