Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Dolma or Beshka?

My mother cooked dolma last night. Dolma is one of the reasons I could never be a vegetarian. Yes, I know, I know. You could have one of those rice dolmas they sell in London shops, but it is just not quite the same, is it. You stuff wine leaves with rice only when you cannot afford meat.

And I was thinking to myself just how much I love meat dishes. Dolma, kebabs, plov... my favourite national cuisine is almost entirely meat based. But then, I keep questioning how my predatory food preferences go with my love for animals. Because, in case you have not noticed, I am a big animal lover. Fnarr fnarr

We had relatives up in the mountains back in Azerbaijan. The relatives kept a few cows in the shed. One summer, during our visit, they had Beshka. A very cute, if somewhat boisterous, bullock. As far as I could tell, everyone in the family adored him. Their relationship with Beshka was no different to mine with my dog; except for perhaps he did not sleep in the house. Beshka was their pet. So, imagine my shock when the next summer he was gone. 'Has something happened to Beshka’? I asked in my broken Azeri, ready to express condolences. ‘Happened?’ They laughed. ‘Yes, dinner happened.’

I was horrified. How was that possible? They loved that bullock. He was their baby. I mean, if anyone tried to eat my dog, they would have to deal with me first. How could those guys decide, one day, it was time to eat their pet? Was he misbehaving a little or making too much noise?

I used to blame the barbaric Azeri village folk mentality. But then, I was reminded of this traumatic childhood episode by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, who seemed to be very affectionate with the pigs he kept in his River Cottage. Only until he fancied some pork for dinner.

If I think about that, Beshka was not the only time I witnessed brutal animal slaughter back home. A beheaded chicken running around… A discarded sheep’s head in the yard, still looking at me with its' eyes rolling….Considering such disturbing experiences and my love for animals, how is it possible that I am not a vegetarian?

But I am not. The last thing I think about when I queue up in our butchers’ for some meat for dinner is how it arrived there.

And yet, occasionally, when I see cows in a field, looking at me with such intelligent curiosity (like these guys we came across on our weekend trip to the river)

I remember Beshka and feel a little guilty. Just because a steak looks different in the shop, I still know it used to walk around the field staring at strangers.

Hmm….speaking of which, I wonder if there is any dolma left for my dinner tonight?


  1. My wife and I spent a year in France when she exchanged jobs with a teacher over there. It was in deepest rural France (La France profonde' as they call it) and our neighbours were a family of paysans who became very good friends. They bought a piglet every year, fattened it and slaughtered it to provide them with a year's supply of meat, pâtés, rillettes and all sorts of delicious goodies. And yet the pigs were more or less family pets while they were alive. For our benefit, they actually started giving them names - Arthur was succeeded by Bébert, then Castor, etc. They also raised chickens, guinea fowl, ducks and rabbits and I took videos of the slaughter and preparation of all these creatures. The family's young son, when he saw them, said it was like watching something from the 20s, 30s etc. It's an essential yet ritualistic process and, like you Scary, I appreciated the pigs for their distinct character but also for the delicious meals they became.

  2. You made me think of my dearest tía Angelita (aunt Angelita). She used to tell about her little pig, how she loved it, how she used to feed it et al. And then one day, she saw "her" pig being slaughtered. She cried, but ended eating it, as poor as she was in her childhood. "Delicious", she used to tell us.
    As a city resident, that's something I never saw. I think eating your own pet may sometimes be a very shocking experience.

  3. See what urbanization does to people? Our relationship with domesticated animals got completely screwed up.

    One extreme is to treat them as pets, with love and affection we sometimes deprive human family members. People who do that are probably all vegans.

    Another extreme is to forget about them completely, which is easy: out of sight, out of mind. Soon, people convince themselves that steaks actually originate in the supermarket, and they start eating meat twice a day, every day.

    In reality, there is a healthy middle ground. We can like the animals and slaughter them at the same time. We should be grateful to the lamb or chicken that dies, and because we value their sacrifice we should eat meat in moderation. Wish all people can have the same attitude as your relatives in the village.

  4. I totally agree with you, and I can easily understand that someone can love animals passionately, yet have no problems with eating meat. I also never tend to think about the past life of my steak or dolma.
    And besides, to avoid that guilty feeling, I assure myself that eating other animals is something totally inherent in nature.

  5. @night-of-doom: Checked out your blog, and wanted to leave a comment on the posting about russian/azeri language.as we discussed it at length here, too...but I struggle with livejournal for some reason! Can never leave comments, even though I created an account-just for that. Very annoying!

  6. (Argh, that last post was abysmal; I just wrote what came off the top of my head to see if my new account would resolve the problems I'm having with my posts not showing up.)

  7. I'm often struck by the disjunction between human intellect and sentiment, and the biological machine which is their actual foundation. An animal body dependent upon consumption and elimination for its survival, easily disturbed by hormonal and chemical imbalances, and ultimately doomed to fall apart, seems an awkward counterpart to conscious minds given to solving logical puzzles, artistic endeavors, sympathy, and love.

    It's easy to see how religion could become popular for its interpretation of this gap as essential rather than merely a matter of perspective, teaching that souls don't die when bodies do and encouraging us to subdue our desires for meat, sex, or violence with willpower. Really thinking about this very basic problem makes it seem strange that the primary political conflict is over liberalism and conservatism; aren't conflicts between the pragmatic, biological standpoint and the idealistic, high-minded standpoint more fundamental to the human condition?

    I agree with Riyad; meat is good in moderation.

  8. when I read "when I see cows in a field, looking at me with such intelligent curiosity" it remind me how boys used to make fun "Sevgilim dağ başında inək sağırdı. O məni sevmirdisə inək niyə tərs-təsr baxırdı?"

  9. I don't eat much meat, for several reasons, not in the least because I like vegetarian food. I love vegies baked in olive oil, with lots of garlic and so on. I eat meat occasionaly, when my fiancé cooks it for me. Eating an animal that was treated like a pet is much better than what's happening in the meat industry.
    But I will never order duck in a restaurant. I live on a house boat, ducks are my neighbours. Thou should not eat thy neigbour. It's my religion, my personal splinter in my eye ;-)

  10. @Anonymous: I dont get that joke...My Azeri sucks, and when I asked my mother to translate,it obviously got lost in translation. :)

    @ Anneke: Oh, Anneke! But duck is soooooo tasty...especially in chinese restaurants...roast duck and rice...

  11. For anonymous: Thanks, so sweet the rhyme is!

  12. Ok. It was a joke I used to hear when I was child and my ex-hasbend used to make fun like that. translation is, my love was milking a cow on the top of mauntain, if she didn't love mw then why did that cow was loooking at me seriously

  13. I LOVE the illustration. The eyes are perfect.

    I've had the same dilemma at times, but mine was probably also motivated by the fact that I tend to prefer the taste of veggies/fruits/grains/and other non-meatie things. Though born in Turkey, I grew up in the States; and, when visiting the motherland during my childhood summers, I remember DREADING the smell of lamb and the possibility of my grandma trying to feed that smelly meat to me. Maybe my reaction was spurred from the trauma I must have experienced on the beheading of lamb for Kurban Bayrami, as one of the weirdest pictures in our family albums is of little-me staring over my grandfather's balcony as he skins a bloody sheep. Maybe the smell reminds me pungently of where the meat comes from? That would be too poetic though -- having moved back to the homeland recently, I STILL can't get used to the milk smell either, so it's likely the ACTUAL smells themselves that bother me...

    Back to the topic: I tried being vegetarian briefly last year, right when I moved to Turkey. As much as Turks love meat, they DO have an AMAZING variety of veggie/grain/bean dishes that are both cheaper and delicious. Plus, somehow I convinced myself that eating FISH was still both philosophically and physically consistent with a pro-vegetarian approach (I have this Hindu book on "Karma Free Diet" that some Hare Krishnas once shoved into my hands, and they make a good case for the greater anatomical similarities between the human body and herbivores, but I felt that "pescetarianism" fell into a loophole), so that whenever I happened to crave kofte, I could go for balik ekmek instead. Coincidentally, my vegetarian experiment ALSO coincided with Ramazan bayrami, which ended up sucking seriously, because instead of balik ekmek and mercimek corbasi, I ended up hoarding my aunts' boreks and other bready stuff they cooked for iftar instead (not that I was fasting -- but there is really no true translation of "No thanks" in Turkish -- it is simply impossible to reject an offer). But, my hala's insistence is only an excuse for why the vegetarian diet turned into a fat-et ("et" in this case referring not to the Turkish word for "meat" but to its homophone "make" instead): Bready things are the cheapest most universal foods in Turkey (and most places), and for a person who never really gets completely full because -- let's face it -- protein has the advantage of making a person totally FULL , you can just snack on simits all day without even realizing what the hell you are doing... I forgot to add the time that I got sick from a particular balik ekmek, which was the ultimate point at which I stopped that experiment.

    That is just a practical concern about vegetarian diets, very far from the deep philosophical problem of what it means to be munching on Beshka. On that problem, I agree with Riyad, and would just unashamedly quote the sentiments from Khalil Gibran's "The Prophet":

    'When you kill a beast say to him in your heart,

    "By the same power that slays you, I to am slain; and I too shall be consumed. For the law that delivered you into my hand shall deliver me into a mightier hand.

    Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven."'


    (I know you're an atheist and all, but this is more about prayer than it is about the word "God". And, I know that this is an old post, but I am new to it.)

    cheers from Istanbul...

  14. @Persephone: Thank you for this. Loved your story about turkey and foods there, and it just reminded me of Istambul and how delicious and fresh the fish there was!
    As for lamb being smelly, it is. There is this certain smell that meat has, in particular lamb...when being cooked that I always found disgusting. especially when boiled! still....I could maybe survive on chicken and fish and no red meat, but I could never be one of those veggie types, no eggs, no fish no chicken...might as well kill myself now. :-) anyway, welcome to the blog. I noticed you started yours but there are no posts yet. Look forward to reading some when you get the first one out!

  15. Thanks, S-Azeri. :)

    I totally agree with you about chicken and fish versus red meat. You know, in Turkey, when you say meat ("et") people think you are referring to red meat in particular, and that's how you should interpret them too.... Substituting this into the definition of vegetarian... Moral dilemma? : Solved! :)

    Thank you too about reading my own imaginary posts-to-be. I definitely have a lot of psychological energy pent up to warrant a thousand posts (with all the entropy generated from the East/West dichotomy that I see you know well too). But, that doesn't mean that any of those posts will be particularly *good* -- certainly they will not likely be so light-heartedly entertaining! :) So, when the dam bursts and the flood flows (the moment of which even my self cannot predict), reading is at your own risk!

    cheers again..