Contrary to popular belief (or, perhaps, directly in support of popular belief–I don’t presume to have a solid grasp on the beliefs of everyone in the world, and should probably have chosen a more honest introductory phrase), being a vegetarian is not very hard. It’s not even hard to be a vegetarian in France, as long as you have the wherewithal to say “je suis végetarienne.” I do hear the occasional “so what do you eat?” from the bleakly unimaginative, and have twice received a bowl of uncooked radishes, offered with the same smile you see when someone gives a child a gift, knowing only their basic interests. I make it even easier on people because I will also eat fish. This allows me a sense of moral superiority over the meat-eaters, and makes me a point of ridicule in the vegetarian community. ‘Pescetarian’ however, requires an explanation, followed by a lot of unanswerable ethical questions that I’d rather not get into, so I just stick with vegetarian.
One evening, my host family brought me to dinner at the house of a family friend–a homeopath and her boyfriend. They would have felt right at home in Ashland, Oregon, what with their woodland elf figurines and their pellet stove. Needless to say, in this house I felt very comfortable with my dietary restrictions. I spent a good deal of time smiling at the marine life in their living room aquarium, watching the fish dance about each other in what I perceived to be joy. If only I had seen the terror in their unblinking eyes.
The appetizer was a charming offering of ginger cookies, tapenade, carrot slices, and a french kombucha-like drink made from fermented fungus. After a healthy chastising of the yellow fever vaccine I’d received that morning in preparation for my trip to Senegal, we dined.
When my host family told them I didn’t eat meat, only seafood, I believe they took it to mean seafood is the only thing I would eat. The entire table was laden with what looked like the supporting cast of the little mermaid. What I had first thought were capers were actually the shriveled grey eyes of of fully intact giant prawns, whose limp antennae rested on what looked like a bowl of their children. The french call these ‘grey shrimp’, which only adds to the appeal of the little creatures staring up at you from a glistening mound of corpses. There was also a plate of crab legs, a platter of oysters (gummy, grey insides gleaming in puddles of seawater), and two dishes of sea snails. These were not escargot, I was told firmly, although I don’t remember what they were actually called because I was too busy digesting the fact that I would have to digest what I’m sure were a tight-knit group of friends back when they were underwater.
Don’t get me wrong, I love seafood. In moderation. A plate of fish and chips, sushi, some batter-fried shrimp, crab with lemon and melted butter–that’s the kind of thing I can really get jazzed about. But I’ve never seen anything like this. The sheer amount of it all. And it was cold. I guess I don’t know how these little bottom-scuttlers are usually served up, but crab, lemon, and butter do not evoke the same pleasure when chewed below room temperature. I’m sure it was my fault for trying to mix solid butter into the mush, but what are we without dreams?
The feast was surreal. It was as if the table had been plunged into slow motion. Open mouths crackling fibers in the prawns; the mucousy slurp of of an oyster as a trickle of sea water descended a chin; throaty french laughter echoing from crab-filled maws framed by stubble and fragmented shell. The french talk with their mouths full. That’s not a judgment or even an observation. It’s a fact relayed to me by host father. They speak through their food so as not to limit the the natural flow of conversation, which I can by all means support in any other setting. Nevertheless, I find it impossible to listen to the curative powers of geraniums while the words are passed through the pulverized body of a snail. Watching the rubbery lump flatten under teeth, only to resume its twisted grey shape as they released it, over and over until it finally succumbs to the esophagus, battered, but still whole.
This, I knew, was my punishment. Witnessing the people I’d grown to love and understand, devouring the contents of a tide pool with a primal ferocity. This was my moment of retribution for devaluing the lives of sea creatures. They were taking their revenge. I knew it was either sink or swim–though I feared either would put me at risk for becoming dessert. I began steeling myself for the task at hand when, from my right, a crack wrought the air. My host mother had broken into a crab leg, and the resulting spurt of juices struck me in the face. We all shared a hearty chortle and I shredded the napkin in my lap. Ultimately though, I allowed my animal hunger to take me. There wasn’t a mirror, but I think my eyes rolled back in my head and I’m pretty sure my teeth sharpened. They howled in approval as I joined the fray of slippery crunching, snapping their jaws and stamping their hooves. Or something like that.
To start, I switched off the part of the brain that prevents you from eating erasers and then sucked down a snail. It wasn’t the sensation of chewing on hardened fat that got me, or the stiff, brittle sucker-piece, or even the squelching noise the thing made as it untwirled from its shell; it was the grains of sand. That is one aspect of seafood that I have never understood. How can one enjoy a scallop when small rocks chip away their teeth at every bite? Why not save a few bucks and roll a damp marshmallow in rock salt? The oysters fascinated me because after they scoop the sorry creature into their mouths with a knife, they tip the shell and drink the seawater. I was always taught not to let dogs drink water at the beach or they’d get diarrhea, so this really felt like tempting fate. I, personally, was content with politely tipping the water onto my plate that was slowly filling with carcass parts. That’t another facet of seafood that I find completely backwards. The more you eat, the more you’re left with, and by the end of the meal your plate is completely full. Eyes, shells, antennae, and exoskeletons stacked like a pyramid of trophies to show the other cavepeople who is the most fertile. They’re defense mechanisms against one another, but that armor gave them no protection as we tore into their weird little bodies.
The french call this massacre ‘fruits de mer‘ or ‘fruits of the sea’. It’s a sweet thought as you rip the tiny legs off of something with a face. Speaking of which, I really got the hang of prawn peeling, though my pride was tainted in part by the growing number of eyes glaring up at me from my plate. Every time I glanced their way, my small and large intestines would switch places, so I took to covering them up with bits of fibery husks from their disemboweled comrades. The concealment worked, but there was no escaping my sins. For the next two days my fingers smelled like I’d just stepped off an Olivia Cruise.
I could hardly believe that the next course they brought out was a salad, and not, as I had originally thought, a terrified manatee calf served in the skull of its mother. Whatever had awakened inside of me yearned for blood, but I pushed it back down and we resumed the airs of polite society. All of the brine had left me parched, and I wanted to clear my mouth of the PeTA-sanctioned hate crime, but they didn’t have any water–only white wine and a bottle of lemonade. I hate lemonade, but, for lack of a better alternative, asked for some anyway. They laughed gaily, saying it was just water in a lemonade bottle, but assured me not to worry, as they would fetch me some lemon drink in a flash. I tried pleading with her–water was fine, preferred actually; scrambling in vain to explain the horrible mistake. Unfortunately, my hurried, broken french fell on deaf ears as she, ever the hostess, told me it was no trouble, and zipped off to grab an unopened bottle of sugary lemon-water.
“All for you!” she stated proudly, her wide grin echoed around me by each guest. I returned their smiles, hoping to convey mirth instead of revulsion, and got started on the 1.5 liters I was now compelled to drink.
Hours later, crustacean and lemonade sloshing through me with every waddle toward the door, I whispered a quiet “desolée” to the fish in the tank.