Friday, February 19, 2010

A Spot of Bother on Italian TV

In the videoclip below, you will see Beppe Bigazzi, a fairly well-known Italian chef and specialist in regional delicacies. You will see him get himself in trouble by discussing, with far too much approbation and enthusiasm, a dish apparently native to the Tuscan region of Valdarno, just east of Florence. A dish that is, I would further note, illegal-with-a-capital-I in Italy.

The best part of the video, for me, is the understandably horrified reaction of his co-host, Elisa Isoardi, who finally ends up seeking mortified shelter behind the salad greens. Here's the clip, and I've provided a translation below it:

Bigazzi: Tomorrow is Fat Thursday...

Isoardi: True

Bigazzi: ...which in Valdarno is called "Berlingaccio," because there's a [indecipherable] Berlingaccio. Furthermore, there's a proverb for Berlingaccio: "He who has no fat kills the cat." Because we're in February...

Isoardi: Excuse me...

Bigazzi: ..."Cat February," and one of the great dishes of Valdarno was braised cat.

Isoardi: Braised Otello - no! (Otello is Isoardi's cat - Trans.)

Bigazzi: (sarcastic) Because people don't eat rabbit, they don't eat chicken...

Isoardi: (also sarcastic) No! Let's eat cats, since there are so many of them!

Bigazzi: ...they don't eat pigeon, et cetera? A cat, kept for three days in the running water of a [indecipherable] stream, comes out with its meat white. I assure you - I've eaten it many times - I assure you that it's a delicacy. So now there are going to be letters and things... yes, letters from lovers of nature! Why don't they defend rabbits? For these animals they're racists! Ok, it's not important...

Isoardi: Let's talk about vegetables.

Bigazzi: Why should we talk about vegetables?

The response to Bigazzi's little expedition into cat recipes has been, shall we say, noisy and enraged, and rightly so. The eating of cats, of course, is not an unknown phenomenon, even in the West, where it's generally considered taboo. There's an interesting article on the practise here. However, in most places where cats are kept as pets, they are eaten only as a last resort, when instability or other factors have caused severe food shortages.

A cat- and dog- butcher in Paris during the Prussian siege of the city, 1870-71.

The Valdarnese proverb quoted by Bigazzi, "he who has no fat kills the cat," in fact speaks directly to this motive. Cats are to be eaten only by someone who is desperately starving. And it is worth pointing out at this point that the Valdarno has suffered periods of extreme privation during its history - during the upheavals of the Renaissance before the Florentines took over the area, for example, and more recently during Fascism and the Second World War. I would hazard that the use of cats for food in the area grew out of one of these periods.

There is also the question that Bigazzi hints at towards the end of the clip: why don't the people who are outraged at the thought of cat-eating get similarly worked up over the consumption of, for example, rabbits? It's a good question, but one with a simple answer: it is because cats are considered pets. This means, among other things, that we tend to view them individually rather than collectively, which is a good and humane impulse. As an example of such a view, take Isoardi's response to the first mention of braised cat. The mental image that obviously comes to her right away is that of the cooking and eating of a specific, individual, animal, and it's no wonder that she responds with horror.

Now, it is true that some animals, such as rabbits, ducks and chickens, do sometimes straddle the line between pets and livestock. However, I would be willing to wager that the people who do keep such animals as pets either do not eat them at all- either the pets themselves or other members of the species, or have a certain amount of difficulty with doing so. I am reminded here of one of James Herriot's anecdotes, about a pig-farmer of his acquaintance. This farmer was apparently a fairly typical example of the hardbitten, taciturn, Yorkshire dalesman. However, when it came time each year to slaughter the pigs, his wife had to do all the work, while he sat in the farmhouse kitchen and cried.

Anyway, Bigazzi's been suspended by the network, not to mention shouted at by a number of public figures, including the Undersecretary of Health. He's also now claiming that he was sort of joking: "Mind you, I wasn’t joking all that much. In the 1930s and 1940s, when I was a boy, people certainly did eat cat in the countryside around Arezzo." And so we come back to the idea of cat-eating as a symptom of very hard times - as mentioned above, that was not a happy era for Tuscany.

(A minor note about the Times article linked to here: I don't know where they got the "in-show" quotes that they attribute to Bigazzi, but he doesn't utter them in the clip that I've given you here)

To close, I would issue a reminder that Italy does have a specific law against the eating of cats (dogs, too). I think there's similar legislation in Canada, but if there isn't, there should be.

UPDATE: Chorus, in the comments, gives us a heads-up that Bigazzi has now in fact been fired. And indirectly reminds me to link to these people!


Chorus said...

Mama Cat and Baby Cat would definitely prefer not to be eaten. I think you're absolutely right about the difference between cats and rabbits.

Chunklets said...

Nefertiti too, I suspect! It is all a bit sordid...

Rev.Paperboy said...

Meh. The Koreans eat dogs, the French and Sicilians eat horse, the Chinese eat, well, just about everything. Me, I figure most cats are too scrawny to make a good meal, but I'd eat just about anything except long pig.

Chorus said...

And today, this: Linky

Chunklets said...

Thanks for the link, Chorus!

Rev, I have indeed seen horse butchers in southern Italy - they seem to be a feature of the poorer areas.

There's probably a fairly long and densely worded book to be written about the differences in cultural attitudes towards specific animals (and perhaps someone has already written that book).