Last month the CDC warned us to stop kissing chickens. Apparently you can get sick from snuggling up to ground dwelling jungle birds that scratch around for bugs in the dirt all day. Sure they can be cuddly, but as Obama taught us, you can’t put lipstick on a pig—an idiom which briefly functioned as misogynist a jab at hockey moms-turned-politicians, but which probably used to apply to the un-smoochworthiness of otherwise filthy livestock.
When I was working in agriculture I met a USDA soil scientist who grimaced when she asked me if I knew just how much feces was ingested by “free-range” chickens. Having been around my fair share of commercial poultry houses, I tended to agree with her.
Most commercial livestock operations basically function as poop factories, where the milk or chicken or pork is almost a bi-product. This waste is then turned into fertilizer or is clumsily disposed of—either way it generally finds it’s way into drainage ditches and streams across the nation, gaining steam as this shit torrent descends into the Mississippi watershed and is ultimately expelled into the toilet bowl of America, the Gulf of Mexico.
I wonder how adjusted our palates are to fecal undertones in our food. Gulf oysters are cheap and abundant—they grow like weeds in the nutrient rich warm waters of places like Galveston Bay, as these Texas mollusks make up a huge percentage of oysters found in restaurants on both coasts. Shucking open these mud coated swamp rocks brought me back to smells from my childhood. But it evoked memories of picking blackberries and catching frogs in the tiny creek next to the neighborhood baseball diamond. The ever-present odor of piss-soaked sludge, rainbow slicks on foaming eddies—when you’re a kid it doesn’t really register that you’re splashing around in sewage runoff, and that the blackberries you’re eating thrive there because of all the excess “fertilizer.” It’s no wonder New Orleans cuisine masks the flavor of sweet crude and detritus by literally cooking the shit out of oysters and other fast-growing trash fish by drenching them in butter and spicy sauces.
I think we’ve grown accustomed to consuming many otherwise offensively smelling things. That sharp, delicate note of fecal ammonia in chicken drumsticks or ground turkey patties. It doesn’t take an astute palate to observe the wafts methane and nitrogen in Canadian bacon or Slim Jims.
The way we taste and smell things depends largely on the context and circumstances that we find ourselves in—especially our expectations. Watch someone act blown away when they take a sip of wine, only because they’ve been fed a bullshit scripted line about how expensive and fancy it is.
I’ve often posed a hypothetical to examine this matter further: I want you to close your eyes and imagine yourself squeezed into a window seat of a hot Mumbai passenger car. Seated next to you there is a corpulent Michael Moore-type fellow, spilling himself into your tray table safe space. He’s wheezing, wearing sweat pants, and is emitting a sort of musky tepid air—unpleasant, but nothing offensively odorous. He’s starting to doze off in his rumination and you notice him list to one side, as he passes furtive-yet-audible gas that sounds like a diesel engine burping through a tuba stuffed full of socks. Now, immediately after hearing this, imagine your nostrils being overwhelmed with the strong aroma of fresh strawberries.
I’ll bet that you would not be relieved that your ogreish travel companion farts like an air freshener, but rather your taste buds (that’s who smells things) would be so confused that they wouldn’t be able to interpret this smell as pleasant fruit, but rather a stench so foreign and aghast that it must certainly have come from some otherworldly waste disposal system, the likes of which your gag reflex has never known. So wretched that both stomach and bowel evacuation protocols would be executed with haste. All systems go. Cod Red.
I suppose everything depends on context. I don’t eat chicken anymore.