Avid game hunter Steven Rinella will eat just about anything. Or so he's told us. So what happens when our extreme gourmand travels across the world to face America's ultimate culinary aversion?
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MY NEW FRIEND Hong, a friendly and husky-voiced 29-year-old Vietnamese woman, is pouring me another shot of rice wine from a bottle that contains the pickled remains of a lizard, a cobra, a scorpion, and two seahorses, swimming in a medley of vegetation that looks like something cleared out from the underside of a lawn mower. It’s February 15, and we’re sitting in a living room in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, two nights before the official start of the Tet holiday. For many Americans, Tet conjures memories of the 1968 Tet Offensive, the massive communist assault against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces that precipitated our gradual withdrawal from the Vietnam War. But for the Vietnamese, Tet is a weeklong celebration marking the Lunar New Year. It’s like every American holiday rolled into one: a time to eat like it’s Thanksgiving, light fireworks like it’s the Fourth of July, give gifts like it’s Christmas, party like it’s New Year’s, hand out candy like it’s Halloween, and dress up like it’s Easter. Hong is pouring the shots in the spirit of holiday cheer, but I’m throwing them back to get liquored up. I need all the bravery I can muster, artificial or not, because I’m in town to do a daring and taboo deed.
Hong is a family friend of Peter Kastan, a 56-year-old American who’s over in his open-air kitchen slicing fruit beneath a rain shield of corrugated plastic. He lives here with the family of his Vietnamese wife, Mai, an attractive woman of 46 with whom he has a five-year-old son, Bao. Peter is broad-shouldered, with massive hands and a shaved head, and he reminds me of Kurtz as played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. I first located him through a blog that he keeps about his life in Hanoi, and he agreed to assist me on my mission. Now, a month later, we’re ready to go for it. But first Peter and Hong issue a pair of warnings.
“It’s good—if you can bear it,” says Hong.
“The heat hits you in your chest,” explains Peter. “They say it’s very powerful. That’s why it can be lucky. Or unlucky.”
I look over at Hong, confused. She demonstrates the heat for me with fluttering hand gestures directed toward her chest, as if she’s putting out a deep, fearful flame. It’s something I will see often during my stay in Vietnam, a gesture I understand to convey a cocktail of trouble and power and temptation and fear, mixed in with a touch of good ol’ “what the hell?” adventure. Hong’s gesture reminds me of what I’m feeling inside my head at this very moment. I look at the bottle of wine. Is this sensation a possible side effect of drinking the essence of critters known to kill folks, or is bad karma already crashing down on me? Either way, I’m going to follow through with the plan. I’m in Hanoi to eat Canis lupus familiaris.
I REMEMBER THE FIRST time it occurred to me that dogs were edible, during one of those long, boredom-filled years between learning how to ride a bike and hitting puberty. My dad figured that I was ready for a life lesson, but since I was too young for the birds and the bees, he settled for gutting deer. He snapped his fingers to summon our beagle, Bo-Bo II, whom my dad had picked up from the side of the road because he reminded him of his own childhood dog, Bo-Bo I. He rolled the dog over. “You get the deer on its back,” he said, “all four legs up in the air.” Using a drink stirrer, he traced out the proper incision line up Bo-Bo’s underside, ass to esophagus. The dog lolled his head back and forth in the ecstasy of human attention while my dad mimicked the act of clearing out its entrails.
My family and I had always owned and loved dogs—lots of random strays and one particularly good duck hunter named Duchess—but I could never shake the implication of my dad’s lesson: Underneath all that playful fluffiness, dogs are made out of meat. From then on, I often wondered about the line separating the things that I was allowed to eat (cows, deer, chickens) from those that were taboo (dogs, cats, cockatiels). Who drew that line, anyway? And why was I bound to it?
Every culture has its taboo foods, particularly meats. For instance, most Hindus, believing that the cow is sacred, refrain from eating beef; many Jews observe the Old Testament prohibition against eating smooth-skinned fish and, along with some Muslims, refrain from eating pork. Rather than being guided by ancient religious texts, most Americans observe the flexible and arbitrary traditions of “gross” and “cruel,” which lead us into a mind-boggling array of hypocrisies and insensitivities.
Take insects. Somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of the world’s human population eats insects, and cultures in Asia, Africa, and Latin America sometimes rely on them as a primary protein source. However, there isn’t one bug that is commonly eaten in America. Instead we make a mockery of insect-eating cultures through prime-time TV gigglefests such as Fear Factor, where money-grubbing contestants with wildly contorted faces gag on roaches.
Our disdain extends to many other varieties of food enjoyed around the world: turtles, frogs, snakes, lizards, monkey brains, horses, guinea pigs, house cats, rats, mice, and any kind of egg that didn’t happen to come out of a chicken. And especially dogs. Before the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, international animal-rights activists, including many Americans, applied so much pressure on the host country that the South Korean government instituted a ban on the sale of dog-meat soup, a traditional food there with cultural importance. Then, in 2002, when South Korea co-hosted the World Cup soccer tournament, U.S.-based animal-rights organizations signed petitions and protested because the government refused to apply adequate pressure to prevent the killing of dogs for food. Protestors got endless mileage out of claims that South Koreans consume a million dogs annually. That same year, the United States euthanized about five million dogs, at the rate of one every six seconds. Also that year, we maintained our lead as the top consumer and producer of agricultural meat products, beating out South Korea’s per-capita rate of meat consumption by nearly three to one.
While many of the foods that Americans consider barbaric today are the mainstays of distant continents, dog eating has some ancient roots on North American soil that were exterminated by European colonization. Thousands of years ago, some Native American tribes viewed dogs as protective companions, as well as a readily available food supply. In the mid-19th century, the historian Francis Parkman traveled among the Oglala Sioux near the Black Hills of South Dakota and reported that dog flesh was a highly esteemed delicacy used to flatter privileged guests.
As America became “civilized,” dog eating was associated with heathens. Now, you certainly won’t find dog meat in your local grocery store, but it’s not necessarily illegal to sell it in the U.S. State laws vary. In Michigan, it is legal to sell dog meat as long as it is properly labeled; in California, producing or possessing dog meat is a misdemeanor; and New York lists the butchery of dog meat as a civil offense. In much of the rest of the world, dog eating is still perfectly commonplace. The archaeological record suggests that the Chinese may have been eating dog since at least the Neolithic period, and there’s compelling DNA evidence that they were likely the first to domesticate wild canines; all modern dog breeds have an ancestor in common with the East Asian wolf.
While I’ve eaten just about everything that you can legally hunt or purchase in a supermarket—from maggots to antelope bladders to a crown roast of kangaroo—I approached my dog-eating adventures with trepidation. I’d been scouring the Web for information by searching the words “dog meat” in tandem with every country whose inhabitants are known to eat dog, whether it’s legal there or not: South Korea, North Korea, China, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, the Philippines, Taiwan, Angola, Nigeria, Togo, Lagos, Cameroon. In my search, I ran across an animal-rights Web site and was surprised by a claim I read that the residents of Hanoi consume tens of thousands of dogs around the Tet holiday. I bought a ticket for Hanoi.
AFTER HONG POURS THE last shot of sinister rice wine, we all hop on a couple of motorbikes and pull into the clusterfuck streets of the Old Quarter. The city has 3.3 million citizens and an estimated two million motorbikes. All the horn honking and jostling and people dodging give me the impression that we’re fleeing something. Clinging to Hong’s waist, I feel like if I turn around I’ll see some great beast swallowing the city in bites.
Our destination is north-central Hanoi. Along the way, Hong points out where then– Navy pilot John McCain was fished from the water after his A-4 Skyhawk was shot down during a bombing mission in 1967. We follow Nghi Tam Street, which runs along an embankment between the Red River and West Lake. Then we come to a line of dozens of thit cho (“dog meat”) restaurants on the side of a busy road, each marked by a daredevil valet who jumps in front of motorbikes to promise drivers that his restaurant is the best.
The side of the street is packed with bikes and pedestrians. It’s like a carnival. Hong explains that we’ve come on the second-luckiest night of the year to eat dog. In the days preceding Tet, it seems, the Vietnamese try to amass so much good luck that the momentum of it will carry them through an entire year of happiness and prosperity. One can also clear up past cases of bad luck by eating certain foods before the New Year, most notably dog. Also, Mai explains, dog acts as a sort of prophylactic protecting you against future instances of bad luck that might spring up in the coming year.
If eating dog just before Tet is good luck, then it’s probably OK to eat it anytime you want, right? Wrong. With dog, timing is the tricky part. For instance, you never, ever eat dog during the first two weeks of the monthly lunar cycle; that’ll only bring bad luck. It is OK to eat dog anytime during the second half of the month, but it becomes better and better to eat dog as the end of the month draws near.
We select a restaurant whose name translates as “Glory Special Meat Dog.” It’s a spacious palapa with floors covered in woven rugs. We pick a spot near a group of 17 teenagers with gelled hair and hip-hop clothes, all of them giggling over plates of dog. Our waitress lays out a mat of newsprint and pours a round of draft beer, then delivers a collection of standard dog condiments: a plastic basket piled high with fresh green herbs, a chunk of root that tastes like a cross between ginger and horseradish, lime wedges, a small dish of vinegar-soaked red chiles, and a bowl of raw sugar. Finally, she unveils a bowl of mam tom, the shrimp-based, evil-bastard cousin of Vietnamese fish sauce. Made by fermenting the crustaceans for a year or so in a ceramic vat, mam tom is what you’d get if you put together a team of top scientists and asked them to produce the world’s most potent odor. Hong points to it: “Very important with meat dog.”
I’m juggling mixed feelings—deep respect for any person who can eat mam tom, utter fear that I will have to eat mam tom—when the moment of truth comes. The waitress brings a large tray heaped with a tapas-style medley of dog dishes. Hong and Mai provide descriptions as she lays them out: “Dog spicy … dog stomach … dog boiled … dog sour … head dog … feet dog … crispy dog.”
I follow Hong’s demonstration and dredge a piece of crispy dog, golden and crusted in sesame seeds, through the fearsome mam tom. I always tell myself: When in doubt, do it really fast. I pop the dog into my mouth. What happens next can be likened to a situation where your scuba gear is scattered all around you at the bottom of the ocean and your friends are trying to assemble and employ the gear while you panic. Mai and Hong grab the herbs and slice the root and dip things into sauces and try to pack it all into my mouth in some kind of precise sequence. I feel some gristle in my mouth, and the taste of fatty meat, like highly amplified pork, but mostly I feel mam tom. I wash it all down with a snort of beer, and then lean back with a fake smile on my face.
“Well … ?” Peter asks.
“You like?” says Mai.
I try to think of something polite. “Geez … it was good. Just great. And that sauce is really something, too! Wowzers!”
I would have sampled every dish (minus the mam tom), but something happens. First, I feel a strange heat rising in my chest. It comes on as a subtle warming deep inside, like how a cell phone feels after you’ve been talking on it for a long time. But after a moment or two I feel as if I’ve had a tanning bed’s heating element stuffed into my shirt pocket. I suspect the condiments, but Hong explains that the heat is from the dog itself—hence the dog’s power. It’s unnerving, but not as unnerving as what happens next.
Mai dips her chopsticks into the “feet dog,” a large bowl filled with broth and several submerged objects that are about as thick as big carrots. She hoists one of the objects and lays it in my bowl. The name “feet dog” is a pretty good description: toenails, skin, pads, the whole damned deal. And then I’m visited by the ghost of Muffin Man, a corgi/terrier mutt that once belonged to a girlfriend of mine. I never thought about eating Muffin Man, because he was old and gaunt and lame in one back leg. Instead I used him to play “doggy rock star.” I’d lay him across my lap, use his teeth as frets, and “pick” his rear ham like guitar strings. This tickled him, and his otherwise paralyzed leg would flail out below my hand and I’d grab it to do the whammy-bar effect. Looking at the paw in my bowl, I can’t shake the image of Muffin Man’s poor little foot. I lift it, take the faintest nibble, then announce that I am finished.
THE NEXT MORNING—THE day before Lunar New Year’s Eve—the dog vendors in a downtown market are doing a brisk business as they clear out their supplies in a rush. The market sells just about everything that lives or was once alive: hair combs made of water buffalo horn, squid, fresh pigs’ noses, cages full of ornamental songbirds. I’m here with a translator I’ve hired for the day, Cham, whose leg was severely injured while fighting in the “American War.” I asked him to take me to the market because I’ve been feeling like the culinary equivalent of a trophy hunter who goes to Africa and shoots the first zebra he’s ever laid eyes on. I came to Vietnam thinking that I could overcome my own culture’s culinary prejudices, but I’ve managed only to turn tail and run. My mistake, I realized, was that I’ve been trying to eat dog without first understanding where it comes from. If I knew that, I might be able to give up my association between the dogs on my plate and the dogs that have shared my home.
Cham leads me down a long stall covered by a tattered collection of low-strung tarps. Dogs hang above wooden benches that line each side of the stall, eviscerated but otherwise intact. They’re classic mutts, Heinz 57’s, the kind of dogs you see wandering city streets in Mexico: long, upward-curling tails, steeply pitched foreheads, medium size. The hair has been singed off with a propane torch, leaving the skin as golden brown as a Thanksgiving turkey in a commercial. Teenage girls wearing skirts and dresses are butchering the dogs into manageable cuts.
Customers, all women, pick through the pieces as fast as the girls can cut them. “How much money for a whole dog, head and all?” I ask. An elderly woman weighs one of the dogs on a hanging scale, taps out some figures on a calculator, and gives me a price of 900,000 dong (about $55) for a 22-pound dog. Cham assures me that this is about twice the local rate. “Not a friendly price,” he says.
As we walk out, we pass a woman selling live, fluffy puppies out of a cage.
“Is that for people who like to raise their own meat?” I ask.
“No, not meat dogs,” Cham says. “For pets.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The difference?” Cham shrugs. “The customer buy these for a pet dog, not a meat dog.”
Cham tells me he has a dog at home.
“Is your family going to eat him?” I ask.
“No, no. This is pet. My family does not eat dog.”
A few days later, Peter’s wife, Mai, helps me track down a dog wholesaler named Dung, in Hanoi’s Hoang Mai district. Dung explains that he buys dogs from small farmers in the countryside, usually paying the equivalent of about 70 cents per pound of live dog. He prefers dogs that are one year old, weighing about 20 pounds. He fattens the animals by feeding them beef stomach, then kills them with a sharp blow to the head—the same method used by many American livestock slaughterhouses. Once they’re dehaired and gutted, Dung’s dogs are sold to local restaurants at a 60 percent markup. He moves about 1,000 annually, selling more during the run-up to Tet than in all the rest of the year.
Since it’s almost the beginning of the New Year, he doesn’t have any dogs in stock except for a young pooch that’s tied to a rope. I ask Dung’s wife if someone is going to eat the dog. She tells me that Dung bought it from a farmer as part of a load of meat dogs, but it was such a nice puppy that they decided to wait and see how it was around the kids. If it’s good and doesn’t bite, it will be their pet. If not, the dog will get fattened up and sold.
TWO WEEKS LATER, THE moon hits an appropriate phase for dog eating one night while I’m in Nha Trang, a coastal beach town on the South China Sea. I begin spending my evenings cruising on a rented moped in search of thit cho restaurants. I find several places that have been closed since Tet, but on my third night out one of these restaurants has its lights on. I look in the door and notice a dog hanging from a meat hook above the cash register.
The atmosphere inside is a world apart from the buzz of the dog restaurants two weeks ago; the difference reminds me of that between a neighborhood bar on a Saturday night and the same joint midday Monday. This place has a scattering of men in their twenties and thirties, sitting around smoking cigarettes and drinking beer over plates of grilled dog and mam tom.
The sight of a Westerner traipsing into a dog restaurant is causing a ruckus. I’m toasted many times. One of the waitresses, who speaks
English, says, “Vietnam man like American who be one of them.” I look at the plates of dog meat and think, In that case, they might not like me.
By now I’ve put much of the mystery of dog meat behind me, or at least I know enough to know that I’ll never understand. I’ve pressed dozens of Vietnamese about the issues of luck and the mysterious heat, and I’ve gotten dozens of different answers.
Cham gives me the most thorough explanation of the phenomenon. “There are three unlucky foods,” he says. “Duck is unlucky because the duck is stupid. Squid is unlucky because they have black ink. Dog is unlucky because …” Cham proceeds to tell a story that I’ve never heard from anyone else, nor will ever find any reference to: Long ago, a man violated the Buddhist prohibition against meat offerings and laid the flesh of a dog on an altar. The smell so insulted the monks that it became bad luck to eat dogs.
“Then why is it good luck at other times of the month?” I ask.
“Because most animals will go away from man, but a dog will come to him. The dog is our friend, and that makes the dog lucky.”
Mai tells me the story of her brother. He used to eat dog every month because he was unable to have a child. Then, ten years ago, his son was born. With this piece of luck, he quit eating dog.
I ask, “If the dog helped bring him good luck, then why not keep eating it to get even more good luck?”
“Now he has the good luck,” she says. “He doesn’t need dog.”
I start to think of dog meat as kind of like electricity. Electricity is powerful and helpful, but it can burn and kill, so we use it with incredible caution, and for many purposes. When someone’s having a heart attack, a sudden bolt of electricity might resuscitate him. However, that doesn’t mean it’s always a good thing. After all, a shock of electricity can give a healthy person a heart attack.
You might not find many Vietnamese who would totally agree with my analogy or even understand it. But I’ve spent a couple of weeks trying to assemble a cohesive comprehension of the nuances of dog meat, and that’s the best I can do. As I sit down to my last meal of dog and look around, it occurs to me that the men in this restaurant would have a very difficult time understanding my own feelings about dog. I imagine getting up and telling them about Bo-Bo II the beagle, and maybe even Muffin Man’s limp little foot. I’d get laughed right out of the restaurant.
My meal comes. One dish holds little strips of dog dredged in sesame seeds and grilled to a crisp. The other has cross sections of boiled dog leg, not unlike Christmas ham. I lift some crispy dog with my chopsticks and chew it up. Then I have another strip. Then I have a piece of boiled dog. I’m trying to will myself into a nonchalant attitude—just a guy in a restaurant eating his meal. I can’t do it. I’m forcing it down, and it is not enjoyable. At this point, I’ve answered for myself the question I wanted answered: If your culture and your culinary curiosities go head to head, culture’s going to win. It’ll win even if you’re rooting against it.
The only thing left is the heat. It has risen in my chest just like I knew it would. I concentrate on the heat, as though I might someday have to describe it to a doctor. It’s not the spices. I believe it’s more psychosomatic, equal parts adrenaline, fear, and shame. It’s centered right on my heart.