It’s not often that I’ll take issue with a Tuscan over his preferred menu choices. After all, what’s not to like? Ribollita (hearty vegetable and cavolo nero soup thickened with bread); ragu di carne alla Fiorentina (slow-cooked meat sauce enriched with chicken livers); panforte di Siena (a dense and luscious cake of dried fruit and nuts melded together with honey and sugar) – all perfectly delicious. But when I heard that Italian celebrity chef Giuseppe “Beppe” Bigazzi announced his penchant for stewed cat, live on Italian TV, I was, to say the least, somewhat sceptical.
Silver-haired Bigazzi, 77, who authored the culinary bible, La Cucina Semplice dei Sapori d’Italia (which translates loosely as Simple Italian Cooking), is a household name in a nation of food-lovers. He co-hosts a daily pre-lunchtime cooking show on the RAI network which attracts millions of eager viewers keen to pick up tips on perfecting their national cuisine. But his fans were less than convinced last Wednesday when he described how soaking a cat (I assume one that has been slaughtered and prepared for the cooking pot) in spring water for three days (to draw out any impurities and ermm…residue from foul flavored pet food, perhaps) makes for quite the most delicious stew – gatto in umido – with tender, white-fleshed meat. The casserole, he said, was a long-standing traditional favorite in his hometown of Valdarno, Tuscany.
Whilst his beautiful, female co-host Elisa – who incidentally has a cat named Othello – looked on with obvious panic in her eyes, Bigazzi ignored her silent pleas to shut up already about the cat and enthusiastically encouraged folk to whip up the dish for the Florentine festival, Berlingaccio, which is celebrated the Thursday before Mardi Gras. Feasting and gluttony are welcome revelers at this party. Sugar coated, deep-fried pastries, candied almonds and creamy rice tarts are all usual participants. But Bigazzi proposed his kinsmen go one step further and take a traditional proverb, which eludes to generally merrymaking, literally, “to those who have no fat Berlingaccio kill the cat.” It’s better than chicken, rabbit or pigeon, he persisted in arguing.
BBC World News reported that during the commercial break that followed his sensational outburst producers, who were only too cognizant of the outcry that would inevitably follow, tried to convince the chef to apologize when the show resumed. But lady luck was not on their side. Bigazzi stood his ground and was subsequently fired from the network.
Bigazzi was today quoted by the newspaper Corriere della Sera as saying he had been referring to events in the past, adding: “You can’t judge things from 70 years ago”.
But that was not enough for Italy’s National Animal Protection Board, whose president, Carla Rocchi, announced she had instructed its lawyers to begin proceedings against Bigazzi for inciting cruelty to animals.
A junior minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s government, Francesca Martini, said what had happened was “of the utmost gravity”.
No doubt none of us nor are going to start boiling up Felix on Bigazzi’s recommendation, but I think the widespread coverage of his unchecked revelation and the reaction to it are worth mulling over for a moment. When I was little my family had a farm in England about 2 hours outside of London. There we kept horses, goats,sheep, chickens and two Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. Most of these creatures had names, most had come to us as cuddly newborns and some were treated as fully fledged pets. But does this mean that I wouldn’t now savor a steaming bowl Jamaican curried goat because of my old friend Billy? No, of course not. Why then do we attribute certain animals which we have arbitrarily chosen to become our friends and not our food with greater rights? Why should the cat live and not the chicken? Because they purr when we rub their bellies? Sorry, that doesn’t cut it.
I think Bigazzi’s comments speak to a larger and more profound problem in the way we choose to see our food. The sanitized packs of chicken breasts, steaks and ground meat wrapped in neat trays and lining the walls of supermarket chiller cabinets could not be further removed from the reality of where that protein came from. Some time ago I went to a Halal slaughterhouse in Queens. There I watched a young goat- cute, with a fetching beard and emitting shrill cries that made me hold back my tears- being slaughtered. With great speed, the animal was deftly butchered and the meat handed to a customer who was going home to feed his family. This was real and there was no room for sentimentality.
Last month China responded to popular pressure from it’s growing middle classes and proposed a ban on eating cat and dog meat. Both are traditional Chinese fare and have been in the culinary repertoire for centuries. If the law is passed people caught eating cats could face 15 days in prison. But what if cats and dogs were raised in sterile, humane farms, with space to roam, much like grass fed cattle say. What if they were humanely killed by stunning and were not plucked off the streets? Would this really be all that unacceptable? Indeed, how is this different from consuming rabbit. Many of us grew up with bunnies as pets; yet my local butcher has them hanging in his shop, gutted and skinned and ready for me to casserole. No one is knocking on his door demanding that he close shop for being cruel to bunnies.
By no means am I advocating anyone murder their cats or bite into their puppies; there are easier ways to get your protein fix. At the very least, if we are going to pass judgement on others for what they eat, we really should take a careful look at out own food sources first.