It was in 2010, in a shared kitchen at Cambridge University, that I first came to harbor a secret disdain for the semantic squeamishness of English-speaking meat-eaters. I was preparing raw chicken for dinner when a hallmate walked in. He, a sturdy, English-born student of Economics, stopped at the sight of me, and I had the distinct impression of having, once again, done something wrong.
I was, that year, an American student studying abroad at one of the most decorated institutions in the world, and made aware of it. I was intimidated by formal robes, butlers in the dining hall, cleaners in the dorm rooms, lawns one was forbidden to walk across unless invited by faculty, 800-year-old libraries, a new friend who, one night, drunkenly called the elderly porter a “fucking prole.” I believe I laughed. Everyone else did. Later, I learned that “prole” was short for “proletariat,” and the drunken friend’s family owned a named estate.
I was constantly excusing myself that year, or pretending to understand references, or swallowing dumb questions, or smiling at the joke that I, an American, couldn’t pronounce my own name. At formal dinners for which students wore black robes beneath the vaulted ceiling like extras from Harry Potter, I kept knocking into servers who set down each plated course. Food was always served over the left shoulder, but how was I to know? Servers were not the only ones to whom I mumbled apologies. That had begun at British immigration, when an officer at Heathrow looked meaningfully at my disorganized papers and said, “Shouldn’t a Cambridge student know better?” The implication was that I was no Cambridge student. “I could refuse to let you in,” he said, the first of many unamusing jokes I laughed at.
On this particular evening in 2010, in that still-life comprising me, my chicken, and my hallmate, it was the hallmate who turned and walked out. Minutes later, a second hallmate — they were all English boys — entered, paled, and backed out stammering, ceding the kitchen to me.
In England, in modern English, a living cow arrives on the plate as “beef,” a calf as “veal,” a sheep as “mutton,” and a pig is transmuted into “pork,” which is also called, prettily, the other white meat. The names of the living animals have Anglo roots, whereas the names of the ingredients came from the French — a trademark of Norman conquerors who, in the 11th century, hoped to subjugate the “savage” Natives of the British Isles. “Beef,” “veal,” and “pork” were words of the ruling class, imbued with sophistication and cultural superiority, far removed from living animals with their guts and blood and shit. These words, it occurred to me in 2010, were a form of hypocrisy.
That “chicken” remains “chicken” has its basis in constructed hierarchies, too. Chickens were peasant food in 11th-century England. Nowadays, to say something “tastes like chicken” is to promise no gaminess or oddness, no funk or distinction, no whiff of barnyard animal. “Chicken” has transcended food to achieve a kind of inert neutrality. Most of my Cambridge hallmates cooked chicken in our shared kitchen. They preferred breasts and tenderloins, often shortened to “tenders.” Neat digits of meat, tenders arrived precut and slid bloodlessly from plastic trays, the violence of their severing from the “loin” — an uncomfortably human body part — having been done offstage.
In Mandarin, a pig is a pig is a pig, whether oinking or braised; and chickens, ideally, come with feet and head intact. In some cases, a second character may be appended to the name of the animal, so that 猪 (zhū) is referred to as 猪肉 (zhū roù). 肉 (roù) means “meat” or “flesh.” Rather than hide the animal, 肉 draws attention to the fact that food is carved from a living creature — or added to one. 肉 is also used by Chinese relatives to comment on weight gain. Literally: You have grown (human) meat.
I lost weight my first few months at Cambridge, in part because my meals were no longer subsidized. Back at my American university, my need-based scholarship had covered on-campus food, as well as tuition and housing; in Cambridge, I faced the unpleasant discovery that food was not considered a financial need. Each dish of pudding or squash I placed on my dining hall tray increased my credit card debt. The price-to-calorie ratio of each bite I took in that gorgeous, centuries-old dining hall was sharper than my own hunger. It came to feel of a piece: that an empire unwilling to connect a piece of meat to the living animal from which it came would also refuse to connect the education of a mind to the needs of a body; would serve, with exemplary manners, each course over my left shoulder while ignoring, on the other side, centuries of colonial hypocrisies at home and abroad.
Some months into my time at Cambridge, I quit the dining hall and began to cook my own food, developing a sturdy love for smoked mackerel, red Leicester, and anything under the Sainsbury’s Basics brand. By the time my hallmates walked into the kitchen in 2010, I didn’t have my hands on just any chicken; I had my hands in one, because I was spatchcocking it.
Spatchcocking is a preparation rumored to come from the Irish phrase “dispatch the cock,” such that the death of the bird is inseverable from its cooking. My technique: Crunch a knife down either side of the chicken’s spine in order to remove it. Push on the breast till flesh and cartilage pancake into an even flatness. Keep the scraps. A spatchcocked chicken roasts in 45 minutes and costs less than the equivalent number of pre-cleaned breasts, wings, thighs, drumsticks. I found beauty in the economy of the technique: the way spine became stock and giblets gravy, the definitive crunch of the breastbone that yielded, only with effort, to the weight of my whole body. It feels more honest: I feel it. Nowadays, at a certain type of Chinese restaurant in the Inner Sunset of San Francisco or in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, I still thrill at an old, laminated menu that offers “cow stomach” or “pig bung;” I trust more a place that doesn’t attempt to dissimulate with “offal” or “tripe.”
Back in Cambridge, with my chicken in the oven, I knocked on my hallmates’ doors and offered to brew a pot of tea. Leading the boy who accepted back into the kitchen, I felt gracious: the host, in command. He entered with a hesitation familiar to me; and though he relaxed to see the counters wiped and the knife put away, the smell of roasting meat remained: solid, unapologetic, growing stronger and more present as we drank our tea in the kitchen that I had, in some part, claimed.
This would not be the end of my discomfort in institutions such as that one; but sometimes, in rooms designed to make me uncomfortable, I have looked across the table at the plate of a person for whose comfort the room and institution were designed, and imagined how pale the other might turn if the chicken on their plate were to grow back its bones and feathers, if the pork were to heave up on hoofed trotter. I’ve scraped the innards from quails, pulling hearts and spleens like strings of dark, fleshy pearls; I’ve looked into a fish’s cooked, opalescent eye because how else could I angle my chopstick to dig the best meat from its cheek? At times like this, there’s a bracing rigor to my disdain — a fortifying splash of vinegar. I remember other places, other values, other rooms where I eat better than they do.
C Pam Zhang is the author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold and Land of Milk and Honey, both out now.
Kenn Lam is an illustrator and visual artist with a deep interest in food; particularly through the lens of culture, history and identity.