The personal blog of the cultural ambassador to the newly discovered planet of the Ant-people (the Myrmeiods).

Monday, December 19, 2011

Questions, Answered and Otherwise

I said I’d find out how an urdle is slaughtered, and today I did. First, I should say that I’ve never denied where meat comes from, but I don’t come from farming people; I’d neverbefore seen any animal die, except beloved pets. I was afraid I would find it disturbing, that it would interfere with my relationship with the La’heli to see them kill. And now…I can’t say I’m quite comfortable with slaughter. It’s not a friendly act. But the La’heli were…humane, an odd word to apply to non-humans.

They had the urdles trained to go to the slaughter site for a food reward—a distance of several hundred yards from the corrals the animals are kept in. The site is behind a screen of trees, and usually downwind. They injected each urdle with a strong sedative, and waited until all the urdles they wanted to slaughter (six juvenile males not needed for stud and one adult female past laying) were assembled and unconscious before killing any of them. The slaughter site is kept very clean when not in use, and no blood is allowed to fall to the ground there, so there is no scent of blood when the animals arrive. They not only feel no pain, they feel no fear.

Of course, avoiding fear on the part of an animal over ten times your size is simply good sense, but the La’heli do care about their animals' experience. Their nuanced understanding of chemistry also allows them to use sedatives in a way we can’t.

Myrmeoids have a far more advanced understanding of chemistry and biochemistry than we do, and ordinary people routinely perform complex tests we would have to hire specialists for. They hung each unconscious urdle from a tree by a hook through its tail, hoisting it by means of a pulley system, so that the long, legless bodies hung vertically, head down, over wheeled tubs meant to catch the blood. The animals were bled to death, but not before each one was given a blood test to establish remaining concentration of sedative, liver function, and current metabolic rate. Each urdle was cut at the exact moment when no more sedative remained than what its liver could process before dying. The animal’s body would end up clear of the drug, but only after too much blood had been lost for it to regain consciousness. A slight miscalculation would have resulted in either drugged meat or an awake and terrified animal, but apparently neither ever happens.

“Never?” I asked Dan.

“Not statistically ‘never,’” he acknowledged. “I suppose the rate of mistakes either way can’t possibly be a perfect zero, but I’ve never heard of it. Drugged meat would make the news, and it doesn’t. And I’ve seen maybe forty animals a year slaughtered for twenty years? Multiply that by all the people on other farms I’ve talked to, maybe thirty farms, average of seventy animals slaughtered per year, for an average of seventy years’ reliable institutional memory, that’s maybe a hundred and forty-seven thousand urdles all slaughtered properly that I know of. That’s, roughly speaking, ‘never,’ colloquially.”

Dan, you remember, is an engineer.

He designed the pulley system that holds the urdles for both killing and butchering. If they lowered the carcasses for processing they could do it much faster, since people could walk the length of the carcass to work on it. But then blood would soak into the ground and the scent would linger and frighten the urdles. Instead, they clean the carcass four inches at a time while it hangs vertically, then sever the finished section, cart the meat, skin, and offal away, then lower the carcass four more inches and do the next section.

As you might imagine, this is labor intensive, but the whole family, even the children, helped. Childhood, for them, is a single instar, the period of time between the end of pupation and the first post-pupal molt twelve years later. Since they can’t get bigger without molting, all children are about the same size, regardless of age. Even the six-year-old, who hasn’t even started school yet, is almost as big as an adult, and strong enough to work the ropes. That is strange enough. But watching from a distance, I couldn’t tell the children apart, and the sight of a child learning how to find and sever the proper blood vessels gave me the willies. Intellectually, I knew the kid in question was eleven years old, and nearly ready to molt, but all I could see was a child learning to kill.

Despite my queasiness, I would have helped, for the La’helis are kind to me, and have graciously allowed me to watch and learn about their lives. But as usual, they declined my help. They don’t know how to integrate an assistant so big and so alien into their teams, so I merely watch, unless a task arises that I can do without help, like my delivery job.

After the animals were all processed, there was no rest for the La’helis. They had a feast scheduled for the afternoon, and had invited all their neighbors—maybe two hundred people. Electricity is expensive here, so there is no refrigeration, and such small people cannot control a cooking stove easily—most foods are bought pre-cooked and dried. Meat is eaten either dried, fermented (a local delicacy I am happy to leave to the locals), or raw. Raw is considered best, but of course nobody can get any except on the day the animal died. The weather is hot, here. So they have these big harvest-day parties. The community schedules its harvest-days carefully so that no two are ever on the same day, and if one family must feed ten other families for a day, they also get to go to ten parties and be fed. It evens out, financially. This party would be particularly well attended, because I was available to gawk at. I don’t mind being gawked at—I’m just glad they’re not afraid of me, as I’m so big.

I helped with the party by cooking two dishes of “Earth-food.” There are a couple of problems with cooking Earth-food for Myrmeoids. First, how do you reduce the entire sweep of human culinary culture to two representative dishes? Second, how do you prepare meals that don’t depend for their taste on larger bites than Myrmeoids can take? Succotash, for example, to us tastes like a mixture of beans and corn because we can put multiple beans and multiple corn kernels into our mouths at once. For a Myrmeoid, a single bean would be a mouthful. To get the mixture of tastes, you’d have to puree the succotash, which does not sound like the same meal to me.

Myrmeoids cannot even bite off a piece of this and a piece of that; their jaws are outside their mouths, and so big as to be useless for eating. It’s like they have a big set of all-purpose pliers attached to their faces, but no teeth. Their mouths are just openings in their heads ringed by a circular lip. They cut their food with knives as needed, but knives are usually used in the kitchen, not in the dining room. A prepared meal should have mouth-sized pieces, or be very soft.

I settled on barbecue, and also sushi, of a sort. Barbecue worked because the slow-smoked meat becomes tender enough to shred very fine. With all local ingredients, it didn’t taste much like Earthly ‘cue, but it was good in the same way. I think any Earthly aficionado of the dish would have liked my version of it. The Myrmeoids liked it, and found the heavy sauce and cooked meat very exotic.

The sushi was less of a problem for taste—oddly, there are local equivalents of all the primary ingredients, even tamari and wasabi—and more a problem for texture. I made a few rolls so they could get a sense of traditional presentation, but otherwise I minced everything very fine and made a kind of salad. This seemed much less exotic to the Myrmeoids, especially to Imperials, like Dan. Imperial cuisine is recognizably Japanese in many respects, possibly because the Imperial culture developed on a chain of islands.

Usually, I do not eat with the La’helis, since I eat so much more than they do. Today I was able to at least taste their food, since I had contributed dishes of my own. They served it outdoors, making it easy for me to reach in with a spoon.

The first course of a country-folk meal is generally soup, and today it was a kind of cold-blood-and-onion affair that I did not like. It was served in proportionately large troughs about twelve inches long. The cooks filled these by bucket—a filled trough would be too hard to carry. Everyone dipped out a share using thimble-sized cups. Some took seconds. Then the cooks dumped in a mixture of what looked (and tasted) like couscous and slivered, toasted almonds, right on top of the dregs of the soup. On top of the couscous went what looked like a thick form of gazpacho—a mix of finely chopped, pickled, and seasoned vegetables. The thing to do was to scoop up some vegetables with some couscous, but the bed of couscous was too thick to be exhausted as quickly as the vegetables were. Next the cooks laid down fresh, raw meat on the remaining couscous, finally chopped and expertly seasoned. I had not expected to like this, but it was actually quite good. Urdle meat tastes something like a cross between turkey and pork, by the way. When the meat was eaten, there was still some couscous left. This time, the cooks added fresh fruit, and thoroughly stirred the contents of each trough. This last course used up all the liquids and remnant pieces of the previous courses, all soaked into the couscous, and left the troughs almost clean. It tasted a bit like pineapple fried rice, and I liked it much more than I expected to.

Myrmeoids don’t need to drink water; they get all the moisture they need from their food, though they like to drink a little extra water or juice, especially on hot days. But though they don’t drink much water with meals, they do drink—alcohol. Myrmeoids, as a generalization, like their alcohol. Half the La’heli’s crab apple crop is fermented and made either into a very strong brandy, or a kind of wine for use at home. Over half the farm's income comes from the sale of brandy alone. But because transportation is so expensive, the price of alcoholic beverages varies inversely with its proof. Wine is therefor much cheaper to make for home use, so there's virtually no market for the stuff. Feasts are a big deal for drinkers as well as for meat enthusiasts, because not only is there wine, but flyers are allowed to drink. Drunk flying is dangerous, so people with wings are never served alcohol in restaurants and bars.

As the evening wore on, guests started to leave, or to come over to me to ask questions. Many of them had never seen a human before, though others I knew socially for one reason or another, but I found them all very polite and restrained in their curiosity. I got several compliments on my use of their language—I am fluent in Imperial, and was before I arrived, but over the last seven months I’ve been learning the country speech, too. I’m nearly fluent now, though sometimes I get the speed changes wrong and make embarrassing mistakes. “Ka’temi-ho” means the meat jelly everyone around here but me likes. The transition between the first and second morphemes is faster than normal, the transition between the third and fourth morphemes is slower. Change the speed, say “kate’mi’ho,” and you are referring to a particular kind of diarrhea urdles are subject to. Kate’mi’ho is different in consistency, scent, and color from normal dung (which is “kate’mi”), and is a sure sign of a high vet bill. Everybody knows I can’t stand ka’temi-ho, and they pretend not to believe that my occasional mistake in pronunciation is really accidental.


Eventually, the party dwindled down to a dozen or so guests, mostly fliers, who planned to stay the night. I am glad Myrmeoids cannot vocalize; it means a rowdy group of partiers is completely silent, though happy pheromones wafted along the breeze. I went down to the urdle pens alone.

The smaller moon is in the south of the sky tonight, just past full, and the greater moon is about half, and riding high in the sky. Between the two of them there is plenty of light, enough to completely wash out all the stars except the one bright topaz-colored planet, and turn the sky a kind of clear, silvery blue. The urdles normally sleep at night and eat by day—they are vegetarians, and spend most of their waking hours eating—but the night is so bright that they are up and about. I stood there watching them for an hour or so—I have just now gotten back to my house. Some of them came over to investigate me, but they’ve seen me before. They mostly went about their business.

There are two pens, each about an acre in size, with a small pond in the middle. Only one pen is occupied, as the other pond is due to be dredged for fertilizer. A third pen is currently being left fallow, and its fence has been removed, except for the main posts. Maybe twenty urdles went about their business in the one, occupied pen. They are legless, as all land vertebrates on this planet are, but they don’t quite resemble snakes. Their heads are blunted, rather like those of iguanas, and unlike real snakes (on our planet or theirs) they have both necks and long tails. A snake’s body is mostly torso, but an urdle’s ribs don’t begin until the eighth vertebra back from the head. This neck is visibly thinner and more flexible than the rest of the body, and several of the younger urdles raised their heads on their thin necks to look at me. All the young males of the current generation were dead; the three promising studs had been sold as yearlings, when they are still small enough to transport easily. The farm’s own studs did not need to be replaced this year. Aside from the two studs, everyone in the pen was female, either adolescent or adult. One large one seemed to be looking for something, sniffing the ground near the gate by which the marked seven had left but not come back. She would crane her neck up in that direction, tasting the air, then make a circuit of the pen, swim in the pond, look under the bushes, then return to the gate and sniff again. The others showed no sign at all of missing their former companions.

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