At the end of a recent post,”Is Yoga My New Pork?!“, I mused about my longtime curiosity about prosciutto. When I visited Italy in 2007, I didn’t partake but had a close encounter with it: while sitting at a restaurant’s bar, I looked up and found myself staring at a pig’s dark hoof. My eyes followed the hoof up to the pig’s bristly lower leg and its thick thigh, which rested on a shiny silver meat slicer. Minutes later, a server shaved it into thin pieces of prosciutto and put them on a plate. While the, er, “farm to table” presentation probably delighted or reassured connoisseurs, I recoiled and switched seats.
Still, for years prosciutto remained one of those foods that others praised, at times with worshipful tones and facial expressions. Was I missing something amazing because I did not eat pork, which I’d learned to associate with uncleanliness and a repudiation of Jewishness? Not to mention that “swine“ has negative connotations; if it’s not a name one wants to be called, why would one eat it? Was the celebration of pork, especially hams, salamis and other cured meats, justified or overblown? I never understood why the pig seemed to receive more culinary veneration than the animals I did eat growing up. Granted, pigs are easier for households to raise and slaughter than sheep or cows; that might explain their prevalence and popularity in villages and towns across Europe. Still, pigs are pigs, not little gods with snouts.
Fast forward to the Feldenkrais conference, which I attended two weeks ago. After an 11 hour travel day to my AirBnB, I made a quick trip to Trader Joe’s to buy groceries, ate a light meal, changed into a dress, got a ride to the campus, picked up my friend’s bicycle and helped her fix the brake cable. By the time we washed the bike grease off our hands and made it to the opening reception, I had entered a state of exhilaraustion. Pumped on adrenaline while pining for a nap, I floated rather than having my feet firmly on the ground. I helped myself to cucumber infused water before approaching the appetizers. I took a small plate and selected cubes of domestic cheese, some cut fruit, a few asparagus spears and dollops of hummus and other spreads. I glanced at a platter of prosciutto with mozzarella and provolone and, following a lifelong habit of looking but not touching, didn’t put any on my plate. As a Jewish person who has spent more time in secular than religious settings, catered events have often highlighted my sense of otherness. The act of choosing what to eat and what to avoid while others piled their plates has contributed to self-consciousness and, if the pickings were slim, deprivation and estrangement. As a foodie, it’s disappointing if not dispiriting to survey a buffet and discover that many items were not meant for me. Even if I didn’t experience hunger, I still hungered for the ease of belonging that others seemed to enjoy. Yet, at this reception I felt somewhat indifferent to the prosciutto, the only protein served, rather than excluded or even strongly tempted by it.
I sat at a small table and chatted with a few folks as I nibbled some cheese. Watching one woman eat the Italian ham made me wonder: why didn’t I try it myself? I was at a Feldenkrais conference, after all! Would there ever be a more apropos place and time to conduct such an experiment around food and self-image? Or did I have to make a fuss over it (to myself) and surreptitiously purchase some Italian dry-cured ham, take it into the woods at dusk and conduct a private ritual with just the trees, rocks and rising moon as my witnesses? Why go through that rigamarole when it was under my highly sensitive nose? I could try one or two pieces and see if it was as amazing as everyone said. The likelihood that I would experience disgust and be unable to keep it down seemed low. If I wanted to spit it out, I had a napkin. What was there to lose?
As I returned to the buffet to procure the prosciutto, I noticed a man wearing a kippa. Rather than making a beeline for the food, I stopped to find out who he was. He turned out to be the writer of an excellent article I’d admired in The Feldenkrais Journal. We chatted about writing and Jewish identity. In the past, the proximity of someone publicly identifying as a Jew might have transmitted the tribal vibe by osmosis, triggering guilt, shame or simply my sensitivity to Jewish practices, creating second thoughts and keeping me from digging in. For whatever reason, perhaps because of the context or my own fed-up-ness with my reactions to the dynamics of even subtle and unintended tribal pressure, his obvious Jewishness didn’t thwart my plans. As I peered at the platter more carefully, I noticed two kinds of meat, one paler and more delicately sliced, another thicker and redder. Were they what I thought they were? I asked a member of the catering staff.
“Prosciutti,” she said proudly, as if they represented the grand prize rather than the perfectly grilled and temptingly green asparagus.
I took a piece of each and some mozzarella. Was I going to have a mouthgasm? Without much ceremony I popped the thin pink slice into my mouth with the cheese. I enjoyed the salty taste. Ditto for the other slice. The moment passed quietly and anticlimactically, neither a breakthrough nor a breakdown. My eyes didn’t widen in amazement. I didn’t swoon in ecstasy. Nor did I recoil in disgust. I wasn’t left with an urge to either congratulate myself or gorge myself on this long avoided food; it didn’t have an addictive, luscious mouth feel. And, I tasted some sadness in myself for all the times I’d felt like an observer at a banquet, unable to enjoy what others were eating while imagining that what they were having was far superior to my more limited choices. What if the forbidden foods really weren’t amazing after all and my longing, piled as high as the pastrami in a Carnegie Deli sandwich, had been for nothing? That possibility felt harder to swallow than the prosciutto itself.
I also wondered if I’d just tasted some of the best or if the two varieties on offer were, in fact, meh. How would I know what makes it great without having sampled several varieties? I mused over the possibility of returning to Italy with the express purpose of tasting prosciutto so I’d learn to discern the excellent from the mediocre. While I was at it, I might as well eat every other part of the pig to determine which bits I liked more than others, and which preparations. After all, it wouldn’t be very “Feldenkrais” of me to take another’s word for it. Having broken the habit of refraining why not go, um, whole hog with my “Awareness Through Tastebuds” exploration?
Yet, to deliberately pig out on pig flesh seemed grotesque even to this former glutton; ditto investing in a quest for the best. If I were going to fork over countless dollars for fine food, I’d rather fly to Japan for a sumptuous sushi extravaganza. To suddenly make a bucket list of pork products after having shunned it for so many years felt both juvenile and too goal oriented. What if I sampled the meat when it appeared, assuming it looked and smelled appetizing and I wanted to try it in that moment? That seemed a saner, more organic approach. Meanwhile, if the episode offered a cause for celebration, it was because “I came, I saw, I ate” meant that I didn’t hesitate.