Chewing the Fat

Ken Hoffman's February 27 column in the Houston Chronicle carried a report on a Ukrainian company that had begun selling a candy bar made of chocolate-covered pork fat. After describing the chocolate as "cheap" and declaring that it "does melt in your fingers," he went on to state, "The manufacturer, AO Odessa, has no plans to market its new candy bar in America because, well, America is not completely insane yet."

The item reads remarkably like an Associated Press story that carried a dateline of January 2, nearly two months before Hoffman's revelation, as well as a second story dated January 3 that was distributed by Fox News with a contribution credit to the AP. What those two older stories mentioned -- and what Hoffman failed to -- was that a spokesman for the candy manufacturer said that "the anti-health bars are primarily an edible joke."

The joke, for those who have not had the opportunity to stroll the Krestchatik Boulevard in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, and partake of a few home-cooked meals in the surrounding countryside, is that smoked and otherwise flavored pork fat, similar to American fatback, is an old Ukrainian peasant delicacy. The Ukrainian word for it is salo, and it is an integral part of the culture there, the way beef jerky is for Texans and durian fruits are for Malays. Chocolate is not a traditional flavoring. Served on sourdough bread and washed down with a shot of homemade vodka on a cold winter's day, salo can really hit the spot, in a no-nonsense, Mike Ditka sort of way. Gen-X hipsters in Kiev and Odessa mostly turn up their noses at it these days, the articles went on to opine.

Several Ukrainian-Americans were outraged by Hoffman's remarks and turned to the Houston Press to set the record straight in regard to AO Odessa and the Christmas-season stocking stuffers. Frankly, most journalists don't want to have Ukrainians mad at them. Last November a headless corpse was found on the outskirts of Kiev and was identified through DNA testing as being that of Georgy Gongadze, an investigative reporter. Later, a tape recording surfaced of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma complaining about Gongadze to some of his boys. Despite massive, sometimes violent demonstrations, a warning message from President Bush and calls for Kuchma's resignation, Kuchma is still in power. You may not be out of the woods yet on this one, Ken.

Sneering at the eating habits of other cultures is an old pastime. The Old Testament's Book of Leviticus has God telling his chosen people what they could and could not eat. By implication, those who ate the forbidden foods were not on God's A-list. Besides pork, there are some 600 dietary proscriptions in Leviticus. (Anyone who has been around pigs knows that the film Babe left out an essential porcine activity, one that the scientific community terms a "coprophagous habit," so there may be something to that ban.) Food habits are a way of strengthening community ties.

The British for centuries described their rivals across the channel as frog-eaters, or frogs for short. Today in Houston, frog legs may not be a staple, but they cause raised eyebrows among only the Tiger Beat set. In Britain today, frog legs are considered a delicacy. However, being branded a cynophagist in the United Kingdom will severely limit your social life, if not threaten your life, while in Korea, Vietnam, Laos and much of China, a well-cooked portion of dog meat is a special-occasion dish. The populations of those countries combined far exceed the population of the British Isles and the United States. So who's the weirdo?

How about horse meat? Texas is, after all, the top U.S. producer of horse meat, which is no more or less repellent or tasty (choose your adjective) than beef. Contrary to popular belief, this meat does not all go into pet food. Most of it goes to European countries, primarily France, Belgium and Austria, where it is eaten with gusto by humans. In the central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the population relies on homegrown supplies of horseflesh but is no less enthusiastic about Mr. Ed as a real food for real people. According to Vogue magazine food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, a man who is very serious about the subject, the best french fries in the world are to be found in an expensive Parisian restaurant, L'Arpege, whose chef uses horse fat to fry the frites.

Another kind of salo is popular in Japan, where it is sold as whale bacon. (Actually, the Japanese word is bacon-o.) Both the blubber and flesh of whales have been a part of the Japanese diet since about the second century BCE. Consumption of this meat, nowadays primarily from Antarctic minke whales, drives Greenpeace activists into fits of apoplexy. Yet there is little to no scientific evidence to indicate the minke whale population is endangered by the capture of 2,000 such marine mammals a year, the limit set by the International Whaling Commission.

While there are no whale meat or horse meat retailers in Houston, you can get a mind-broadening chunk of salo at the Russian General Store [5406 Birdwood Road, (713)665-1177]. Care to chew the fat with us, Ken?

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George Alexander