Eating Skippy (Not the Peanut Butter)

After dinner at A Ly (11360 Bellaire Boulevard) last night, a pertinent topic arose in conversation amongst a few of my dining companions: What determines what we classify as food? As Dr. Ricky pointed out after our meal, it's certainly not biological; it's cultural. It's a strictly societal and circumstance-driven choice to eat grasshoppers or grubs, tripe or truffles.

If we, as standard Americans, are comfortable with eating a steak or a brisket, then why aren't we equally comfortable with eating the tendons or tails of the same animal? Questions like these had arisen in light of some of the dishes we had consumed over dinner, including sea cucumber (echinoderms; in other words, not actual cucumber, but an eel-shaped animal that lives on the sea floor) and kangaroo.

Yes, we ate Skippy.

And it was good.

Kangaroo meat was long consumed by Aboriginal Australians before the continent was colonized, and with very good reason. Kangaroo meat -- alternately called kere aherre and malu by indigenous peoples -- is very high in protein, low in cholesterol and has only about 20 percent fat. Moreover, kangaroos are highly adapted to drought situations, require far less water and feed than cattle and leave the root system of the grasses they graze on intact, which means that a herd of kangaroo have far less environmental impact than, say, a herd of cattle.

The kangaroo flesh itself is naturally tender; no braising or long cooking times are necessary to render the soft meat palatable. And it has a slightly more intense taste than beef or pork, but not one that I'd call gamy; it tastes strongly of fresh air and green grass. The kangaroo that we ate last night at A Ly was unfortunately covered in a very thick onion and sesame gravy, making the meat more difficult to taste, but it's also an easy starting point for anyone interested in tasting the meat in something other than a burger (remember: kangaroo meat is very low in fat, meaning it makes a pretty lousy burger when ground).

But why the long faces when people hear that you've eaten kangaroo meat? Is it because they're picturing cute little joeys in pouches and kangaroos jumping blithely in zoo enclosures across the nation? Don't fool yourself; a kangaroo will mess you up if given the chance. In Australia, they're responsible for at least 100 human deaths per year. Deer are cute. Lambs are cute. Why don't we fret as much over eating them?

In part, it's because we've been conditioned as a society to view cows, pigs, chickens and -- to a lesser extent -- those deer, lamb and cute little fluffy rabbits as food. The idea of "cute" fades away in the face of the accepted standard of "meat." Kangaroos were accepted as meat for thousands of years until European settlers in Australia brought their own ideas of "acceptable" food along with their ideas of acceptable religion, acceptable dress and acceptable behavior.

In Australia, at least, the meat is becoming almost as prevalent in grocery stores as beef. More restaurants are serving the meat and an increasing number of Australians have begun to include it in their daily diet at home.

And in an amusing turn of affairs, nearly 70 percent of the kangaroo meat harvested in Australia now is exported to Europe, specifically England and Germany. Could those English -- once mighty colonizers of entire continents -- finally be coming around to the idea the kangaroo they once shunned as "bushmeat" might not be that bad?

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