Eating man’s best friend
Hello, my name is Ian and one time I ate a dog.
This is grammatically tricky. I didn’t eat a whole dog, I don’t think – it couldn’t have been that much in one sitting. But it feels wrong to say “I ate some dog,” or worse, “I ate dog” – it seems like an article is missing. “I ate dog meat” is probably most accurate, but to use “meat” in conjunction with a word like a “dog” seems to imply a kind of casual relationship with the practice of eating it.
Maybe some context will help. It was sometime in 2002 or 2003, and I was in my early twenties, stationed at the U.S. Army’s Camp Red Cloud in the South Korean city of Uijeongbu – about 15 miles north of the capital of Seoul and 20 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. I’d finished nine or ten months of my one-year tour with the 2nd Infantry Division, working with the division’s public affairs office.
During what I always considered extremely unpleasant morning runs around the countryside near the camp, we would occasionally pass by crudely-fenced enclosures that were always populated by a couple dozen dogs – they looked like smaller, leaner versions of the Chow Chow, ironically enough. I don’t remember who it was who first told me these were dog farms.
The office where I worked also employed a gentleman we all knew as Mr. Yu. He was (and may still be) the division’s “official photographer” (to the extent that the division had an official photographer, it was Mr. Yu) and was old enough to remember South Korea’s bloody war with their cousins on the other side of the wire. Having worked alongside American soldiers since at least the 1970s, Mr. Yu enjoyed using the expletive-laden patois of G.I.s, and referred to himself (I am not making this up) as “The Rice Paddy Daddy.”
My pal Robbie and I got it into our heads at one point that we couldn’t leave Korea without having tried what we found out was known as kegogi – dog meat, in Korean. We knew Mr. Yu would be the one to ask, but when we approached him about us, he was uncharacteristically diffident.
“You don’t want that,” he said, raising his palm toward us and shaking it a bit.
We assured him that we really did, and he eventually relented. He agreed to meet us with his car at the front gate of the post and take us to a specialty restaurant in Uijeongbu City that served kegogi.
We arrived at the restaurant and went in. It was a basic setup – harsh fluorescent lights, small square formica tables, a cashier’s stand with desultory flower vase, and a window to the kitchen that reminded me of city delis in the U.S.
Mr. Yu ordered for us – he said there were two types of kegogi, “spicy” and “not so spicy.” He ordered us a bit of both. The meat arrived on two white china plates, which Mr. Yu identified for us. There wasn’t much in the way of side dishes or starch – just the red strips of what was obviously meat and less obviously a former dog.
I tried both. The “spicy” kind seemed a bit underdone to my palate, and strangely slimy. I remember liking the “not so spicy” variety more, but probably because it had been cooked a bit longer.
Robbie and I had brought along some soju for the occasion, and had been drinking it eagerly on the way to the restaurant. We had been getting each other excited for this strange and somewhat taboo foreign experience.
Sitting on opposite sides of the table while Mr. Yu watched us eat, the alcohol-fueled feelings of excitement drained away quickly. We chewed our kegogi rather miserably, knowing in our heads that this would definitely be a one-off. It was a mixture of disappointment, guilt, and a meal that wouldn’t have been all that enjoyable even if we hadn’t known what it was.
I bring this up because as everyone who doesn’t keep quarters under large rocks is by now aware, Barack Obama reportedly ate dog meat as well, as a nine year old living in Indonesia. Presumably frustrated by liberals’ gleeful retelling of the tale of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s family vacation that involved the family hound traveling on the roof of their car, conservatives finally found a rejoinder and have been tireless in their efforts at revenge.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that most nine year old boys have very little direct control over their diet, I’ll go ahead and point out how stupid this equivalence is. The sacred cows of one culture are, very literally, the cheeseburgers of another. I’m no vegetarian, but I still get a bit, well… sheepish around livestock, particularly around the holidays when I’ve been stuffing myself with rack of lamb, beef Wellingtons, or (let’s be honest – and) pâté.
And while in America we’re often almost ghoulishly specific about the cut or organ we happen to be preparing (well, when we’re not eating pink slime), we consider certain animals off limits. It’s purely a cultural construct – We wouldn’t dream of eating horse, but we don’t have as much trouble with the practice of running them around dirt tracks at top speed, at great risk of broken legs and hooves.
Even the meat we do eat we consume with some reservation. As an entity, the Internet seems to never tire of bacon, and yet, embedded in our cultural consciousness we have stories like Charlotte’s Web and, more recently, Babe – tales of empathetic piglets who show heroism and are saved (to our intense relief) from the butcher’s axe.
So forgive me if I fail to be appropriately horrified at what a young Obama ate in Indonesia. I’ve made the same degustation myself, of course – but I don’t feel disqualified from condemning, say, dog fighting or animal hoarding. Torturing an animal is a manifestly different moral act than butchering and eating one.
Image by Flickr user Copperfeesh, via Wikimedia Commons