Murder We Must

Pablo Tanguay
March 31, 2014
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“Murder we must,” begins Betty Fussell in my favorite–at the moment, anyway–essay ever, “On Murdering Eels and Laundering Swine.”

Here is a representative paragraph:

“Skinning was yet to come. McClane suggested I attach his head by a string to a nail pounded in a board. I had neither nail nor board. What I wanted was an electric 71/4-inch circular saw with a carbide-tooth blade. What I had was a pair of poultry shears. I pierced his thick hide and cut a jagged circle belpw his head, then scissored the length of his belly. With one hand I held his head and with the other pulled back the skin with a pair of stout pliers. It was slow work, but the leathery hide finally slipped off the tail like a nylon stocking. Naked, he was malleable as any fish.”

The students in a first-year composition class I’m teaching, a class with a food theme, disliked the essay. They wondered why anyone would want to read such a thing. I had made them read it aloud. Earlier in the semester, I had made them listen to the “Doppelganger” episode on This American Life, the one about dung passing as calamari. In the Fussell essay, after the killing of the eel comes the washing of the pig:

“What was my relation to the ten pounds of frozen hog’s guts, thawing and spreading like drowned Ophelia’s hair, in my apartment bathtub? The chitterlings, ten times the length of my own inner tubing, were pastel yellow, white, and pink. They spread like dubious laundry, triggering memories of washing dirty socks and underwear in the bathtubs of innumerable French and Italian hotels that invariably forbade guests to launder. With guts as with underwear, it were better to do as a French cookbook instructs, ‘Take the stomach and intestines to the nearest stream or river.’ Women once washed guts as they washed linen, rising at dawn to carry their baskets of offal to the communal gathering place, to laugh and quarrel, a medieval poet said, as they washed ‘inwards’ at the stream.

“It is laundry that connects pig’s inwards to man’s outwards.”

It’s an extraordinary piece of writing and gets wonderfully super gross from there, too gross even for my STEM students. I found the essay in an anthology loaned to me by a colleague. The anthology is called A Literary Feast and is edited by Lilly Golden. It’s a terrific book. It, along with M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating, have been wonderful reading for me. For my students: not so much.

They do like, however, most of them anyway, the ones not too offended, Anthony Bordain’s Kitchen Confidential. I had originally planned for them to read a novel, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, but changed my mind at the last minute. I don’t know if I made the right choice or not. The Lobster seemed slight at first, not terribly substantial. But, as is typical with O’Nan, what seems like a fairly simple little story stays and stays in the mind. I still think of the scenes in that book at least once a week.

If my students are not pleased with my essay selections, they give my music selections mixed reviews. Here’s what they liked: I Want Candy, by Bow Bow Bow; Lost in the Supermarket, by The Clash; Peaches, by The Presidents of the United States of America; She Don’t Use Jelly, by The Flaming Lips; Pour Some Sugar on Me, by Def Leppard; Sex and Candy, by Marci Playground; and their favorite, by far, the boys and the girls: Milkshake, by Kelis.

What they didn’t like: Fruits of My Labor, by Lucinda Williams; Ball and Biscuit, by The White Stripes; The Lemon Song, by Led Zeppelin; Do the Funky Chicken, by Rufus Thomas; Jumbalaya on the Bayou, by Hank Williams; One More Cup of Coffee, by Bob Dylan (with Joan Baez); and The Frim Fram Sauce, by Nat King Cole, the extraordinary video for which is more provocative than anything in Kelis’ Milkshake (see esp. at the 1:15 mark; yowza).

Mixed reviews: Rapper’s Delight, by The Sugar Hill Gang; Dog Food, by Iggy Pop; American Pie, by Don McLean; I Want the Waiter with the Water, by Ella Fitzgerald; Chicken Fried, by the Zac Brown Band; and Cherry Pie, by Warrant.

They have yet to be moved by any of the poems, including Bishop’s The Fish, Dickinson’s Fame Is a Fickle Food, Chelsea Martin’s McDonald’s Is Impossible, WCW’s This Is Just to Say, Roethke’s Root Cellar, Nemerov’s Bacon and Eggs, Ortiz Cofer’s An Apologia for Not Loving to Cook, Clifton’s cutting greens, and, for Godssakes, even Ginsberg’s A Supermarket in California.





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