The general consensus in our complex was that no one truly liked the peacocks.
Sure, they were nice to look at, one of them a perfect cream white, but they were awful to live near. My apartment shared a backyard with Green Pastures Restaurant, an historic estate popular for weddings and Sunday brunches, also home to nine male peacocks that openly strolled the grounds. The last female, I’d been told, was hit by a passing truck only months before I signed my lease. When I ran into my neighbor one morning, he told me that his cat had gone missing and we both eyed a fanned train of purple plumage disappearing over the rooftop.
Their mating season coincided with the rain and it was raining often then. Beyond displaying their fine plumage to attract a mate, the males frequently hurled copulatory calls into open spaces hoping that a female, somewhere off in the distance, might come running. In a way, I felt bad for them. I was newly single and understood that, despite their best efforts to win over a girl, their calls would go unanswered. In another way, I wanted to back over them with my car to achieve just a moment of silence.
Part of the issue was this: I was hungry. I was without a job. In the post-graduation employment drought, the only thing I had truly mastered was cooking beans and rice in the same pot, adding the rice in on top of the beans with an hour left on the timer so I was left with a two-layer, hard-packed parfait of grains and legumes. Beyond a few recklessly bored hours in front of a webcam and some Craigslist-inspired landscaping gigs, I was unemployable.
Another part of the issue was this: I felt that no one had prepared me for the world beyond school. While I could appreciate the encouragement my college advisors had given me, (Q: “Is it okay to do half a minor in Spanish and half a minor in sports science? A: Well, only if you’re looking to shout ‘ganador’ when you cross the finish line!”). I just wish someone had been honest with me. While I could appreciate my faculty’s confidence in the graduating class of 2011, I still wish that just one of them might have pulled me aside during my senior year and said, “So, just in case you can’t get a job with your rhetoric degree, here’s a slingshot, an herb identification guide, and a map of all the derelict structures within city limits where you can forage for food.”
In Peter Lund Simmonds’ 1859 book, The Curiosities of Food or The Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained from the Animal Kingdom, the following description is given concerning the preparation of a peacock:
Take and flay off the skin with the feathers, tail, and the neck and head thereon; then take the skin and all the feathers and lay it on the table abroad, and strew thereon ground cumin; then take the peacock and roast him, and baste him with raw yolks of eggs; and when he is roasted, take him off and let him cool awhile; then take him and sew him in his skin, and gild his comb, and so serve him forth with the last course.
Simmonds was an early practitioner of zoophagy, literally the study of animals by consuming them, and his book details the different tastes, palatability, and preparation methods of hundreds of earthly creatures and their constituent parts from elephants’ toes to tongue of the sea lion. This, amongst other texts, is what I wish I’d been required to read while still in school.
Instead of bisecting my minor into an appallingly surface-level study of language and anatomy, I would have been better suited to undertake 18-21 hours in the hard science of Backup Plan-ology. Bushcraft. Zoophagy. I needed my comp theory professor to clear off her desk with one sweeping motion of her arm and replace it with a topographical map of the Austin area and say, “Listen, forget the publishing internships and the corporatized technical writing jobs. They’re gone. They’re past gone. Instead, direct your attention here,” pointing to the greenbelt running along highway 360. “There’s a well established graduate vagrant community just beyond the spring here,” curling her lip, fingertip touching on a blue patch of paper. “At least a hundred strong. The squirrels breed like rabbits and so do the rabbits. You’ll have a better chance in a group than on your own. And remember, Matt,” embracing my shoulder with her grip, “bike police patrol the area on weekends, so hide your pot.”
Perhaps this is all to say that, instead of spending my last semester polishing my resume and editing my cover letters, I wish I would have been told about the other options, the alternatives, how to think beyond beans and rice. With nine male peacocks and a seven-month lease, I could have eaten well and even left a couple behind for the next resident to enjoy.
A year after I graduated, the Texas Farm Bureau confirmed what many Austin residents already knew to be true: crickets were invading the city en masse. Due to unusually warm and wet spring weather, thousands upon thousands of them had been sent into an early mating and egg-hatching frenzy. All along the sidewalks, crickets. People waiting for the bus smashing crickets. Avoiding crickets. Hopping, skipping, shrieking as each songful arthropod launched itself into the line of changing footsteps. When I walked to the grocery store, crickets threw themselves at the automatic glass doors so their bodies piled into a shin-high macro-organism of frantic chirping. Their collective size wasn’t enough to trip the door’s sensor, but when I walked in, a few of the lucky ones spilled over the threshold and into the fluorescent glow of the store where one dedicated bagger fought them off with the help of a push broom and a few loitering pigeons brave enough and hungry enough to peck their way inside.
Perhaps the only place I didn’t have to deal with the crickets was my apartment. The peacocks were actually fairly adept at keeping the population down, which in hindsight, leads me to believe that slowly picking the peacocks off one by one as a means of sustenance would not have been the best idea. Even if I’d managed to pluck and pan sear them in the privacy of my studio, I would have had to deal with their brilliant remains. In Richard Burton’s 1883 translation of The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, it is stated, “If the bone of a peacock or of a hyena be covered with gold, and tied on the right hand, it makes a man lovely in the eyes of other people.” It would have been highly likely that, had I turned their remains into craft items best fit for a curbside vending cart, brightly feathered dream catchers and gold-embalmed phalanges, I would have only drawn the attention of the apartment manager or the local PETA chapter.
Though many residents of my complex didn’t enjoy the close company of the peacocks, I don’t think anyone was truly willing to eat them. Once a professor of veterinary medicine and a member of the International Committee for the Anthropology of Food and Food Habits, Calvin Schwabe, in his 1979 book Unmentionable Cuisine, explores why, “because of prejudice or ignorance, we Americans now reject many readily available foods that are cheap, nutritious, and good to eat.” Each section of the book goes on to examine recipes for meat, fowl, fish, shellfish, and “nonflesh foods of animal origin including sperm and eggs.” Had this book been a part of my senior-year career prep class, I imagine my professor might have turned me to page 169 to read about “fragrant meat” and the “13 million unwanted and unneeded dogs and cats now being humanely destroyed in city pounds” in the readily available form of “120 million pounds per year” of edible, yet ultimately wasted meat. Then my professor could have gestured to one of the topographical maps behind him (which feature prominently into my alternative visions of modern education) and said, “I myself am a vegetarian, but, for any interested parties, there is a kill shelter at the corner of 49th and Duval.”
Now, I should say that at the time that I was living in my lonely studio, I also shared the space with one bed, one desk, and one faithful pooch named Bagheera. He often kept me up at night, pawing and scratching the laminate floor for the lone cricket that had broken into my apartment and that sang incessantly while trapped under the stove, its solo chorus echoing in the empty chamber of the oven. While Bagheera was never able to get at the cricket, I didn’t see that as any reason to add him to my menu. He kept me company and he kept the peacocks from charging whenever I left in the morning. If any of Schwabe’s culinary ideas really caught my eye, it was his assertion that “virtually all arthropods, including insects, are excellent sources of animal protein.” If that were true, then my only concern in going to the grocery store lay in placing a dustpan outside the sliding doors and directing the sweaty-palmed bagger on best procedure for guiding crickets with his trusty push broom.
If I’m looking to place blame, which I am, then it’s easy to look back at my alma mater. When I graduated in 2011, the national economy was supposedly on an imperceptible upswing. There’s a photo of me on my parent’s mantle greeting the president of the university as I walked across the stage clad in full cap and gown, one hand shaking his, the other accepting a diploma. Looking back, I’m not always able to justify that that piece of paper did more for me than a mortar and pestle or a sharpened buck knife might have in that first year of postgraduate life.
In David Sax’s book The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue, Sax delves into some of the reasons why I may not have considered seriously putting peacock on my dinner plate. He describes how, in 1977, a fish wholesaler by the name of Lee Lantz went rummaging around Chilean fishing ports in hopes of finding the next fish to impress the American market. Scouring the slippery decks of fishing boat after fishing boat, Lantz eventually stumbled upon an altogether disregarded fish: the Patagonian toothfish. It was five feet in length with a set of teeth and slimy wandering eyes that made you think twice about dipping your toes in the water. However, much in the fashion of the 90s Rom-Com in which a makeover solves everything (because he was far ahead of his time), Lantz turned the toothfish, once a behemoth wheezing its last breaths away on an unfamiliar fisherman’s boat while deckhands stepped over it, into a menu item that featured alongside filet mignon and lobster bisque. Lee Lantz reinvented what was once an unknown and uncomely prowler of the deep sea into an entrée that later became Bon Appetit’s dish of the year: Chilean sea bass.
Essentially, Sax goes on to explain that what we eat can sometimes be a product of a carefully masterminded food trend, our own desires supplanted by the desires of the corporate marketing gurus. Until someone with a degree in advertising rebranded crickets into Chirps and peacocks into Asiatic fowl (the new new white white meat), no one was going to consider taking a bite. And after reading about food trendcasters like Suzy Badaracco, “trained in military-grade intelligence and chaos theory with an expertise in pattern recognition,” I began to better understand why I ate what I ate, or rather, why I couldn’t bring myself to eat the alternatives. According to Sax, some of the corporate geniuses engineering food trends are using the same “methodology developed by the US Marines, FBI, and Scotland Yard to predict military strikes, terrorist attacks, and murder sprees.” So, is it any wonder that I’d never eaten crickets or peacock when I was at my lowest point? How could I have known better when all along, the unmarked white van parked caddy corner to my apartment complex was transmitting subliminal messages about Greek yogurt and chia seeds?
I eventually ended up with a job after a few months of unemployment. I was hired on as the part-time bartender at the Metropolitan Club in downtown Austin, a men’s club–not to be confused with a gentleman’s club–that featured a spa, an on-site stylist, masseuse, and massive parlor with televisions installed every few feet. My primary duty included serving up martinis, opening beers, wiping down the locker room, and making sure the Playboys in the basket next to the toilet weren’t wilting due to the steam from the showers.
The club members were mostly middle-aged men who had all done well for themselves. They parked their Range Rovers and Mercedes near the curb across the street and then strode into the parlor for an early morning breakfast meeting. Come lunch, they sent me down the street and up the block or around the corner for petite filets from Perry’s Steakhouse or McCormick and Schmicks. With their credit card in hand and sweat staining my collar, I skipped back to the club, the scent of rare-cooked meat wafting up to my nose as I hopscotched between the crickets on the sidewalk.
Sometimes the guys had me order in. I rang up the Chinese place on 7th and when the food arrived, I snuck behind the bar and hid the eggroll near the Heinekens before plating and serving their food. Whenever one of them inevitably said, “Hey, they forgot the eggroll again!” I shrugged my shoulders, served him a beer, and headed to the laundry room where I ate the eggroll in peace while sitting atop a dryer full of spinning, white terry cloth robes.
Food was always an issue for me at the club. I rarely brought a lunch and I watched as many a member dumped half sandwiches and whole soups into the trashcan at the side of the bar while crickets stormed the sidewalks outside and peacocks pecked the paint off my apartment door at home. I was hungry and I’d hoped that graduating magna cum laude meant more than covertly eating wedge cut fries from a plate whenever one of the members stepped away to the bathroom. Instead of quietly wiping down countertops, I sometimes wish I’d made myself known, beaten a fork against the neck of a beer bottle, climbed up on the bar and announced to the men eating their steaks and sea bass and sushi, “We’re not so different, you and I. Sure, I don’t tip as well as you or wear a watch, but we’re all under the food industry’s same enchantment. You there, with the jerked chicken perched at your lips, or you there with the tenderloin nestled atop your tongue; don’t you know that the world is our oyster? Our cricket? Our peacock? And it’s all out there,” and I might have gestured through the street-level window looking west toward the river, “for the taking.”
When I read writers like Charles C. Schwabe or Peter Lund Simmonds, I really appreciate what they were trying to do. Simmonds, no matter how ill-informed his colonialist intentions of the time period, strived to inform the world of their sustenance options, to say that there is more to eating than the mastication of pork, chicken, and beef. Calvin W. Schwabe, even in all his seeming irony and nonchalance, is dead serious when he suggests to his readers that the unmentionable cuisine of Ozark Stuffed Possum and Extremadurian cat stew really will taste good and offer solutions to the problem of hunger. However, I think Simmonds and Schwabe might have come off a bit too strong, the same way I might have if I really had stood up on the club’s bar and asked men in designer suits to come forage the sidewalks with me.
I think what I really needed, at least at the time, was to be told that it was okay to eat certain foods. I just needed, before anything else, to know that the trend had begun, that it wouldn’t be frowned upon to find my next meal stealthily hidden between blades of grass and dandelion stalks.
However, if I had waited, maybe I would have found that there are trends so popular that I am not able to afford being trendy, thereby defeating the entire purpose. A year after the great Austin cricket invasion, Aspire Foods established their home base in Austin after winning the prestigious $1 million Hult Prize for their approach to global food security: insect farming. A year after that, they were selling bags of organic cricket flour for $40 per pound. And as it turned out, Six Foods, a Boston-based company, really did come out with Chirps: 5-ounce bags of cricket chips flavored in either aged cheddar or hickory barbecue that sell for $16 a bag.
So maybe there is something to be said for starting the revolution, for eating something before its novelty affects its affordability. According to David Sax, the field of food trendcasting is evolving anyway. He explains that, “Today trends are flying in from all directions, emerging from sideways influences, bottom-up tastemakers, and landing without warning from way out beyond the periphery.” And if I wasn’t a sideways influence, then I was certainly at least capable of operating from beyond the periphery. If I could do it all over again, I suppose I would have thrown off my apron (not that I wore one) and marched out of the Metropolitan Club, but not before grabbing an armful of cold beers and a few more wedge cut fries from an unguarded plate.
Where would have I gone? Well, back to my roots. Back to the wilderness dwelling community of unemployed graduates located deep within the birch forests of Austin’s greenbelt. After all, why not? If the required 18 hours of bushcraft and foraging education that I never received taught me anything, it was that I had no place in the part-time world of low paychecks and no benefits. Filling my pockets with crickets as an offering, I would have stomped under the highway and into the low-growth brush that extends beyond the running and biking trails. It is there that I would have shed my clothes and gazed upon all those I had once forsaken for city life, all those as hungry as I was, the hundreds of liberal arts grads creeping back out from the trees, from unemployment, from shame, blinking in the sunlight, ash of burned resumes flecking their cheeks, fur in their teeth and wrapped around their heads.
Then, an honors graduate that I recognized from a long ago Comp Theory study group could have looked at me and delivered a proclamation in the style of Hemingway’s own A Moveable Feast: “As I ate the squirrels with their strong taste of the land and their faint nutty taste that the cold white spring washed away, leaving only the earth taste and the succulent texture, and as I ate their warm meat from each forepaw and washed it down with the crisp taste of the rain, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Then the revolution could have begun when I looked back at him, the distant war cries of too-confident peacocks echoing from over my shoulder, and said, “Come into the light, friend. Come back into the light and taste of the future.”
Matt Jones is a graduate of the University of Alabama MFA program. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, The Atlantic, Ruminate, Post Road, The Journal, and various other publications. He is currently at work on a novel and a collection of essays. More of his work can be found online at mattjonesfiction.com.