What happens when you find a discarded can of Vienna sausages? John Thorne explores the mysteries, the wonder, and what it means to "eat bitter."
My neighborhood is bordered on one side by a bike path built over an old railway bed. It rises ever so slowly up a long incline to the next town to our west, the way tree-lined and tranquil. Uphill all the way there, but downhill all the way back, which counts as perfection in my bicycle lexicon. I make the trip a couple times a week from late spring to late fall.
Roads regularly intersect the route, where, of course, you have to stop and look both ways before continuing. One morning, at such a crossing, I noticed something glittering by the side of the bike path as I was shifting up to speed. I thought I recognized it, but I’m too old to be able to turn my head when bicycling to look behind me. I made a mental note to stop and examine it more closely on my way back.
And there it was, glittering from drops of dew caught in the morning sun—a spanking new can of Armour Vienna Sausages. A more decent person would have left it in case the person who dropped it came back to look for it; a more cautious or health-conscious person would have looked away at once. I got off my bicycle, fished it out of the grass, took it home, and eventually ate its contents.
Why did I do this? A simple question, maybe, but the answer unfolds into a complex weave of reasons. First of all, there was the incongruity. Some wag has spray-painted “Lycra Turnpike” on the asphalt path; the pathway usuals are serious bicyclists, jogging mommies (and daddies) pushing baby carriages, elderly walkers, and so on—multigenerational, to be sure, but none of them identifiable Vienna Sausage eaters. Ideally, on such a bosky path, one would like to find a cluster of morels. But what one would reasonably expect to find is a dropped bag of trail mix. Not this.
My phrase for the Vienna-sausage category of product is "lonely guy food": cans of potted meat, pork loaf, beef chunks in gravy, no-bean chili suffused with textured soy protein, canned tamales. When cruising our local odd-lot emporium, I see these cans (and cans they almost always are) in the shopping carts of wistful-looking lost souls, paunchy, unkempt, and solitary. In sum, lonely guys. Women may also buy this stuff, but I would like to imagine they’re a statistical anomaly.
Anyone vaguely acquainted with this sort of food knows that it’s bad for you—Vienna sausages being a prime example. A five-ounce can contains 300 calories, of which 250 of these are fat, and about one third of that is saturated fat. (Your salt needs are also generously attended to.) This might still be fine if we were talking fresh goose liver. But we’re not. To consume Vienna sausages is to ingest “Mechanically Separated Chicken, Water, Beef, Pork, Salt, Corn Syrup, Less Than 2%: Mustard, Spices, Natural Flavorings, Dried Garlic, Sodium Nitrite.” You don’t want to know this, but mechanically separated meat is taken from a carcass that has been stripped of everything marketable. The tattered remnants are then crushed and mashed and pushed through a sieve. (This is reasonably accurate; methods differ.) The resulting residue—“paste,” let’s call it for the sake of decency—makes its way into pet food and into a few products more or less fit for human consumption.
In short, Vienna sausages are pretty low on the food chain and taste it. A mouthful of raw hot dog is ambrosial in comparison. The Vienna sausage is just as overly salty and unpleasantly nitrate-tangy; the difference lies in its peculiar texture, like the stuff you pick out from between your teeth. It’s one of the few meat products where if you ponder it too closely you are brought face to face with the abattoir.
So, you ask, if Vienna sausages aren’t eaten for nutritional benefit or for gustatory pleasure, why eat them at all? I should pause here to note that some people are forced to consume them because of rotten circumstance. But they don’t, I imagine, buy cases of Vienna sausage at warehouse clubs. Or live in a relatively affluent neighborhood and bring a can home as a trophy after an invigorating ride through the woods.
I can only answer this question out of what I dredge out of myself; readers can judge for themselves how universal the application. As a 10-year-old back in the 1950s, I was enthralled when I came into possession of some unopened packages of World War II K-rations. At this distance, memories are mostly vague: a neat mini-pack of cigarettes; a can of processed meat with a special can opener that doubled as a thumb gasher; and packets of hard, stale-tasting crackers, toilet paper, and chewing gum. What I remember best is the chocolate bar. It was made so it wouldn’t melt in the tropics—which meant it didn’t melt in the mouth either: it just sort of softened. And it tasted like chocolate-flavored floor wax. None of these things were remotely good, but I didn’t care, because they tasted of places I hadn’t been, of adventures I could only imagine. This was the food of soldiers, explorers, and mountain climbers, and so long as the mouthful lasted, I was one of them. According to the Wikipedia article on K-rations, those cans of processed meat might contain "sausages"—a neat coincidence, if only I remembered that to be so of the cans I laboriously gouged open. But I don’t.
At lot of things I purchase today at Asian markets I enjoy for their difference rather than their quality or tastiness—it’s the same reason I try the occasional dehydrated dinner. But while Vienna sausages retain even today, 60 years later, something of this tough guy aura, I don’t think this is why most people, including myself, choose to eat them. For that we have to dig a little deeper, broaching something that I call—stealing a term from the Chinese—"eating bitter."
The Chinese understand the phrase to mean necessary suffering to get to a better end: "eating bitter so as to taste the sweet." But my use of the phrase is quite different: to endure bitterness by willfully eating it. If life is grinding you down, eating something uncomplicatedly delicious can lead to deeper depression; it reminds you too much of what your life is missing. But eating what is in fact garbage—however cynically disguised—momentarily liberates the spirit. It pushes aside the weight of obligation, the gnawing sense of failure, by aggressively devouring it.
During the most depressing time of my life, when I was working at the bottom of the white collar food chain, I almost always ate bitter, especially when I was providing myself with a solitary treat. This was epitomized by red-glazed Chinese spareribs and Kentucky Fried Chicken: deeply greasy and possessing a superficial tastiness that just barely disguised the inferior meat beneath. At that time in my life, nicotine was what I thought my necessary drug, but in truth the addiction that best deals with a dreary life is the craving for saturated fat. Some like it salty, some like it sweet, but the craving is for the stupor that comes from a massive calorie hit. And, for the best bang for the buck, edge that with a kind nihilistic omnidirectional contempt—"No, it doesn’t taste good. Yes, it is terrible for me. I’m eating it. Now go shove your head where the sun doesn’t shine."
Eating bitter is something that no cookbook will ever address except by turning it inside out, giving us innocent-seeming glossy photos of overstuffed burgers, recipes that heap on the butter, cream, and bacon. Better, maybe, to just shut the door to all that pretty-making and rip open a can of Vienna sausages—at least when you find one by the side of the bikeway. Otherwise, I recommend canned tamales.
John Thorne is the author of Outlaw Cook and Mouth Wide Open. He writes and publishes the food letter Simple Cooking. His website is outlawcook.com.
We highly recommend reading his stuff. It's good and it will want to make you cook. Come on, here's a guy who almost makes me want to run out for some weiners in a can.
Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?