Chewing the fat of morality
The Lykov family retreated from civilisation in 1936. For four decades, they lived in isolation, in a home made from scavenged materials. They had no knowledge of World War II, of the atomic bombs, of the first landing on the Moon. They had prayer books and an old Bible to read. When these Old Believers fled into the Siberian taiga, the family consisted of four. The couple had two more children, who before their discovery by geologists in the summer of 1978 had never met anyone else.
The Smithsonian Magazine, a couple of years ago, published an article about the family. In it, writer Mike Dash describes the Lykovs' diet in great detail. The children had never seen bread. They primarily ate potato patties with ground rye and hemp seeds.
They ate bilberries and raspberries and pine nuts. There wasn't always meat. There were the famine years in the 50s. Akulina, the mother, died of starvation in 1961. The winter conditions were unlivable. Their ordeal is one that fascinates, but which is not relatable. Except for one piece of information that has always stuck with me.
Dash writes, "When they first got to know the geologists, the family would accept only a single gift — salt." (Living without it for four decades, Karp Lykov said, had been "true torture".) The most human of all universal desires: salt.
The food that the Lykovs ate in the wilderness came to define who they were as people. Their diet, more than the religious beliefs that drove them into isolation, reveals how they lived for most of their lives. Even in the most primitive living conditions, the approach to eating reflects personal convictions — a faith or a philosophical belief. Old Believers only ate meat from animals with cloven hoofs, not animals with paws. Dash mentioned the Lykovs, at one point, trapped animals for meat and skin. Later, they guarded their rye crops from mice and squirrels — to me, an adequate source of food given the circumstances. Dash makes indication that the family ate them.
The singular thing they missed spoke of much more. I have since always thought about what I couldn't live without, what eating means. A single taste. An amalgamation of textures. What is salt without pepper? A national identity: chicken krapow with a fried egg (runny yolk but crispy on the sides). A personal favourite: bacon. Food practices reflect a person's perception of the world.
My family is Buddhist. I am less inclined. My grandmother believed in Guan Yin and did not eat beef. I like steak and I like it rare. My relationship with food has been influenced by religion, but I have faith in eating. During my freshman year of college, when I was required to be on the university dining plan, we often opted to pay US$2 more for a meal to eat in the kosher dining hall, which was always better. No bacon there, though. Jews are permitted to eat animals with cloven hoofs and who chew the cud. Pigs do not chew the cud. Logically, they were also traditionally more dangerous to eat, more dirty. There were no cheeseburgers, no dairy products with meat. The Torah says, "You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk."
I took these religious interpretations, well, with a grain of salt. But I was always aware, when dining kosher, that I was eating meat from animals that were, to the extent of my knowledge, killed "with respect and compassion", traditionally with a knife with a sharp blade in a single swift movement, causing the least pain. I was mindful, but cannot take pride in or credit for it.
I read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, a book he wrote after researching factory farming in order to make an informed decision on whether he and his wife would raise their child vegetarian like themselves. The atrocious practices came as no surprise. And as I lay in bed, reading under a bedside lamp — although this was not a book for bedtime reading — I became concerned with the fact that I picked up the book with no intention of giving up meat. I read the book with the conviction to learn about the practice, but an equally strong conviction that eating meat is part of who I am as a person, more than a habit or a liking, and perhaps beyond reasoning. There is right and wrong, but wrong feels so right.
Could we ever separate morality from dietary habits? And if they inform one another, then the things that you choose to eat or not to consume express your identity as a person. Something that satisfies the palate satisfies the being. The Lykovs were forced to give up the lives they once knew for their beliefs. They gave up the comforts of their home. But still more significantly, they gave up salt.
Pimrapee Thungkasemvathana is a writer for the Bangkok Post's Life section.