There’s this Filipino dish I love—not a dish so much as a thing, these traditional barbecued pork skewers on wooden sticks. The meat’s packed as tight as puka shells on a necklace, it’s marinated and glazed with lots of garlic and something sweet (Coke or Sprite), and the meat itself? It’s chewy as hell, and occasionally gristly. Also, it’s fantastic.
The chewiness is what I love. Not grappling with serious veins of gristle—I’ve had that experience (no choice but to spit it out and move on to the next bite). But the feeling of having to chew meat: That’s something increasingly rare in the industrialized world, with meat that’s been bred and fed and slaughtered in a certain way to yield tenderness, and things designed like electric ovens and slow cookers to mitigate the tough cuts that have survived.
But feeling meat as it crunches between your molars, hearing the act of chewing through the vibration in your jawbone: That feels primal. Not bogusly primal, the way food writers like me describe modern barbecue, with the softness of superluxury cuts like brisket or baby back ribs. It feels authentically primal, the end of a chain that links us to our Paleolithic ancestors, chewing strips of feral reindeer in fire-blackened caves. Forget the Sierra Mist, the soy sauce and garlic grown on vast Chinese farms that flavors these particular expressions of Filipino takeout in the 21st century. The meat’s texture makes the dishes timeless.
Don’t ask me to say what cut of pork goes onto the sticks at a place like Fil-Am BBQ Cuisine, just south of San Francisco. I know it’s very cheap (leg, maybe); I suspect it’s from very cheap animals. I don’t mind. Some foods have been so refined by the modern food breeders, they make you long for the old versions, at least sometimes. Like supersweet corn varieties make you long for the more nuanced sweetness of the old standard ones, even if they’d turn on you and become starchy.
There’s nothing like imperfection to give our food what it so often lacks: character.
Photo by John Birdsall