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Flash in the Pan

Whether egg or embryo, meat begins at conception


Naalehu, Hawaii, is the southernmost town in the United States. At America’s southernmost strip mall, I stopped at a little hole-in-the-wall for some hot sauce. On my way out I noticed some eggs simmering in a crock pot. Mildly hungry and moderately curious, I asked if they were hardboiled eggs.

“Simmered for 20 minutes,” she said, adding, “They have a little chicken inside.”

Concerned that she meant something really weird and gross, I asked, “You mean it’s a fertilized egg?”

“With a little chicken inside,” she confirmed, explaining how the fertilized eggs had been incubated 16 days, long enough for a chicken to start developing inside. She said it’s called balot (pronounced “ball-oat”).

She handed me a bowl with some salt in the bottom, a napkin, and a generous sample.

A local guy with his kids, who was waiting for some balot to simmer, joined the lady at the counter in witnessing what was to be each one’s first sighting of a haole eating balot. “It tastes like chicken soup,” said the guy, egging me on. I peeled off the top of the eggshell and peered inside. It was brown and runny.

Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into? I wondered. I’ve never backed down from a culinary adventure, but I was ready to chicken out. My wide-eyed audience was waiting. I sprinkled salt on my balot and sipped the broth, which did in fact taste like chicken soup.

As the egg’s liquid level went down, the tissue masses of the developing embryo were revealed. “What about this other stuff,” I asked, desperately hoping I was supposed to just toss it.

“Oh, you eat them too,” said the man.

“Let me guess,” I said, “They taste like chicken?”

He nodded. “Just chew them,” he said.

At this point there were three items left in the egg: the developing chicken itself, a yolk and a bit of egg white. Fortunately the chicken had yet to develop feathers, bones, or any other recognizable body parts.

Summoning whatever reserves of courage I possessed, I got it into my mouth.

The embryo indeed tasted like chicken. More like warm chicken jelly—perhaps grey matter, as the brain develops first.

Below the embryo was a misshapen yolk that tasted like a hard-boiled egg, with a lump of egg white shaped kind of like a volcano, hard as plastic, with zero flavor.

It turns out that balot came to Hawaii from the Philippines, where it’s spelled balut and is usually made with duck eggs. Incubation periods range from seven to 21 days.

After that adventure I drove into Volcano National Park, where lava flows from the subterranean hotspot responsible for creating the Hawaiian Islands. From the park entrance near Kilauea’s crater, at 3,500 feet, we descended through jungle, rock, and a cloud of sulfurous gas drifting from Pupu, an active vent. Since I can never remember how to say Puuo’o, I call it pupu, Hawaiian for appetizer.

At sea level, I parked at the visitor’s center, constructed after lava buried the road beyond. It was almost dusk. A busload of Japanese tourists dressed like orange road workers tested their flashlights and ate Japanese bento box take-out before their night hike.

I backtracked along the cliffs and bedded down on a rare patch of moss amidst the endless lava, which was often sharp and crisscrossed with deep fissures that are hard to see in the dark. Below the cliffs, the black sea pounded.

I put my head where I could see Pupu’s bright red glow on the ridge. It undulated randomly, more like the northern lights than a lava lamp.

I lay there and pondered the earth’s creation: material from the depths creating the surface. I thought about my lunch, which led my deep and meaningful speculations back to the age-old question of “which came first?”

Clearly, it was an egg before it was a chicken. But at the same time, wasn’t it both egg and chicken all along?

I have a friend who has never eaten meat. Except for eggs, milk, honey, and the statistically inevitable random protein in her salad, she eats no animal products.

I wondered if she has ever eaten a fertilized chicken egg, which is just a few warm days away from being a chicken. When does meat begin? I wondered.

I burped, and then tried to detect any taste of sulfur. None. Once, in Peru, I ate a deviled egg in a fancy restaurant. That night, I woke from a dream in which I was a lake in Africa that belched a cloud of gas and wiped out a village. I burped a foul sulfur cloud, went back to sleep and woke up sick.

But the morning after my Hawaiian chick soup, I felt great. Right before dawn I looked up at the glowing ridge—for maybe the 20th time that peaceful night. But there was no glow. I couldn’t even see the ridge, or hardly anything else. Pupu’s sulfur cloud had swallowed us. The wind had shifted. It was time to go.

Ask Ari: Organic cultivation can boost crop production

Q: Dear Ari,

I’m writing to ask if you’ll direct me to the reference you mention in your Dec. 27 column, “A recent University of Michigan study demonstrated that organic practices can out-produce conventional practices…”

I use factoids like this frequently in my writing and in counseling patients. About 90 percent of my prescription for my patients is “Eat different.” So I need all the angles I can get for reaching through the defenses and inspiring people to change their eating habits.

Thanks again and all best,

—Nancy Dunne
naturopathic physician

A: Dear Nancy,

Good question. You can find the study, co-authored by professors Ivette Perfecto and Catherine Badgley and some of their students, with a simple online search.

The idea for the research came from a class about the global food system that Perfecto and Badgley taught. The class included site visits to organic farms around southern Michigan.

“We were struck by how much food the organic farmers would produce,” Perfecto said. The two set about compiling data from published literature to investigate the chief objections to organic farming: low yields and lack of organically acceptable nitrogen sources.

After comparing yields of organic and non-organic farms, the researchers looked at nitrogen availability. They calculated the average amount of nitrogen available for crops if so-called “green manures” were cultivated between growing seasons. Green manures are cover crops that get plowed into the soil to provide natural soil amendments. They found that planting green manures between growing seasons provided enough nitrogen to replace synthetic fertilizers.

So, despite the hype of radical plant geneticists and industrial food corporation spokespeople, organic farming can feed the world. The food would be better, and the world would be cleaner.

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