Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Donkeys, Snakes and Other Talking Animals

verona streetTwo weeks ago I wrote a blog about a parrot with a Brooklyn accent.  And just when I thought that I was done with talking animals, I went to Verona which made me think of a conversation I once had with my fifth oldest child. She was not born in America; in fact, she was born in Ethiopia, and she came to America with little English. When I was walking her home from school one afternoon, after her ESL class, she mentioned to me that she was hungry, so I told her that I would fix her a little snack when we got home.

“I don’t want one,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied, “I thought you were hungry.”

“I am,” she said.

“Well then,” I responded, “I will fix you a snack.”

“No, no, no,” she said, “I don’t want one.”

“How hungry are you?”

“Just a little.”

“Then a snack would be perfect.  Just a little one. There’s no need to fix you a big one.”

“No, no, no. I don’t want one.”

Only later did I realize that her hunger pangs followed by moments of apparently complete lack of hunger were engendered by her misunderstanding of the word snack. She thought, of course, that I was saying snake.  Now I know that some of my Texan friends eat snake.  But I am not a herpavor.  I come from Pennsylvania where, to my knowledge, no one eats snakes.  But my daughter thought I was referring to making her eat a small snake (as opposed to a large one) after school.

Now I had almost forgotten about this event until we arrived in Verona two days ago and, on the advice of an acquaintance, went to one of the finer dining establishments in this beautiful town, a five minute walk from the House of Juliette, which features, of course, the balcony said to have inspired the bard.  juliets balconyDrifting on from the mildly (if tragically) romantic courtyard of Juliette, we came to the aforementioned restaurant, one that astounded me, only in part because the tortellini that I ordered was deliciously garnished with fine northern Italian Balsamic—real Balsamic comes from either Reggio Emilia or Modena (whose accent rests on the first syllable).  balsamicIndeed, the pasta that I had chosen was delightful, far more delightful than the menu which featured, to my great consternation, both pasta with a meat sauce made of horse flesh and another with a donkey ragù.  Good heavens, I thought, it has come full circle.  Now I have become my daughter—but this time they really are eating the forbidden animal.  And the couple at the next table fulfilled my worst fears, he ordering the horse and she, with a chuckle that sounded to me a veritable bray, the donkey.

Now this seemed to me especially wrong on two counts.  First, having been a mule skinner for much of my childhood years, I can never brook the notion of eating the father (a jackass) of one of my beloved coworkers—hybrid, yes, but certainly almost human. Second, the woman who ordered the spaghetti a la donkey ragù herself cavorted in an asinine manner.  I’m not sure what nationality she was, but suffice it to say that the manner in which she displayed her discerning palate was a bit too much for my taste.  Thus it seemed to me that a bit of cannibalism might just have been going on at table 12.

Alexander mosaic, detail

Coincidentally or not, there are only two animals in the Bible—that is the donkey and the snake—ever reported to have spoken Hebrew (presumably Hebrew).  The ass, was of course, that of Balaam and the snake, well, that was Eve’s little friend in the Garden.  But the horse, while never having been said to speak in the Bible, has human characteristics, too, as anyone who has owned one can tell you.  Some horses have been very famous.  Need I mention Silver, of Lone Ranger fame, who spoke, or rather at least understood, perfect English and would come when called and do exactly as he was told; or Bucephalus, who despite his ox-headed name was said to have been the best of horses in antiquity, his master’s favorite and often depicted in artistic renditions along with Alexander.  The equus of Caesar was said to have been equally beloved of his master.  Both were said to have been portrayed with hooves resembling human feet.[1]  And should I even mention Mr. Ed?  Of course it’s a horse, of course, of course, but not ever meant to be a dinner course.

So, when the waiter offered me the spaghetti a la donkey ragù, I, as my daughter had once said to me, found myself stating repetitively, “No, no, no…!”  I was amazed at how visceral my response was, but I simply could not and would not dare even think of eating a donkey or a horse on basically the same principal that my dear daughter had innately adopted vis-à-vis even a small snake. Even though the waiter insisted it was tasty; even though the woman at table twelve was by then ravenously devouring it; even though it is part of Veronese culture, new to me on this trip (new since Switzerland, where I was two days ago, studying more manuscripts in lovely Bern); even though I normally try to embrace as fully as possible a new culture when I am travelling. In spite of all this, I simply could not eat an animal like Bucephalus or Balaam’s ass, or even Eve’s slithering sidekick.

Spaghetti a la ragù d’asino
Spaghetti a la ragù d’asino (sauce of donkey)

Wait, what about dogs and cats?  They don’t speak in the Bible, but they certainly have human characteristics and are a part of many a family in ways that snakes and donkeys normally are not. Well, that can be gotten around easily enough.  First, the dog is the one animal in the Bible whose name is everywhere, just written backwards, of course. So, the Eucharist notwithstanding, I think we can safely say that we should not eat dogs on roughly the same biblical principal as not eating donkeys.  It’s a bit harder to come up with a biblical refuge for cats.  The best I can find is about as convincing as Mr. Trump’s by now quasi infamous (but somehow not damaging to him) “Two Corinthians” reference.  Still for the sake of the species, I will try. The word “according to,” used for titles of each of the gospels in Greek, is “kata,” which is easily shortened to “kat/cat.”  So, cats, it seems, are if only indirectly, like dogs, in the Bible and thus sort of protected from being dinner—at least according to me.  Besides, our own dog, Knight, is a Great Dane, and thus qualifies both under the backwards goD heading and the horse category, as well.

But I will eat balsamic, and I will eat palatable pastas in peculiar places.  So I leave you with but a trifle this week–you should try a trifle as well, or I should say a truffle, which in Italy are fresh and quite lovely in late November. Indeed, though I normally recommend trying the odd foods and accepting the strange things that life throws at you, I don’t recommend eating animals that can talk or whose names can be somehow manipulated as to being semi-divine, even if they can’t quite talk.  And I do recommend warm Verona and snowy Bern, both lovely. Bon apetit, mon ami.

[1] Miriam Griffin, ed. A Companion to Julius Caesar (Cambridge, 2015).