Saturday, December 18, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 18, Lawrence Lenhart: Consider the Bat: dining comments on the eve of a pandemic

After David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster" and M. K. Fisher's "Love and Death Among the Molluscs"

Port Vila, Vanuatu, December 2019

Minutes after placing my order at L’Houstalet Restaurant, chef-owner Clément Martinez visits my tableside. We are in the middle of an open-air courtyard. Its stucco walls are decorated with life-size primitivist paintings, splattered with light cast by a dozen or more red lampshades. L’Houstalet offers provincial Gallic gastronomy with a twist: it’s a farm homestay, but with the delicacies of the Pacific. I suspect Clément is on the verge of apology or congratulations. It’s either, Je suis désolé, we’ve just run out of a necessary ingredient or Félicitations, you are our one millionth customer. I watch for him to whip out a party kazoo, spray me with confetti. Instead, he cross-examines me about my entree selection, civet de roussette

On this side of vegetarianism (way lapsed), I’ve ingested bull testicles, tuna eyeballs, pufferfish livers, fried tarantulas, and maybe, one night in Cambodia, dog meat. (Some pranks never quite resolve.) Put another way, a tourist leads a dreadful, but exciting life, opting for a lusty bit of nourishment over items more obviously designed to sate. 

Until now, the only fauna I’ve refused to taste is the turtle. Despite gourmands’ insistence that it’s the sweetest protein you’ll ever press to your palate, I need to believe at least one animal is too sacred to consume. I think I’d sooner eat a filet of human flesh than a spoonful of turtle soup. Tonight, though, I’m beginning to think the same deference should have been applied to Chiroptera before placing my order. 

“Are you certain about the bat?” he asks, hand on his aproned hip. “The waitress said you ordered the bat.” 

It’s as if the documents before me do not amount to a menu, but a multiple-choice exam, and I am on the brink of failure. 

“I think I was certain,” I say. 

Described as a “nuggety, bouncy figure” by one leisure writer, Clément has pitched eyebrows and an abiding smile, even now as he confronts me. Perhaps he’s doubling back for the young Francophone waitress who seemed nonplussed by my attempt at a French accent. My nasally r’s and narrow u’s were likely more caricature than communication. 

“Is there a problem?” I ask. “Are there no bats in the kitchen tonight?” 

It wouldn’t be the first time in recent days I ordered something from a menu, only to watch the chef bound across the street to procure the missing ingredient from a nearby food stall. In the case of the flying fox (Pteropus anetianus), one need only fire into the fronds, fell it to the street, stuff its adorable carcass into a vat of boiling water. Or perhaps Clément procures his bats from a local wet market, the likes of which will become infamous in China in a few months’ time. 

“Non, non. We have the bat,” he says. 

Apparently, L’Houstalet sells a few each evening to boring hedonists like me. I keep trying to read between his lines. 

“Are you certain?” By which, perhaps, he means: Have you fully reckoned with the essence of this animal you intend to eat? The thing is, one person’s meat might be another person’s poison. In the case of the bat, one’s mind must be open wide as their mouth. For it has been called the bird of the Devil, even an incarnation of the Devil itself. Isaiah lists it among unclean birds [sic], a detestable reremouse unfit for supper. In the Bible, the bat roosts in caves among abandoned idols. See the figures of Ba’al forged of gold, silver, bronze, cedar, cypress, oak, and stone, all covered in bat guano. Maligned from antiquity to the present, the bat is in desperate need of a new PR manager. 

“You know it’s gamey,” he says. I provide an assenting nod. “Have you ever had venison?”

I keep on nodding. 

Civet de roussette is not a quick dish to prepare. You’re okay with the wait?” 

I nod some more. So he’s being preemptive, running diagnostics on my temperament. It seems he’s a chef who, after a spate of harsh reviews on TripAdvisor, is simply doing triage. 

“Very good. And you have read how it’s prepared?”

“Red wine,” I say. “Garlic marinade?”

“Non,” he says, shaking his head, turning the menu over to a reprint of an Australian food critic’s column about the dish. 

Just then, five serveurs bring me linen napkins and silverware, a basket of crostini, carafe of white wine, crock of coconut crab stew, and garlic snails with a set of tongs that resemble a gynecologist’s speculum. 

“Bon appétit,” Clément says, backing away to the kitchen, presumably to prepare my bat. 

“Are you certain?” By which, perhaps, he means: Listen here, you Bourdain wannabe. There are easier ways to get some attention on your holiday. 

“Are you certain?” By which, perhaps, he means: How will you go on living after your first bite of bat? What will you do with the memory of its flavor? What will you do with the knowledge of the jaw-force needed to shred its meat? What if, from now on, when you see small bones accumulating on a plate— chicken wingettes snapped off the drumette, gnawed clean—you can only think of bat? What will it feel like to be driving home from work, passing by all those chain restaurants and drive-thru lanes, only to realize a sudden craving for a dish that can only be gotten in distant Melanesia? 

From the looks of it, L’Houstalet is for lovers. Most tables are set for two with couples scooted close enough to share a menu, lock fingers, spoon-feed each other crème brûlée, whisper everything as if it’s a secret. Their flirtation is beginning to make me feel inexplicably insecure—like we’ve just played a children’s game where, when the music stops, everyone is meant to pair off, and I’m the odd man out. 

The uncollected menu on my table allows me to convince myself my wife will yet sit down beside me. I imagine our conversation turning to one of our earliest dates, c. 2012, when we parked the car, and I led her down a path to a dry river wash adjacent to the fancy gastropub. It was sunset, about the time thousands of bats streamed from the maternity colony clustered on the underside of a Tucson bridge. They erupted from the trusses, beelined for the suburbs where they feasted on a buffet of desert bugs. The shape of their flight against the late desert sun, the pointillism of their silhouettes, created the illusion of collimation; it was enough to dream on for months. 

I turn my attention back to the menu, which touts L’Houstalet’s modest role in facilitating independence in Vanuatu, something about Clément serving up forty bowls of French onion soup at midnight to dignitaries as they drafted the nation’s constitution. Elsewhere in the menu is a reprinted restaurant review by Bob Hart whose attempt at writing the French accent is worse than my attempt at speaking it. To Hart, Clément might as well be Pépé Le Pew. While it may very well be verbatim, the use of the letter zed is downright hyperbolic: “I use zee gertz of zee flying fox. I take zem out, I wash zem, I chop zem up, add zee ‘erbs, and I put zem back. Ees very good, non?” 

I can stomach offal. It calls to mind the sheep pluck and cow tripe I’ve savored in haggis and menudo. But this ostentation—eating a mammal’s organs in situ—might be too boorish even for me. As I gnash the last of the snails, slurp at the aromatic dregs of the coconut crab soup, I sense Clément on the other side of the wall, trussing the bat’s wings, now scrubbing the innards with rock salt, now glazing the carcass in syrupy red wine reduction. 

Before Andie and I left the wash, we crouched over a dead bat, stick-flipped it by its elastin wings. I rolled her few ounces to the edge of the dust. This was the one who didn’t get away. A woman approached us, bandana covering her mouth. She urged us to cover up: “¡Pulmón! ¡Pulmón!” She clutched at her chest dramatically. Beside her boots, a trowel stuck into a pail of guano. It seemed overcautious then to think that one should have to wear a mask due to one wee bat. 

“Are you certain?” Clément had asked. By which he might have meant: Are you not wary of the optics? A tourist towering over a plate of exotic meat when he could have ordered the chicken instead? Is it appropriate or is it appropriation? When Cyclone Pam razed Vanuatu in 2015, destroying the cane-framed and palm-thatched huts, citizens bunkered in concrete schoolhouses and starved. With their crops ruined, men crafted javelins and launched them high into fronds, puncturing the megabats in their dog-like faces, knocking them to soaking earth. For many, the flying fox was a primary source of calories until relief rations arrived. 

A small family seated near the restroom dallies after their meal. An Aussie brother and sister pretend to be bats—screeching as they run in circles round the table, wild displays of double-jointed flapping, and incestuous bloodsucking that ends in electric giggles that embarrass the parents enough to make them empty their wallets and vamoose. 

We dressed our son as a bat for his first Halloween, adorable wings and a cap with ears perked with wire. I carefully grasped him by his calves, upending him as if to roost. I wondered then, as I do know: do bats sometimes poop upside down, like right onto their noses? At his nine-month checkup, the pediatrician watched as he teethed on the head of a large plush bat puppet. “Little Ozzy,” the doctor said as he pressed the diaphragm of the stethoscope to his chest. 

We’ve got bats on our linocut prints, in our popup books, on the patterns of our PJs. There’s even one sunk in the frogs’ tank: a rubber figurine knocking against a shoot of bamboo. In the very fabric of our family lore, one can find Chiroptera galore. 

“Are you certain?” Clément had asked. By which, perhaps, he meant: What would your family say? 

When another carafe of wine shows up at my table, I don’t wave it off. Instead, I carry it with me like a goblet, drinking from it directly as I make way for the perimeter of the courtyard toward the paintings, hung in a grid, warmly spotlit. All are originals by the “Picasso of the Pacific,” Aloi Pilioko. Most of his canvases are full of blue sky and chartreuse foliage. Banana leaves stand as tall as the human figures that populate the paintings. The centered subjects are brushed sienna, ochre, and plum, carrying out daily rituals that shape life in Vanuatu. They are inscribed with scenes of worship, kastom, and black magic—chiefs at the nakamal, tribesmen in the bush, untraceable displays of alchemy. There are parrots and pythons, a clowder of anthropomorphized alleycats. Another depicts the well-known feat of Nanggol (land-diving) in which young men cuff their ankles with a vine and freefall twenty-nine meters from a thirty-meter tower, rebounding just before the earth splits open their skulls. 

I am biding my time, not working up an appetite as much as my appetite is beginning to work me up. When the waitstaff next exits the kitchen, I glimpse the door, rocking on its hinges. Clément is stripping leaves from woody sprigs, sprinkling them into the skillet. 

“Are you certain?” By which, perhaps, he meant: Have you really considered the bat? Like Fisher considered the oyster: those wayward spats, androgynous hermaphrodites, with their cold guts, gills, and crinkly fringes? Or like Wallace considered the lobster: how its chitin turns scarlet after the boil melts away all other pigments?  

Have I even once considered the bat’s perplexing immune system, most of which is found in the “gertz”? The way it enjoys immunity, passing viral particulate, bacterial culture, mold spores through its bowels, light as coils of dust, ready to lift off with a mild wind into the lungs of a warm-blooded host? Have I thought once about the deaths of so many South Pacific islanders who were kidnapped by blackbirders, sold to haciendas, and deployed to scrape the caves clean of guano? Death by histoplasmosis, a.k.a. “bat shit lungs.” ¡Pulmón! Have I reminded myself of the bat as a vector of so many other emerging diseases: Ebola and Hanta, Hendra and Nipah, Influenza A and Manangle, rabies and Rift Valley, MERS-CoV and SARS CoV-1? 

What, at the time, felt like a whimsical thing to do, a lame party trick—me responding to nobody’s dare at all: Do you have the gertz to eat a bat?—will soon be a source of ignominy. I can still hear my pinched singsong order: Civet de roussette, s'il vous plaît

No. I’d say I haven’t much considered the bat at all. 

I’m most transfixed by a Pilioko painting in the corner. A man grips two bats by their ankles. They dangle at his sides, upside-down as if roosting from his palms. They are drawn to-scale, tall as his torso. Clearly, they will be eaten, but for now their eyes match the man’s navel: bright red dots, flickering sources of life. Their mouths and genitals are red ovoids as well. The couple seated nearest to me has stopped conversing; instead, they study me at the altar of this painting. 

“Are you certain?” By which, perhaps, he meant certain, derived from the Latin verb for “discriminate” (e.g., “of discriminating taste”), whose root krei- means “to sieve,” like the mesh utensil used to separate desired morsels of food from the rest. Bat pulp and bat fibers. Bat collagen and bat follicles. I hope Clément’s sifting is less clumsy than mine. 

The couple has shifted in their seats so as to give me some privacy before the paintings of the bats. It has been years since I sat across from my wife in that way: away from our home continent, children figmented by a generous distance. The couple eyes the wine menu. I want to buy them their next bottle, but I’m fearful they have expensive taste. 

The door swings open again, and I see Clément pouring wine into the skillet, chattering with the sous-chef as my meal simmers and steams. I empty my own carafe into my throat and ditch it on an empty table nearby. 

“Are you certain?” Clément had asked. By which, perhaps, he meant: Are you aware of the bat’s place on the food supply chain? Better than ruminant cows, better than chicken, better than wild-caught fish, farmed fish, even better than nut trees, which produce negative greenhouse gases. A steady diet of bat could turn the Keeling Curve into a parabola by next Earth Day. 

My father—and probably your father too, if you were raised as boy—motivated my carnivorism with the promise of a hairy chest. What if he had instead said, Take this bite and you can change the world: tailspin the economy, forestall the daily commute, cause a record fall in fossil fuel emissions, keep large groups away from precious wildlife habitat?

“Are you certain?” Clément had asked. By which, perhaps, he meant: Has the time finally come to put your bat where your mouth is? You have affected misanthropy for too long, quoting that eco-depth chart ad nauseum like a would-be-eco-serial-killer, posturing yourself as “abysmally deep,” advocating for humans to aim for their own extinction. “Abysmally deep—,” the chart reads, “a quick annihilation is too good for humans. A horrible, fatal illness... is only fair.” 

Tracing the pathogenesis of SARS CoV-2 (a.k.a. Covid-19, a.k.a. the coronavirus) is approximate. It likely began within a week, if not day, if not hour, if not instant I uttered civet de roussette. 

Do I mistake the “abysmally deep” for the superficies of deep thinking? Or do I really believe, like Mephistophales, there’s no good in this endless [pro]creating, that it’s really time we get to the annihilating? 

“Are you certain?” Clément had asked. By which, perhaps, he meant: Would you, if you could, be patient zero? From your sickness, a thousand germs could break forth and grow. Do you fancy yourself a climate martyr? Can I bind you in that contract? From deep-down depths, a spring flows in all directions. Let me prick your thumb, slick the menu with juice of rarest quality. 

Who would say ‘yes’ to such a murderous proposition? A utilitarian might argue that when working on a global scale, trading off one pan- for another, it’s the balance (and not the size) of the numbers that matters. Sure, a pandemic could take a few million lives, but a climate panacea could save a billion. It’s the mass transit of trolley problems. 

My waitress greets me at the painting, ushers me back to my seat. “We are ready to present your meal,” she says.

Bat appétit!  

On the plate, the flying fox resembles slow-roasted rabbit, but with fewer bones. It’s unpleasantly bitter, so between bites, I lash it with my own red wine. The emulsion puddled in the center cavity includes particles of the bat’s once large heart, which used to beat 100-400 times per minute. There are carrots stacked sadly on the edge of the plate, nothing more than a pop of color. An afterthought. 

I sense the serveurs huddle in a corner behind my left shoulder, turning me into spectacle.

Jonathan Swift once plagiarized, “It was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” 

I take each bite with gusto. Let there be no mistake that (I think) I am bold too.

“Are you certain?” Clément had asked. By which, perhaps, he meant: You do know that “delicacy” is a euphemism—that delicacy means delicate, that delicate means vulnerable, that on some Melanesian islands, the flying fox is not just vulnerable but endangered, even critically endangered? You’d think they’d be required to print that on the menu by now, but non, I am here to deliver the news. 

Within weeks, videos will surface online of wet markets and food stalls—bats for sale and bats for dinner. A host of a Chinese travel show visits Palau, dramatically hoists a fruit bat from a bowl of broth to her lipstick. At the intersection of epidemiology and conspiracy, people with no expertise at all declare her patient zero despite the fact it was filmed in 2016. She apologizes, takes down the video. Bat-munching videos viralize. Comments multiply. Xenophobia is one way to simplify the convoluted story of a global pandemic. As the “Wuhan virus” catches on, nobody takes notice when I post my stupid pic of civet de roussette on Instagram. My transgression doesn’t court the Sinophobes.

“Are you certain?” Clément had asked. By which, perhaps, he meant: Do I really have to put on my apron for you, you dime-a-dozen tourist? There’s nobody else in the kitchen tonight permitted to cook this particular protein. Won’t you please spare me? 

I see Clément on my way back to the street. He is seated at a table with stacks of receipts, typing at his calculator. 

“Compliments!” I shout into his hovel.

“Est-tu bon?” he asks.

“Oui, bon,” I say as if I’ve been a brave boy. I linger like a child waits for his pediatrician to cover him with stickers. 

I walk away, not yet stricken with tomorrow’s dreadfully exciting illness, a week-long malady that overcomes me just before I board the flight to Singapore with passengers who, the Scoot stewardess notes, have connections to Kunming, Xi’an, Zhengzhou, Hangzhou, Tianjin, Suzhou, Qingdao, Nanjing, and Wuhan. 

Don’t think me delusional, reader. I’m not claiming to be patient zero, just wondering if I should have been. 


Lawrence Lenhart studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh and holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His essay collections include The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19) Backvalley Ferrets (University of Georgia), and Of No Ground (West Virginia University). With Will Cordeiro, he is the author of Experimental Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury). His prose appears in Creative Nonfiction, Conjunctions, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, Passages North, and Prairie Schooner. He is Associate Chair of English at Northern Arizona University where he teaches fiction, nonfiction, and climate science narratives. Lenhart is reviews editor at DIAGRAM and founding editor of Carbon Copy.

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