English 102 college writing and research

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ANN HODGMAN

No WonderTheyCallMe a Bitch

Whether gently funny or savagely comic, the humomus essay has one of the longest traditions in the history of the essay genre. Decades ago, in the days ofJames Thurber; E. B. "\iVhite,Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker; and S. J Perelman, the American essay thrived on an urbane wit and humor. For

whateverreasons(Political correctness?sensitivity?entrenchedacademicse-

riousness?),our era seems less accommodating toJunny essays. There are far fewer humor magazines now, and theperiodicals that ordinarily feature

humor include lessof it than theyoncedid. Today'sbest-knownhumor

writersusuallywork:within therestrictionsof 75o-wordnewspapercol- umns and seldom expand the literary possibilities oj humor as did S. J Perelman, who died 1-'(1-I979. Still, every now and then a humorous

essay -like Ann Hodgman's deliciously comic tidbit - finds its way into The Best American Essays. Reminiscent of Perelman's zany investiga- tions, Hodgman's courageous essay pushes self-education past the point most of us would go.

A former contributing editor to Spy magazine, Ann Hodgman is the

author of Beat This! (I993), a cookbook, several humor books, including

True Tiny Tales of Terror (I9B2), and more than forty childrens books,

including a six-bookseriesfor middle schoolerscalledMy Babysitter Is a Vampire (I 99 I). Among her most recent books are Hard Times for Cats

(I992), Addams Family Values (I993) and Children of the Night: Dark Triumph (I997). "No Wonder They clfz Me a Bitch" originally appeared in Spy (I989) and was selected byJustin KaPlan for The Best American Essays 1990.

I've alwayswondered about dog food. Is a Gaines-burger really like a hamburger? Can you fry it? Does dog food "cheese" taste like

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195ANN HODGMAN

real cheese? Does Gravy Train actually make gravy in the dog's bowl, or is that brown liquid just dissolved crumbs? And exactly what areby-products? .

Having spent the better part of a week eating dog food, I'm sorry to say that I now know the answers to these questions. While my dachshund, Shortie, watched in agonies of yearning, I gagged

my way through can after can of stinky, white-flecked mush and

bag after bag of stinky, fat-drenched nuggets.AndnowI under. stand exactly why Shortie's breath is so bad.

Of course, Gaines-burgers are neither mush nor nuggets. They are, rather, a miracle of beauty and packaging - or at least that's what I thought when I was little. I used to beg my mother to get them for our dogs, but she always said they were too expensive. When I finally bought a box of cheese-flavored Gaines-burgers- after 20 years of longing - I felt deliciously wicked.

"Dogs love real beef," the back of the box proclaimed proudly. "That's why Gaines-burgers is the only beef burger for dogs with real beef and no meat by-products!" The copy was accurate: meat by-products did not appear in the list of ingredients. Poultry by- productsdid, though- right therenext to preservedanimalfat.

One Purina spokesman told me that poultry by-products consist of necks, intestines, undeveloped eggs and other "carcass rem- nants," but not feathers, heads or feet. When I told him I'd been eating dog food, he said, "Oh, you're kidding! Oh no!" (I came to share his alarm when, weeks later, a second Purina spokesman said that Gaines-burgers do contain poultry heads and feet - but not undeveloped eggs.)

Up close my Gaines-burger didn't much resemble chopped beef. Rather, it looked - and felt -like a single long, extruded pi~ce of redness that had been chopped into segments and formed into

a patty. Youcould make one at home if you had a Play-DohFun Factory.

I turned on the skillet. While I waited for it to heat up I pulled out a shred of cheese-colored material and palpated it. Again, like

Play-Doh, it was quite malleable. I made a little cheese bird out of it; then I counted to three and ate the bird.

There was a horrifying rush of cheddar taste, followed immedi- ately by the dull tang of soybean flour - the main ingredient in Gaines-burgers. Next I tried a piece of red extrusion. The main difference between the meat-flavored and cheese-flavored

196 No WonderTheyCallMe a Bitch

extrusions is one of texture. The "cheese" chews like fresh Play- Doh, whereas the "meat" chews like Play-Doh that's been sitting out on a rug for a couple of hours.

Frying only turned the Gaines-burger black. There was no melt- ing, no sizzling, no warm meat smells. A cherished childhood illusion was gone. I flipped the patty into the sink, where it imme-

diately began leaking rivulets of red dye.

As alarmingas the Gaines-burgerswere, their soymeal began to seem like an old friend when the time came to try some canned dog foods. I decided to try the Cycle foods first. When I opened them, I thought about how rarely I use can openers these days, and I was suddenly visited by a long-forgotten sensation of can-

opener distaste. This is the kind of unsavory place can openers spend their time when you're not watching! Every time you open a can of, say, Italian plum tomatoes, you infect them with invisible particles of by-product.

I had been expecting to see the usual homogeneous scrapple in- side, but each can of Cycle was packed with smooth', round, oily nuggets. As if someone at Gaines had been tipped off that a human would be tasting the stuff, the four Cycles really were dif- ferent from one anqther. Cycle-I, for puppies, is wet and soyish. Cycle-2, for adults, glistens nastily with fat, but it's passably edi- ble - a lot like some canned Swedish meatballs I once got in a care package at college. Cycle-3, the "lite" one, for fatties, had no specific flavor; it just tasted like dog food. But at least it didn't make me fat.

Cyc1e-4, for senior dogs, had the smallest nuggets. Maybe old dogs can't open their mouths as wide. This kind was far sweeter than the other three Cycles - almost like baked beans. It was also the only one to contain "dried beef digest," a mysterious substance

that the Purina spokesman defined as "enzymes" and my diction- ary defined as "the products of digestion."

Next on the menu was a can of Kal-Kan Pedigree with Chunky Chicken. Chunky chicken? There were cQ,unks in the can, cer- tainly - big, purplish-brown chunks. I forked one chunk out (by now I was becoming more callous) and found that while it had no discernible chicken flavor, it wasn't bad except for its texture- like meat loaf with ground-up chicken bones.

In the world of canned dog food, a smooth consistency is a

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sign of lowquality-lots of cereal. A lumpy, frightening, bloody, stringy horror is a sign of high quality-lots of meat. Nowhere in the world of wet dog foods was this demonstrated better than in the fanciest I tried - Kal Kan's Pedigree Select Dinners. These came not in a can but in a tiny foil packet with a picture of an im-

perious Yorkie. When I pulled open the container, juice spurted

all overmyhand,andthe first chunkI spea~ed was trailing a long gray vein. I shrieked and went instead for a plain chunk, which I was able to swallow only after taking a break to read some sud- denly fascinating office equipment catalogs. Once again, though, it tasted no more alarming than, say, canned hash.

Still, how pleasant it was to turn to dry dog food! Gravy Train was the first I tried, and I'm happy to report that it really does make a "thick, rich, real beef gravy" when you mix it with water. Thick and rich, anyway. Except for a lingering rancid-fat flavor, the gravy wasn't beefy, but since it tasted primarily like tap water, it wasn't nauseating either.

My poor dachshund just gets plain old Purina Dog Chow, but Purina also makes a dry food called Butcher's Blend that comes in Beef, Bacon & Chicken flavor. Here we see dog food's arcane semi- otics at its best: a red triangle with a T stamped into it is supposed to suggest beef; a tan curl, chicken; and a brown S, a piece of bacon. Only dogs understand these messages. But Butcher's Blend does have an endearing slogan: "Great Meaty Tastes-without bothering the Butcher!" You know, I wanted to lruysome meat, lrutI just couldn't bring myselfto botherthe butcher.. . .

Purina O.N.E. ("Optimum Nutritional Effectiveness") is tar- geted at people who are unlikely' ever to worry about bothering a tradesperson. "We chose chicken as a primary ingredient in Pu- rina O.N.E. for several reasonings," the long, long .essay on the back of the bag announces. Chief among these reasonings, I'd guess, is the fact that chicken appeals to people who are - you know-like us. Although our dogs do nothing but spend IS-hour days alone in the apartment, we still want them to be premium dogs. We want them to cut down on red meat, too. We also want dog food that comes in a bag with an attractive design, a subtle type- face and no kitschy pictures of slobbering golden retrievers.

Besides that, we want a list of the Nutritional Benefits of our dog food - and we get it on O.N.E. One thing I especially like about

Ig8 No WonderThey CallMe a Bitch

this list is its constant references to a dog's "hair coat,"as in "Beef tallow is good for the dog's skin and hair coat." (On the other hand, beef tallow merely provides palatability, while the dried beef digest in Cycle provides palatability enhancemerit.)

I hate to say it, but O.N.E. was pretty palatable. Maybe that's be- cause it has about 100 percent more fat than, say,Butcher's Blend. Or maybe I'd been duped by the packaging; that's been known to happen before.

As with people food, dog snacks taste much better than dog meals. They're better-looking too. Take Milk-Bone Flavor Snacks. The loving-hands-at-home prose describing each flavor is colorful; the writers practically choke on their own exuberance. Of bacon they say, "It's so good, your dog will think it's hot off the frying pan." Of liver: "The only taste your dog wants more than liver - is even more liver!" Of poultry: "All those farm fresh flavors deli- ciously mixed in one biscuit. Your dog will bark with delight!" And of vegetable: "Gardens of taste! Specially blended to give your dog that vegetable flavor he wants - but can rarely get!"

Well, I may be a sucker, but advertising thisemphatic just doesn't convince me. I lined up all seven flavors of Milk-Bone Flavor Snacks on the floqr. Unless my dog's palate is a lot more sensitive than mine - and ~onsidering that she steals dirty diapers out of the trash and eats them, I'm loath to think it is - she doesn't de- tect any more diffe'rence in the seven flavors than I did when I tried them.

I much preferred, Bonz, the hard-baked, bone-shaped snack stuffed with simulated marrow. I liked the bone part, that is; it tasted almost exactly like the cornmeal it was made of. The mock- marrow inside was a bit more problematic: in addition to looking like the sludge that collects in the treads of my running shoes, it was bursting with tiny hairs.

I'm sure you have a few dog food questions of your own. To save us time, I've answered them in advance.

(6Are thoselittle cans of Mighty Dogactually llrandedwith thesizzling word BEEF, the way they show in the commerciat§?

A. You should know by now that that kind of thing never hap- pens. .

Q. Does chicken-jlavored dogfood taste like chicken-jlavored cat food? A. To my surprise, chicken cat food was actually a little better-

more chickeny. It tasted like infe.rior r~nnp~ ",';.f.

199 ANN HODGMAN

Q. Was thereany dogfood that you just couldn't bring yourself to try? A. Alas, it was a can of Mighty Dog called Prime Entree with

Bone Marrow. The meat was dark, dark brown, and it was sur- rounded by gelatin that was almost black. I knew I would die if I tasted it, so I put it outside for the raccoons.

Reflections and Responses

1. What is Ann Hodgman making fun of? Is the essay a satire on

dog food products alone or does she have other targets?

2. Of what importance is the "packaging" of dog food? How does Hodgman use the language of the packaging for comic effect?

3. Consider the advertising language that Hodgman cites. Accord- ing to the ads, what similarities exist between the eating habits of dogs and people? What has Hodgman learned from her experi- ment?