In the penultimate episode of his infamous TV show, Who is America?, Sacha Baron Cohen successfully convinced wannabe food critic, Bill Jilla, to eat human flesh. The delicacy served was, in fact, nothing more than a nondescript cut of pork or chicken, but the implications of Jilla’s decision to consume it under a false guise were catastrophic. His reputation was ruined, his job prospects were shattered, and all traces of his existence were duly removed from the Internet. Why all this fallout? Because we humans have almost universally deemed the practice of anthropophagy inadmissible.
It is not, however, just cooking up our fellow men that we seem to take issue with. Many of us, in addition, would not dream of tucking into dog, horse, or swan meat, nor would we willingly consume the unorthodox body parts – brains, hearts, testicles, etc. – of otherwise ‘acceptable’ animals. Whether for cultural, religious, or ethical reasons, it seems that even the most carnivorous among us have their limits, and yet to have these preconceived notions of what is right and wrong seems blatantly speciesist. A domesticated labrador may earn the title of ‘man’s best friend’, but does that really justify our decision to regard it as more intellectually advanced, and therefore more worthy of protection, than, say, a fish swimming freely in the ocean?
This is one of the questions that Jonathan Safran Foer attempts to answer in his riveting bestseller, Eating Animals. In the end, he argues, it all boils down to egocentrism: ‘we care most about what’s close to us, and have a remarkably easy time forgetting everything else’. Nor does it all come rush-ing back to us when we’re faced with buying such products. The meat sold in supermarkets is plucked, sliced, minced, and breaded beyond all recognition, and only the most daring of butchers will have the nerve to hang lacerated carcasses in their shop windows.
The truth – as those in the meat industry are well aware – is that none of us omnivores wants to be reminded of the reality of our dietary choices. There’s a reason that most of us haven’t done much research into the meat industry, or even spared a couple of hours to watch the hard-hitting Earthlings documentary: we’re afraid of the grim details that we’ll uncover. Instead, we sit wolfing down our roast dinners, telling ourselves that we’re not bad people, because, well, at least we don’t eat horses.
That is, until unwittingly we do. One evening last spring, while I was on my year abroad, my Italian host mother served up what I thought was beef tartare. I polished off my plate quick as a flash, and keenly accepted a second helping. Only halfway through this portion did I discover that the food I was eating was of equine – not bovine – origin. My companions hadn’t thought to warn me of this, and quite rightly too, because their horse was my chicken, and it hadn’t even occurred to them that I might have banned it from my list of ‘acceptable’ animals.
A trip to Malmö’s Disgusting Food Museum later that year saw me expand my palate further. After walking past displays of nauseating specialities from across the world – ranging from the stomach-turning casu marzu (a Sardinian cheese ridden with live maggots), to the famously pungent durian fruit – I was invited to come up to a tasting bar and sample some for myself. ‘1 DAY SINCE LAST VOMIT’ read a blackboard; I didn’t have high hopes. However, over the course of the session, my notion of what constituted a ‘disgusting food’ – and, in turn, a ‘disgusting meat’ – was challenged. As it happens, even if you’re a self-proclaimed insectophobe, you can still enjoy the occasional roasted cricket.
My intention in writing this article, then, is neither to implore you to give up meat once and for all – Christmas is fast approaching, and I understand that, like me, not all of you will be ready to transition from turkey to nut roast – nor, conversely, to encourage consumption for consumption’s sake. I ask simply that you be mindful of what you eat, that you remember where it’s come from, and that you regularly check in with your moral reasoning. Ask yourself ‘why this meat and not that?’ and see if your perceptions don’t shift somewhat. If, after some active reflection, you decide to branch out and start dining on kangaroo and porcupine, that’s your call, but if, on the other hand, the cognitive dissonance gets too much, just remember: there’s no meaty dilemma a Quorn substitute can’t solve.