A kind of crankhood developed in the England of the 1890s, a creed of brisk cold showers, sandals in all weathers, free love, bicycle locomotion and the avoidance of alcohol and animal flesh. One associates it with Edward Carpenter and George Bernard Shaw, with the more peaceable anarchists, some of the theosophists, the early Fabians. In its political aspect the movement (if it had enough common purpose or direction to be called a movement) mixed ideals of communitarian socialism with extreme individualism and deep mistrust of the state. For inspiration it looked to Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and, beyond them, to Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter. The young Mohandas Gandhi, when he arrived in London to study law, fell into their company and carried some of their ideas into the wider world, so their historical influence was not nil. Nevertheless, in their high-minded naivety, their belief that the problems of the world were few and simple and easily solved, they now seem a comical lot. The internal combustion engine, and then the events of 1914, reduced them to a footnote in history.
Trying to live a life on Gandhian-Shavian lines in the United States today is both eccentric and dated, in an uninteresting way. Eccentric because one is a minnow swimming against the flow of the largest economy in the world, an economy based on the personal automobile and on getting people to consume more each year than the year before. Dated because it is a way of life without a future (in this respect it does not even qualify as ‘alternative’). Uninteresting because the United States provides no more ideological resistance to it than to any other lifestyle, receiving it with the same momentary flicker of the mildest curiosity, followed by switch-off, as it receives any idea that isn’t saleable.
Nevertheless, there are people deeply enough attached – or perhaps just habituated – to ways of living they have made their own to persist in them no matter how unsuitable the environment. On visits to the United States, visits which have sometimes stretched to months, I try obstinately to hold to a regimen which, although it does not include socialism or sandals or cold showers or even free love, does include a dislike for cars, a deep affection for the bicycle and a diet without flesh. I hold to these preferences as discreetly as I am able, aware of their comic potential. They seem perfectly sane to me, but I have no interest in making converts.
It is eccentric not to drive a car in the United States, doubly so in Texas. It is eccentric not to eat meat in the United States, doubly so in Texas. I write from Austin, capital of the state, where I am teaching at the University’s Center for Writers. I do not write to make fun of Texas – a powerful state, almost a country in its own right, with a vigorous and varied culture that I see no reason to ridicule – and even less to assert a moral high ground over the locals. But if it is ever going to be possible to address the subject of dietary customs seriously – that is to say, not as part of the flippant cultural anthropology of tourism – then that attempt should be made from someplace like here. Austin is not Canton or Lyons, centres of the world’s two great carnivore cuisines, or Chicago, historic hub of the meat trade. But it is in the heart of cattle country, and as close to the stockyards as I am likely to be for a while.
Summer in central Texas. Days dawn warm and steamy. Clouds build up and sit over the land like a lid on a pot. By ten o’clock the weight of the sun lies heavy on your limbs. It is a sun that burns white skins shades of wooden brown, from light oak to deep walnut, not unattractive but without any hint of the luminous honey-gold one sees under a temperate sun.
Nor is it like the sun of the African uplands, which whips the body dry as a bone. Here one moves in a pocket of humid warmth, sweat streaming from one’s pores. Yet, surprisingly, the somatic imagination, the pre-verbal, reactive imagination of the desiring, craving body, turns not to the cold and moist – lettuce, berries, watermelon – but to the hot and dry.
I make the mistake of stranding myself on a bicycle on a country road near Bastrop, thirty miles east of Austin, with the late-morning sun already beginning to sear. It will take two hours and more to get home. I am carrying water, but the water is already at blood heat, warm enough to make one gag. My fantasies are anyhow not of water but of food: of a great dish of rice and peppers – poblano, ancho, manzano, chimayo, serrano. Peppers in all their hundredfold variety belong to the New World. It was from Mexico, via the conquistadors, that they spread to the Orient. The wisdom of Mexico, which fights the fire of the sun with the flame tongues of the earth.
We are invited to dinner by a colleague at the University. Dorothy calls his wife to warn her of our eccentric dietary habits. ‘Oh dear!’ says our hostess. ‘We’re having ribs first and then chicken. You don’t eat chicken? There won’t be anything else.’
The Roman Emperor Vitellius gave a feast in honour of Minerva at which the pièce de résistance called for the brains of a thousand peacocks and the tongues of a thousand flamingos. A hecatomb of birds for one dish. In China a roast bear’s paw is a delicacy. Four paws per bear: what of the rest of the beast?
In our time and place, tales like these evoke moral disapproval, even in deeply carnivorous circles. The death of the bear, the deaths of the flamingos, disturb us as the death of the beef ox does not. Why? Because there are so many more oxen than bears on earth, we say. Because we eat so much more of the carcass of the ox than of the carcass of the flamingo (do flamingos have carcasses or mere bodies?). The gourmet’s nonchalant wastefulness, the disproportion between his pleasures and the slaughter that must take place to satisfy them, affront our sense of what is right. (What a relief we have a pet-food industry to grind up all the leftover flesh and put it in cans, so that no death occurs in vain!)
The sacrifice of the bear angers us because there are so few bears left. If we go on killing bears for their paws, we argue, bears will disappear as a species. Oxen, by contrast, are two a penny. They can be bred without end, their species is not threatened. The life of the species is of a higher order than the life of the individual.
This species argument is widely accepted today. Is it fair to remind ourselves of the Nazis, who divided humankind into two species, those whose deaths mattered more and those whose deaths mattered less? What does the ox think about being consigned – without consultation – to a lower species than the bear, or indeed than the spotted owl or the Galapagos sea turtle? It is one thing to say that man is of a higher order than the animals, another to say that among the animals there are higher and lower orders. Yet once we concede that all animals have an equal right to life, we find ourselves in the company of the Jain sweeping the road before him so that he will not tread on an ant. An impossible position.
Life being nasty, brutish and short, Diogenes the Cynic believed that thinking men and thinking women should refuse to procreate. No one has ever taken Diogenes seriously, and rightly so. However sorry a business life may be, men and women cleave to each other, engender babies, bring them into the world. Having children is part of human nature; only a fool could imagine that mankind would change its nature for the sake of an idea.
Similarly, whether or not it is a good idea to kill fellow beings and eat them, that is the way of the world, the animal kingdom included. The few exceptions to the rule (cows, horses, deer) would probably follow suit if only they could find out how to digest flesh: it is certainly not for the sake of principle that they restrict themselves to grass. Our cousins the chimpanzees, whom we used to think herbivorous, turn out to prefer fruit with worms to fruit without.
The question of whether we should eat meat is not a serious question. The ‘should’ in the question is anomalous: bringing ‘should’ into contact with eating meat, as with bringing ‘should’ into contact with sex, is like asking, ‘Should we be ourselves?’ Interpreted to mean ‘Should we be what we have made ourselves to be?’ the question might perhaps be a real one. But we have not made ourselves to be creatures with sexual itches and a hunger for flesh. We are born like that: it is a given, it is the human condition. We would not be here, we would not be asking the question, if our forebears had eaten grass: we would be antelopes or horses.
Asking whether human beings should eat meat is on the same level of logic as posing the question, ‘Should we have words?’ We have words; the question is being posed in words; without words there would be no question. So if there is going to be any question at all, it will have to be a different question, one I have not even begun to frame.
Rationalist vegetarians like to point to the foolishness of feeding stock on grain. In energy terms, they say, it takes ten calories to provide one calorie when corn is converted into flesh. But this is just a datum, without meaning in itself. There are two absolutely opposed ways of interpreting it, giving it meaning. One is that people are unenlightened and wasteful. The other is, in the words of Marvin Harris, who has written a history of mankind as a struggle for protein, that ‘people honour and crave animal foods more than plant foods and are willing to lavish a disproportionate share of their energy and wealth on producing them.’
Nevertheless. It is only at the point of the ‘nevertheless’ that the whole sorry discussion begins to come to life. Despite the hypocrisy of wailing over dead bears and flamingos, despite the nonsensicality of the ‘should’ questions, there is something lurking here that will not go away. But how to approach it?
Let us begin at Central Market on North Lamar Avenue, Austin, Texas. Stores like Central Market, as large as two or even three football fields, are familiar to Americans, or at least to affluent, middle-class Americans. They are based on economies of scale and on a single, simple promise addressed to the customer: Everything you can conceivably want, in the way of things to eat and drink, is here, and more. You need go nowhere else.
The ‘and more’ is important. The cornucopia, the mythological horn of plenty, disgorges a copia, a torrent of goods, that is more than anyone can consume. Fundamental to Central Market and stores like it is the cornucopian promise that what is on offer is inexhaustible not only in sheer mass but in variety too: variety of flavour and colour and size, variety of origin, variety of method of cultivation. If the effect is dizzying, that is part of the plan.
Wandering around the first hall of Central Market, the atrium of fruit and vegetables, is indeed like being in the mythic Land of Plenty. Why, then, is the experience of the next chamber, the Hall of Meats (meat, fish and poultry), so different? Partly, perhaps, because the smell has changed. No longer does the air hold the scent of melons and peaches. Instead there is a smell of blood and death, and all the exertions of the smiling assistants behind the counters to scrub and sterilize will not chase it away.
The infernal atmosphere in which they have to operate is not their only handicap. However willing they are to advise, to chop and slice and weigh and pack, they cannot compete, as a show, with Fruits and Vegetables. The very current of modern marketing is against them. The modernist food hall consisting of nothing but rows and rows of gleaming refrigerated beds holding antiseptic packages, neatly labelled and priced, is becoming an anachronism. The new fashion is rough, homely, mock-rustic: fruit and vegetables cascading out of bushel baskets, with folksy handwritten signs planted in them telling where they come from, what they taste like, how to cook them. A spectacle, in other words, of origins.
In the old-fashioned supermarket of the 1950s, food was packaged and presented as pure commodity: germless, odourless, coming from nowhere. Central Market, on the other hand, is a vast mock-up of a rural street market. All that is missing is Farmer Brown, with no-nonsense country dirt under his fingernails, and his good wife by his side to help him sell the dew-pearled produce they harvested that very morning.
How is the Hall of Meats to move with the times? How can it rival this pageant of origins? Ineluctably the meat halls of Texas and the rest of the United States are being tugged towards the model of the Cantonese market, where you can pick out a goose and have its head chopped off before your eyes; or of the Riviera restaurant, where in their aerated tank lobsters await the distinction of being selected for the cauldron; or even of those Hong Kong establishments where a live vervet monkey is brought to your table and trepanned so that you can spoon out its warm brains (good for potency or longevity or sagacity, I forget which). Towards theatre, in other words.
Yet there is something in the Anglo-American way of life that baulks at such a prospect. For centuries its table culture has been moving in the opposite direction, towards greater discretion, greater delicacy regarding the unpleasant off-stage business of the slaughterhouse and kitchen. The climax of the feast in Petronius’s Satyricon – the arrival of a giant goose built out of pork, with quail in its belly – would call forth no admiring applause today. On the contrary, the dish would be regarded as vulgar and even offensive. The pig – tail and trotters and eyeballs and all, with an apple in his mouth – has been removed from his showplace at the centre of the table, and replaced with euphemistically or metaphorically named cuts (butterfly chops, veal scallopini, tenderloin) whose relation to the bodies they come from is a mystery to most of the family. The art of carving, which used to be part of a gentleman’s repertoire, proving that he was a huntsman and knew how to deal with a dead animal, has become a quaint and faintly comical accomplishment rolled out for Christmas or Thanksgiving; the diner’s personal knife has evolved into the table knife, a dull, blunt-pointed tool for pushing food around. The United States in its present mood would simply not stomach the metamorphosis of the meat hall into a theatre of execution, disembowelment, flaying, quartering.
Respect for life, one might call it, but for the fact that the same customers who might shrink from the spectacle of locusts being de-winged or ants being fried alive – to say nothing of pigs being stuck – will unblinkingly call in the pest exterminator to their homes. It is not death that is offensive, but killing, and killing only of a certain kind, killing accompanied by ‘unnecessary pain’. Somehow the imagination knows what the other’s pain is like, even the ant’s pain. What the imagination cannot encompass is death. Death, it says to itself, is the end of pain. Death is a relief.
The Book of Leviticus is filled, chapter after chapter, with proscriptions: no camel flesh, no pig flesh, no hyraxes or hares, no shellfish or crustacea, no vultures or storks, no bats, no tortoises, no lizards or chameleons. The bans spelled out with such maniacal exactitude are all on animal flesh. There are no proscriptions on plant foods. The branch of human knowledge that tells which plants may be eaten and which are to be avoided seems to be separate from the branch that tells which kinds of flesh may be eaten and which are unclean. The basis of plant lore is experience, passed down by word of mouth. To the extent that it is indistinguishable from herbal lore (knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants), plant lore belongs to folk science. Flesh lore, on the other hand, belongs squarely to tradition, to taboo, and therefore to religion (this despite efforts to persuade us that, for instance, the rabbinical ban on pork was a public health measure, an effort to control the spread of trichinosis).
Even in the case of so-called clean meat, like beef, the same people who eat the muscle flesh of cattle are revolted at the thought of eating their eyes, their brains, their testicles, their lungs. They would vomit if they had to drink blood. Why? The question is pointless: distaste for certain body parts, and particularly for body fluids in their fluid state, belongs to the penumbra of taboo, well outside the realm of rational explanation.
The letter of Levitican law is dead in American culture, the spirit by no means so. The same late-twentieth-century consumers who, leaving behind the cautious eating habits of their ancestors, eagerly experiment with baby white aubergines, oyster mushrooms, pumpkin flowers, will not touch frogs’ legs, snails, rabbit flesh, horse meat. The standard for allowing unfamiliar vegetable matter into the body seems to be of a quite different order from the standard for unfamiliar flesh. In the first case, the criterion is taste alone: if it tastes good, I will eat it. In the second, a deep-seated resistance has to be overcome, a resistance which is intimately related to taboo and the horror to which food taboos give expression.
What is the nature of this horror? It has something to do with the essential distinction between plants and animals in our everyday understanding: that animals are alive and plants are not, that animals cannot or should not or dare not be eaten while they are alive, while plants can be eaten with impunity because they have never been, in the full sense of the word, alive.
But the matter is more complicated. In the visceral imagination there appears to be some mistrust of the alive/dead distinction itself, some reluctance to accept that what is dead is henceforth and for ever devoid of life. At its deepest level, this mistrust expresses itself as a fear that forbidden flesh – flesh that has not been properly killed and ritually pronounced dead – will continue to live some kind of malign life in one’s belly – that it will be, as Leviticus calls it, an abomination inside one. Hence the intimate relations, in so many religions, between priests and butchers, and the requirement for a priestly presence in the slaughterhouse. Hence too, perhaps, the custom of praying before eating: an effort to placate the angry spirit of the sacrificed beast. (After he first ate meat, Gandhi could not sleep: he kept hearing the goat he had eaten bleating in his stomach to be let out.)
Of course it is just superstition that meat is a different kind of thing from plants. Plants are food, meat is food – a particularly good food, rich in protein, B-group vitamins and amino acids. Beef is good for one, chicken is good for one. Fish is particularly good for one. Pork is good for one too, good even for Jews and Muslims. Frogs are good for one, or at least frogs’ haunches. Prawns are good for one, once their digestive tracts have been cut out. Even roaches are good for one, once their hard wings have been pulled off.
People who extend their superstitious horror of roaches to cover prawns (which look so much like them!) and then frogs and then fish and ultimately chicken and beef don’t know where to draw the line. The question is: To whom should they go to learn where to draw the line?
Marvin Harris’s thesis that the history of mankind is a struggle to capture and control protein resources is controversial: protein is not everything, say other scholars.
Protein may not be everything; but if asked for a truly down-to-earth, materialist explanation for the peace that reigns, by and large, in western democracies, the best answer available may be that these are societies that have made available enough animal protein to satisfy the cravings of the overwhelming majority of their citizens. (Enough and more: the amount of gross obesity in the United States seems to point to people stuffing themselves with protein – and fat – simply because it is cheap and plentiful.) Europeans emigrated to the Americas, to Australasia, to the more hospitable parts of Africa, because they wanted better lives. Better lives meant, most immediately, meat on the table seven days of the week. It was not the well fed who left behind their birthplace, but the hungry and, specifically, those hungry for meat.
One of the most bitter, unremitting and unremarked social struggles in European history, stretching from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, was over the right to hunt, over access to game. When warlords took possession of great tracts of land and became landlords, they took over the wildlife as well, and defined as criminals those commonfolk who continued to treat wildlife (which of course knew no boundaries) as a common resource. Robin Hood may have been a proto-insurrectionary preying on the rich in the name of the poor, but at a more mundane level he was a poacher who challenged the claim of the Crown to ownership of the deer of the forests. European legend is full of stories of poacher heroes, just as the records of European law courts are full of draconian sentences for poaching. What these records memorialize is generation after generation of class warfare over access to meat.
Africa is the last continent where poaching goes on on a grand scale. No longer is it the king’s game – ‘royal game’ – that is being poached. Instead, tribespeople poach from the game parks, the refuges where those who have enough flesh for themselves hoard up the edible beasts of the savannah for motives that make no sense to the protein-hungry.
Europeans emigrated to the colonies for a host of reasons. Most vivid among these was the promise that there they could have meat whenever they wanted. It did not escape the notice of the colonial authorities that, from being peasants who lived on a diet of milk and grain to being hunters who lived on meat and not much else, these new colonists were tracing an evolutionary reversal: hunting, after all, belonged to an earlier stage in human progress than agriculture. This rather abstract concern of the authorities about cultural retrogression was matched by a more specific anxiety about control: free-ranging hunters were harder to keep track of, and therefore to tax, than static cultivators.
Dietary habits took hold in early colonial times that would not thereafter be easily shaken off. Egalitarianism came before democracy, and egalitarianism meant an end of the stratification of society into those who hogged the supply of meat and those who had to stuff their stomachs with grains. America typifies the triumph of the common people in their historical drive for animal protein, and Texas is, in this respect, the capital of America. The Texan family sitting down to a meal of chicken and fried steak with french fries on the side is making up, atavistically, for European forebears who had to make do with milk and bread, or polenta. Day after day, meal after meal, their diet celebrates the New World. Life is good here: no amount of argufying is going to change that. ‘Ribs first and then chicken. There won’t be anything else.’
Photograph © Winfried Mosler