Suffering - the magic ingredient that makes a feast of every meal

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The Independent Online

Irrational, I know, and of no help to anybody, but as the nation's livestock goes up in flames, I have been thinking that the least I can do is forswear meat for a while. Or at least forswear big meat. A tact and solidarity thing. Like trying not to look blooming at a funeral.

Irrational, I know, and of no help to anybody, but as the nation's livestock goes up in flames, I have been thinking that the least I can do is forswear meat for a while. Or at least forswear big meat. A tact and solidarity thing. Like trying not to look blooming at a funeral.

It saddens me to report I am having no success. It's true you won't catch me lugging carcasses back to the house; but then you wouldn't ever have caught me lugging carcasses back to the house. The house is not where I eat. And here's the insoluble problem: I associate food with outings, and the minute I go out I want to feast.

For some people it's conviviality that constitutes a feast, the size of the spread, the number of courses, the music, the sense of occasion. For natural-born big-meat eaters like me, the feastiness of a feast is determined by colour. A feast is only a feast when it's red. Red wine, red-crusted lamb, red beef in redcurrant, red venison wrapped in burnt red bacon, red salt beef with red cabbage, raw red steak spilling red blood.

So you can stuff your spatchcock and your pigeon and your hedgehog and your vole. There may have been red blood running through their little bodies once, but they bear no trace of it by the time they land up on my plate. No blood no sacrifice, no sacrifice no feast, no feast no meaning.

This may sound like gluttony and at times may look like gluttony, but it is something else. Bear with me, as they say in restaurants that serve white meat only, while I make a necessary distinction: there is filling one's face with whatever happens to be to hand - dormouse, if that's all you've got in your fridge, dormouse and cream cheese - and there is solemn, commemorative feasting, a major production thank you to the gods (some of whom are animals themselves, remember), effective only in the smoke and clamour of severed veins and roasting flesh. The former is gluttony, the latter is not. The latter is sacramental.

You can tell an irreligious man by how he eats. All the atheists I know are vegetarians who pick at their food, uncertain what it's for. The self-engrossed - those who have made little gods of themselves - resent the contents of their plates, prod at it with their knives, stab at it with their forks (trying to kill again what is dead already), as though every morsel is an affront to them. The trivial eat peas. The material like white fish. The terminally pointless - models, television presenters, disc jockeys - start from the colour red on a table as though they have seen the plague.

Julius Caesar knew what he was about when he feared Cassius's eating habits. You cannot trust a man who denies himself red meat. It isn't thinness as a condition that is dangerous, it is the refusal to feast. For the man who will not feast is a man who will not participate, will not acknowledge his oneness with both the human world and the animal, and will not forget himself in blood. He stays wide awake and plots.

I don't hold with the mythology of Judas, concocted by the early Christians to make their new Jew-based religion palatable to Jew-hating pagans. But the psychology of the meat-abstaining schemer is shrewd. In painting after painting Judas is depicted as withdrawn from the feast, a pea-lifter, a sprout-stabber, a refuser of the sacrament.

As for the sacrament itself - expounded that very Passover night by Jesus in the course of transferring it, shockingly, to his own person - what is that but an acknowledgement that the act of eating blood-red flesh washed down with blood-red wine is a solemn participation in the life and death of the victim? An awesome ceremonial, weighing sin and necessity, blood and forgiveness, butchery and divinity, from which the pea-pickers are excluded.

For fear I have given the impression that I was raised in a house reeking with the fumes of sacrifice, I am anxious to assure readers of this column that I grew up on baked beans. Though a domestic goddess in all other regards, my mother had far too much else to do to kill a calf on the front step whenever we grew hungry. Baked beans from a tin were what we ate. Not even beans emptied from the tin into the pan. I was a fully grown man before I learnt that the way to cook tinned food was to empty it into a pan first.

Our method was to put the unopened tin into boiling water, listen to it rattling like the engine of an old jalopy and then forget about it. What told you the beans were done was the smell of the burning pan. Sometimes my mother had remembered to pierce the can before boiling it - two quick werewolf incisions with a can-opener - but mainly she hadn't. What this meant was that in order to get at the beans - assuming we wanted them hot, but then why else incinerate them? - we had to approach the can as though it were a wild animal, throw a teacloth over it, manoeuvre the opener under the tea-cloth, and be ready to leap from the geyser of scalding beans the second it erupted. Of course we never got away in time. I bear scars on my wrists to this day. But someone has to get hurt for a meal to be worth eating - that's my point.

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