Why we worry about meat

It is superstition that dead animal is different from dead plant, argues J M Coetzee, a vegetarian
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The Independent Online
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.

Rationalist vegetarians like to point to the foolishness of feeding stock on grain: it takes 10 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. 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, 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 want, in the way of things to eat and drink, is here, and more.

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 sterilise 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.

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; the diner's personal knife has evolved into the table knife, a dull, blunt- pointed tool for pushing food around.

Respect for life, one might call it. Yet 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. 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 to tradition, to taboo, and therefore to religion.

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-20th 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, 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.)

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. 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 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?

The author is a former Booker Prize winner. His article appears in full in the current issue of 'Granta' magazine, which is devoted to food.