Wednesday, March 08, 2006

all flesh is grass

it’s a funny thing, food. at one extreme, it’s just something to fill our stomachs when we feel hungry, at the other, it’s an art form – close to a religion – with its high and low forms, its galleries and temples, its priests, its acolytes, and its zealots.

there can’t be many people who discover the pleasures of cooking who don’t realise, eventually, that the bibles were written in a different time and a different place (and, more often than not, in a different language), when food preparation was a full-time supervisory activity, the assumption of small armies of assistance was automatic, and the idea of washing-up as you went along absurdly quaint, if not faintly insulting. it’s fun, certainly, and certainly impressive when dished out, to follow the recipe for cochon de lait rôti au four to the letter, but you’ve really got to love your guests a helluva lot to do that sort of thing on a regular basis.

for diurnal purposes, most of us stick to a few old favourites that get rotated until someone says ogod it’s Thursday isn’t it looking down at their plate of pasta and you realise it’s time to change the rotation.

then there’s the meat question.

ecologically, there’s one overwhelmingly convincing reason why we should all become vegetarians: of the world’s major protein sources, the humble soybean makes the most efficient use of land, at 356lb per acre, whereas beef, the favoured protein source of the industrial west, at 20lb per acre, contributes the least. this ratio of relative productivity per cultivar is heavily weighted, throughout the food chain, in favour of the grains and pulses and against the animals. however, by much the same process of cultural carelessness that refuses to accept that an oil economy is a doomed economy in the long-term, hell will freeze over before we happy chomping carnivores accept that a carnivorous diet is unsustainable in the long-term, and besides, tofu compared with bacon? it just doesn’t cut it.

the most efficient use of the sea is something else, with the overfishing of many of the world’s traditional fishing beds having resulted in a seriously alarming number of conservation-driven moratoria on the taking of certain once-common species such as cod. by much the same token as the tofu-bacon analogy, though, I don’t see much future in any attempts to educate us in the nutritional advantages of algae and seaweed over and above those of salmon and lemon sole.

we’re such pussies about eating flesh. either you feel that it’s acceptable to kill an animal in order to eat its flesh – or, more precisely, its muscle - or you don’t, and, if you do, and, at the same time, you consider yourself someone who likes to discriminate between good food and bad food, ie whose taste extends beyond salt and sugar - the fast and the processed and the packaged - you have, at some point in your life (because the person who considers themselves to be a gourmet tends also to be the sort of person who enjoys travelling to those foreign parts where the exotic cuisine is the native cuisine) to confront your cultural prejudices.

the truth is that very few French people (in my experience) choose to eat snails and frogs legs – they leave that to the tourists. considerably more Chinese people, however, eat dogs, lots of Mongolians eat horses, many Japanese eat whales, and the inhabitants of equatorial cities like Manaus like to eat monkeys. to most anglo-saxon christians, of course, this is a partial definition of barbarity (just as our own culture of beef- and pork-eating puts us beyond the pale to an Indian hindu or muslim) because dogs are pets, horses are what wealthy idiots breed and bet on and their idiot spoilt daughters ride and masturbate on, and monkeys are – well – cute. (the whale issue is probably the most divisive amongst Europeans because of the cultural argument – another time perhaps.)

of the four-legged beasts, I have eaten, in my time, the cow, the sheep, the goat, the horse, the pig, the hare, the rabbit, and the deer; of the fowl, I have eaten the chicken, the turkey, the goose, the duck, the pheasant, the quail, the grouse, the woodcock, the wood-pigeon, and the guinea-fowl; of the sea-water fish, the cod, the haddock, the skate, the plaice, the lemon sole, the halibut, the flounder, the salmon, the tuna, the john dory, the swordfish, the herring, the mackerel, the whitebait, the whiting, the turbot, the sardine, the pilchard, the anchovy, the shark, the monkfish, the red snapper, the sea bass, and the skate; of the freshwater, the trout, the pike, and the eel; of the crustacea, the crab, the lobster, the crayfish, the shrimp, and the prawn; of the molluscae, the mussel, the oyster, the clam, the scallop, and the snail; of the cephalopods, the octopus and the squid; and of the amphibians, only the frog (once).

that’s quite a menagerie of creatures destined to have been absorbed into my own organism, to be converted into my mass, my energy. I salute them all, and cherish the memories of those meals – at least one memorable one to each species – which they provided. I regret, on the other hand, every mouthful of sustenance stolen from the miserable lives of those battery chickens and veal-calves whose flesh I have, either through ignorance or misguided choice, consumed, and wonder sometimes, when I consider the vast quantity of blood spilt in order that I might live, whether I have been deserving of that.

once a species such as our own has arrived at the very top of the evolutionary tree, has evolved far beyond the point of being driven by the need to survive only, has discovered the myriad permutations of pleasure in general and that derived from the deliciously clever taste-buds in our deliciously clever tongues in particular, and, having discovered fire, is no longer obliged to chew and swallow the raw – beit root, leaf, grain, or flesh – this omnivorous capability of ours is duty-bound (to the memory of our fire-bearing progenitors, if no-one else) to be explored to the limit, alongside that other remarkable evolved facility – the ability to discriminate at a moral as well as a tactile level.

if what we eat is what we are, why don’t we eat each other?

from a nutritional perspective, there’s nothing wrong with eating human flesh – unless it’s the flesh of a human so pumped up on big macs and cokes and phunny pharms that their flesh will corrode cutlery – but the majority of cultures proscribe it, not for the evolved-instinct reasons that govern the common cultural proscriptions (the pre-scientific cultural encoding of the genetic dangers of inbreeding, for instance), but for the post-moral, crypto-legal reasons that recognise the sanctity of human life – even that of an enemy. it’s recognised as bad – very bad – to mutilate the corpse of someone you’ve killed, but to then eat their flesh is as abhorrent as it gets.

this tension between edibility and moral restraint has extended into differentiating the rest of the animal world as either food or not in ways which reflect cultural conditioning as much as social evolution. in Elizabethan times it was quite common – amongst the aristocracy – to eat swan. for a commoner to be discovered doing so the penalty was death, because the swan belonged to the queen (and to do so now is still to risk a criminal prosecution, because the swans still belong to the queen, although I don’t believe she actually eats them anymore). apart from the obvious illegality, however, I can’t imagine there being many people now – apart from that caucus of sick thrill-seekers that infest every civilisation in the throes of decadence - who would happily sit down to a meal of haunch of elephant, roast panda, poached dolphin, braised koala bear, or seared osprey’s tongues. however, the envelope of what’s acceptable and what’s not is, clearly, extending: there are a couple of ostrich farms in the UK which are trading in more than just big eggs, and kangaroo burgers are appearing with more frequency in the more expensive burger bars.

the religious rules about ‘unclean’ food were established thousands of years ago by the same set of god-crazed patriarchs who made the rules about how women were to behave on the days when they, too, were ‘unclean’. in the days before fridges and of poor sanitation and in total ignorance about bacterial infection such regulations might have been sensible, although it’s hard to justify their continuation - these so-called hygiene laws - into perpetuity, outside of their irrational origins. it’s equally irrational, though, to replace cultural rules based on superstition (or belief, if you believe) merely by rules based on sentiment and aesthetics: the standing rule that a species is exempt from the pot so long as it’s perceived as being either endangered or cuddly is just as arbitrary, and just as meaningless. well – the cuddly part, at least. if it were still around, the mammoth would today be considered cuddly. that a large number of currently endangered species have been driven to near-extinction by hunting for sport – not food – is one of the historic crimes that our species is going to have to come to terms with one day.

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