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Posts tagged ‘Julian Barnes’

The Story of the Teeth

I was born with comically bad teeth. I have only one wisdom tooth – welded firmly to my jaw – and had multiple permanent teeth for some of my milk teeth, and none for others. (I still have two milk teeth.) That I don’t look like a caricature of a Blackadder-ish wisewoman is down entirely to my parents’ swift removal of me to a brilliant orthodontist who – with the aid of braces, plates, and two operations – gave me a decent set of teeth.

I spent rather a lot of my childhood and adolescence in pain, as my teeth and jaw were cajoled and wired into place. (I must add, though, that my parents provided me with an endless supply of sympathy, and soft, delicious things to eat, as well as plenty to read.) It was partly for this reason that I never understood the outrage that greeted the news of Martin Amis’s decision to spend around £20,000 in fixing his teeth, ending decades of persistent toothache.

Of course, much of the anger about this amount was linked to his lucrative move, in 1995, from the late Pat Kavanagh, the literary agent who helped him to build his career, to Andrew Wylie, causing an acrimonious rift with Julian Barnes, Kavanagh’s husband. Indeed, AS Byatt later apologised to him for having criticised both his dental work and his acceptance of an extraordinarily high advance negotiated by Wylie, explaining that she had had toothache at the time.

In his memoir, Experience (2000), Amis writes evocatively of the hell of toothache: that it seems to be the only manifestation of dull pain which can’t be blocked out or ignored. It demands attention. (Apparently James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov were fellow martyrs to tooth pain. There is, clearly, a link between toothache and stylistic experimentation.)

It’s no wonder that modern dentistry is usually cited as one of the best reasons against time travel. The dentist Horace Wells (1815-1848) originated the use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as an anaesthetic during dental surgery. Wells died – partly as a result of an addiction of chloroform, ironically – before nitrous oxide became the anaesthetic of choice, rather than ether for example, among dentists. In South Africa, I’ve found evidence to suggest that it was possible to have teeth extracted under anaesthetic from around the 1880s – although it’s likely that this was available to wealthier patients before then.

In fact, the state of one’s teeth has been a potent indicator of class difference since at least the nineteenth century. Access to dentists and technology – powders, pastes – to prevent tooth decay meant that the middle and upper classes had better teeth than those who were poor, whose diets tended to feature substantial amounts of tooth-eroding sugar, and whose visits to dentists – who had usually had little or no training – were done only in case of dire emergency.

In the pub conversation described in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), the speaker refers to a friend, Lil, who worries that her recently demobbed husband will leave her, partly because she had aged so much during the recent Great War:

Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set

As false teeth became cheaper and more widely available, it seemed to make better sense to have all one’s teeth out at once, rather than suffer a lifetime’s worth of dental pain.

We attach a wide range of meanings to teeth: from the elongated incisors of vampires, to the whiter-than-white rictus grins of celebrities. My friend Shahpar in Dhaka points out that in south Asia, some Muslims associate oral hygiene using the bark of the miswak tree with holiness, as they believe that the Prophet used the bark to clean his teeth. More generally, people in the region place an exceptionally high value on having a healthy, full mouth of teeth – reflected in some truly appalling jokes.

I’ve been reading about anxieties about oral hygiene and dentistry recently, hence this interest in shifting cultural and social constructions of teeth. During the early decades of the twentieth century, global anxieties about infant mortality and childhood health, resulted in a heightened concern about the care of children’s teeth. This was part of an infant welfare movement which had emerged all over the world at the end of the nineteenth century, in response to unease about high rates of infant mortality (usually as a result of diarrhoea), the apparently failing health of urban working-class men, and eugenicist anxieties about maintaining white control over political, social, and economic power.

Denture Shop, India, 1946*

Although child welfare campaigners during the nineteenth century drew parents’ attention to the need to instil in their children good habits of dental hygiene, the discourse around the state of children’s teeth during the early twentieth century differed. To be fair, rotting teeth and gum disease are the cause of a range of health problems, and it makes sense to direct public health policy towards making dental services freely available.

But particularly during the 1920s and 1930s, preventing poor oral hygiene and tooth decay began to take on moral overtones. Doctors and child welfare activists increasingly understood bad oral health as a signifier of chaotic, ‘unscientific’ upbringings – which, they believed, tended to occur in working-class families. Writing about Major General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice’s influential 1903 study of the large numbers of volunteers who were deemed to be physically unfit to fight in the South African War (1899-1902), Anna Davin explains:

If, as it seemed, these puny young men were typical of their class (‘the class which necessarily supplies the ranks of our army’), the problem was to discover why [they suffered from so many physical ailments], and to change things. Proceeding to speculate on possible explanations, [Maurice] accounted for the prevalence of bad teeth among recruits by unsuitable food in childhood (‘the universal testimony that I have heard is that the parents give the children even in infancy the food from off their own plates’), and decided at once that ‘the great original cause’ (of bad teeth at this point, but subsequently, and with as little evidence, of all the ill-health) was ‘ignorance on the part of the mothers of the necessary conditions for the bringing up of healthy children’.

This was one of several essays and articles which argued that poor nutrition in childhood – most notably feeding babies food meant for adults – caused ‘bad teeth’ and, thus, compromised health in adulthood. The best means of remedying this situation was to encourage mothers (and in the minds of doctors, welfare campaigners, and policy makers, these mothers were inevitably working-class) to adhere to ‘scientific principles’ in raising their children, chief of which was providing babies and young children with a diet calibrated precisely to their needs. These principles and diets were formulated by health professionals – medical men – and they, as well as nurses, health visitors, and others, encouraged mothers to abandon ‘superstitious’ and ‘ignorant’ childrearing practice in favour of properly ‘scientific’ guidelines.

Those doctors and campaigners influenced by eugenics argued, though, that children’s moral character depended on good dental hygiene. (Susanne Klausen explains what we mean by ‘eugenics’: ‘in its broadest definition…eugenics was concerned with improving the qualities of the human race either through controlling reproduction or by changing the environment or both.’) In The Story of the Teeth, and How to Save Them (1935), Dr Truby King, the extraordinarily influential founder of the global mothercraft movement, argued that the health and strength of babies’ and children’s teeth depended, firstly, on the health of the pregnant and lactating mother, and, secondly, on proper nutrition.

Breastfeeding – not on demand, but at regular intervals depending on the age of the baby – was, he believed, the foundation for the development of strong teeth and jaws. The introduction of nutritious food once the baby was six months old should, he wrote, encourage the child to chew, thus stimulating the nerves and blood vessels in the face, causing the milk and permanent teeth to emerge quickly and cleanly.

King had dire warnings to those parents – particularly mothers – who, he suggested, ‘gave in’ to the demands of their babies and children:

Decay of the teeth is not a mere chance unfortunate disability of the day – it is the most urgent and gravest of all diseases of our time – a more serious national scourge than Cancer or Consumption….

Why? Because oral hygiene and healthy teeth ensured that the citizens of the future would be morally good, productive, conscientious individuals:

‘Building the Teeth’ and ‘Forming a Character’ are parts of construction of the same edifice – standing in the relationship of the underground foundations of a building to the superstructure.

Our dentists tell us that nowadays when they insist on the eating of crusts and other hard food [necessary for encouraging the child to chew and, thus, in King’s view, develop its jaw], the mother often says ‘Our children simply won’t!’ Such children merely exemplify the ineptitude of their parents – parents too sentimental, weakly emotional, careless, or indifferent to train their children properly. The ‘can’t-be-so-cruel’ mother who cries half the night and frets all day on account of the mother’s failure to fulfil one of the first of maternal duties, should not blame Providence or Heredity because her progeny has turned out a ‘simply-won’t’ in infancy, and will become a selfish ‘simply-can’t’ in later childhood and adolescence. Power to obey the ‘Ten Commandments,’ or to conform to the temporal laws and usages of Society is not to be expected of ‘SPOILED’ babies when they reach adult life. …

Unselfishness and altruism are not the natural outcome of habitual self-indulgence. Damaged health and the absence of discipline and control in early life are the natural foundations of failure later on – failure through the lack of control which underlies all weakness of character, vice, and criminality.

Good teeth meant good citizens. Bizarre as this thinking may have been, it did – often – have positive outcomes. For instance, similar views held among South African doctors and child welfare campaigners were behind the establishment of a network of dental clinics for poor children – albeit mainly white children – during the 1920s and 1930s. Children whose parents could not afford private dental care, could attend these clinics gratis.

One of the most striking characteristics of eugenicist thinking was its tendency to blame mothers’ ignorance, stupidity, or credulousness for the poor health of their babies and children, ignoring the environmental factors – the contexts – in which they raised their offspring. King’s implication was that mothers were ultimately responsible for the ‘vice and criminality’ of society: if they, he wrote, had simply disciplined their children, feeding them properly and ignoring their demands, then all adults would be productive, self-controlled citizens.

Although King’s reasoning is demonstrably bonkers, this tendency to blame (single) mothers for children’s anti-social behaviour persists, particularly within right-wing political and media circles. This is a strategy which absolves the state and other institutions of any responsibility for ensuring that children are adequately care for.

The study of attitudes towards teeth and dentistry reveals a range of beliefs about parenting, childhood, and, nutrition. It seems, then, that we are not only what we eat, but we are also how we eat.

Sources cited here:

Anna Davin, ‘Imperialism and Motherhood,’ History Workshop, no. 5 (Spring 1978), pp. 9-65.

Susanne Klausen, ‘“For the Sake of the Race”: Eugenic Discourses of Feeblemindedness and Motherhood in the South African Medical Record, 1903-1926,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 23, no. 1 (March 1997), pp. 27-50.

Antora Mahmud Khan and Syed Masud Ahmed, ‘“Why do I have to Clean Teeth Regularly?” Perceptions and State of
Oral and Dental Health in a Low-income Rural Community in Bangladesh’ (Dhaka: BRAC, 2011).

Truby King, The Story of the Teeth and How to Save Them (Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombes, 1935).

Further Reading:

Naomi Murakawa, ‘Toothless: The Methamphetamine “Epidemic,” “Meth Mouth,” and the Racial Construction of Drug Scares,’ Du Bois Review, vol. 8, no. 1 (2011), pp. 219-228.

Alyssa Picard, Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 2009).

David Sonstrom, ‘Teeth in Victorian Art,’ Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no. 2 (2001), pp. 351-382.

* This photograph is from Retronaut.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

White Food

Public service announcement: The National Assembly is due to vote on the Protection of State Information Bill on Tuesday, 22 November. Please wear black to show your opposition to the Bill, and join the Right2Know Campaign’s protests against this Draconian piece of legislation. (If you’d like to know more about the Secrecy Bill, check out this post I wrote for FeministsSA.)

One of my favourite places in London is Exmouth Market. It was about a five-minute walk from my amazing hall of residence in Bloomsbury, and its street food – some of the best in the UK, apparently – made a pleasingly delicious lunch from time to time. Its book shop, Clerkenwell Tales, is also excellent.

I think, though, that Exmouth Market is best known as the sometime home of Brindisa, the Spanish delicatessen which is also based in Borough Market, and Moro, the restaurant which more-or-less introduced the cooking of Spain, North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean to Britain. Having cooked from the first Moro recipe book, and having read a great deal about its founders, Sam and Sam Clark, I was curious about the restaurant itself, but I never went further than a detailed perusal of its menu: the place was simply far too pricey for my student budget.

Like so many of the young chefs who led the revolution in Britain’s eating habits during the 1990s and early 2000s, and this includes Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the Clarks had worked at the River Cafe. Founded by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, the restaurant was never intended to be more than a canteen for Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the famous architectural firm run by Ruth’s husband, Richard Rogers. But it evolved into something more: into the first restaurant in Britain to emphasise the heavily regionalised and seasonal nature of Italian cuisine. The River Cafe imported Ligurian olive oil, cavolo nero, and Pecorino Romano to replicate the cooking of Italy in London.

It could be terribly precious and seemed to confuse eating ‘authentic’ Italian cuisine with some kind of food-based morality. The River Cafe recipe books exuded the restaurant’s self-righteousness, as Julian Barnes explains:

When the first River Cafe Cook Book came out – the blue one – it drew high praise followed by a certain raillery. Some felt they were having a lifestyle package thrust at them; some felt the emphasis on just this kind of olive oil and just those kinds of lentils was a little discouraging. As James Fenton put it in the Independent at the time: ‘I’ve been picking it up and putting it down for weeks now. I can’t say I’ve actually cooked anything from it. More, what I’m doing is deciding whether I can live up to its exacting standards.’

As many pointed out, the food served by the River Cafe, Moro, and others, is, essentially, peasant food. There is something deeply – and amusingly – ironic about the lefty middle classes (and the River Cafe had a deserved association with the rise of New Labour) paying through the nose to eat bread and cabbage soup, a range of cheap cuts of meat, and polenta.

Polenta is a staple of northern Italy and for all its association with the sophisticated eating of the 1990s, it’s really only cornmeal – or maize– or mielie meal, as we’d call it in South Africa. Partly because of the endless variety of the maize plant, cornmeal comes in both yellow and white and can be ground as finely or as coarsely as tastes demand. In fact, the difference between the yellow, medium-ground cornmeal used to produce polenta or the finer-textured yellow flour for cornbread from the American south, and the fine, white cornmeal favoured for mielie pap in South Africa is minimal.

People’s preferences for yellow or white cornmeal are, then, culturally determined. A recent article published by the magnificent Mail and Guardian explores South Africa’s taste for whiter, finer maize meal:

In the poorest communities a bag of maize meal is often the only way of satisfying a family’s hunger, and the cost factor plays a role too. An 80kg bag of maize meal is about R400: on a 500g portion a person a day, an extended family of 10 people would consume an 80kg bag in about 16 days. The daily total consumption of maize meal in South Africa is about 10 000 tonnes.

But these maize-meal consumers demand a product that is white – stripped of roughage and nutrients – and manufacturers have remodelled their businesses to serve this demand.

South Africa’s best-selling brand of maize meal is White Star, produced by Pioneer Foods. White Star is whiter and finer than other brands. Premier Foods and Tiger Brands, the country’s other two big producers of maize meal, have also invested in technology which produces this whiter maize meal.

In the pursuit of whiteness, the big millers began installing new-generation degerminators about a decade ago. In the grinding process, the degerminator extracts the greyish germ of the maize, which contains oil and other nutrients. The more of the germ extracted, the whiter and blander the end product.

Maize meal that has the least germ extracted is called ‘unsifted’; moving up the scale it becomes ‘sifted’, ‘special’ and ‘super’. Unsifted and sifted maize-meal products have been discontinued by the bigger millers. ‘Super’ is generally defined by millers as having less than 1% oil and it almost exclusively consists of the starchy endosperm. Degerminators were originally expensive technology used only by large mills, but today even relatively small maize millers have them.

The latest development in the quest for greater whiteness is colour-sorting machines, which examine every grain of maize and remove any discoloured (non-white) grain. …

A manager at Premier Foods’ Kroonstad mill, the largest in the world, said there might nevertheless still be some discoloured specks in the final product, which happened when the seed was white on the outside but had discolouration within.

Removing the germ from the maize meal means that it tastes blander and has a longer shelf life (the germ contains oil which goes off quickly). It also means that the meal is considerably less nutritious – even though South African millers do fortify maize meal and wheat flour with vitamins A, B1, B2, and B6, as well as niacin, folic acid, iron, and zinc. And what happens to the discarded germ? It goes into cattle feed, rendering animal feed more nutritious than human food.

This demand for white food is neither particular to South Africa – there is a similar trend in Mexico, for instance – nor is it a recent phenomenon. Historically, food that is white – white bread, white sugar, white rice, or white maize meal – is more expensive to produce because it needs to be processed in order to rid it of those impurities or elements which cause it to be darker in colour. white food is associated with wealth and luxury.

The coming of industrialised food production caused an increase in the scale of the adulteration of food to make it go further or seem more appealing. As a result of this, whiteness was associated increasingly with purity. Ironically, though, food producers used poisonous additives like caustic lime to make bread and other products whiter.

The production of food in factories also reduced its price, and this was particularly noticeable for highly processed products like white sugar and white flour. Now produced on a mass scale, even the very poor could afford to drink white sugar in their tea. Indeed, white bread and sugar came to be seen as ‘affordable luxuries’ from the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. These were comforting, ‘special’ items which could make an already meagre diet seem more luxurious. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):

The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread…? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! … White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

In the same way, in the midst of rising food prices and a stagnating job market, South Africa’s poor buy white, fine maize meal.

However, there does seem to be a surprising shift in bread sales, as lower-income consumers appear to be buying more brown bread – as opposed to the white bread they usually favour. This, though, is probably due to the fact that brown bread costs less because it’s exempted from value-added tax. This is a change caused by necessity rather than a new set of ideas around white or brown bread.

As Orwell makes the point, it’s the association of comfort with particular kinds of food which renders them more attractive – even if a diet rich in white sugar and white bread is not at all healthy. A combination of education, affluence, and a new set of values which associate unprocessed, ‘whole’ food – wholegrain bread, whole wheat flour, brown or wild rice, and sticky brown sugar – cause the middle classes to favour products which are overwhelmingly more nutritious.

It is infinitely strange that former peasant food – like polenta – should be sold at a premium to the middle classes at restaurants, while those who are poor prefer white maize because of an association with luxury and wealth. If we are to encourage more people to eat better, it’s clear that we need to lower the prices of ‘whole’ foods. But changing people’s buying habits is related more to a set of cultural assumptions about whiteness than to cost or even knowledge about their nutritional value.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen (London: Atlantic, 2003).

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Gollancz, 1937).

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusadors, 1879-1914 (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 1999).

Other sources:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: WW Norton, [2010] 2011).

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Jack Goody, ‘Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,’ in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 154-174.

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Rise of the Giant Food Processors,’ Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 30-87.

Anne EC McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: The Diffusion of Tea and Coffee Drinking in the Eighteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61 (2008), pp. 172-200.

Sidney W. Mintz, ‘Sweet, Salt, and the Language of Love,’ MLN, vol. 106, no. 4, French Issue: Cultural Representations of Food (Sep., 1991), pp. 852-860.

Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Disgust

One of my favourite books, and one to which I turn when I need comforting and amusing, is Julian Barnes’s collection of essays on cooking called The Pedant in the Kitchen (2003). It is wildly funny – there’s a particularly fantastic piece about cooking a Nigel Slater recipe for pork chops and chicory – and deeply wise about preparing and eating food. My favourite chapter is titled ‘Once is Enough’ and is about exotic delicacies which, once sampled, one is happy never to eat again. Some taste revolting, or are so closely associated with a particular event that eating them once more would raise far too many difficult memories. Others are simply too complicated to replicate:

I once bought an eel from a Chinese fishmonger in Soho, carried it home on the Northern Line, and then realised my next job was to skin it. This is what you have to do: nail it to a door-frame or other substantial wooden part of your dwelling, make an incision on either side of the neck, take a pair of pliers in each hand, grip the two cut pieces of skin, put your foot against the door level with the eel’s head, and slowly haul back the skin, which is firm and elasticated, like a dense inner tube. Afterwards I was glad to have done it. Now I shall know how to proceed if forced to survive somewhere with only an eel, two pairs of pliers, and a doorframe for company; but I don’t otherwise need the activity to be central to my life. Smoked, stewed, barbecued – eel is welcome on my plate in most forms; but from now on I’ll let others do the skinning.

I know exactly what he means. I feel much the same about pickling chillies: really, once was enough. But as to ordinary food – the sort found in supermarkets and the average recipe book – there are only two things which I refuse, absolutely, to eat. I don’t particularly care for mangoes, papaya, blue cheese, strawberries (yes, I know), and raw tomatoes, but I’ll eat them for the sake of politeness. Yet goats’ cheese and bananas are entirely beyond me. Even the thought of eating them makes me shudder with revulsion: for both it’s a case of pungent, unpleasant smell mingling with a sticky-soft texture and a gag-inducing flavour. I have only one friend who shares my antipathy for both foods, but I know at least three others who feel the same way about bananas, and my issues with goat’s cheese seem to be fairly widespread. So I refuse to feel that I should account for my antipathy.

It’s true that as our palates develop, what once revolted us as children ceases to do so when we’re adults. I remember the stomach-churning revulsion I felt when, as a child, I first smelled my father boiling artichokes. Now, I love them. And the same goes for olives and mussels. But our responses to food, as I noted in my previous post, are governed by a range of factors, several of which are irrational (so no chance of me ever willingly eating goats’ cheese or banana), while others are socially and culturally determined. Barnes writes:

No doubt in the future some of our eating habits will be high-mindedly condemned as shameful and disgusting and incomprehensible. Rather as we feel when we learn that they used to eat herons in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance; further, that they trained falcons to hunt them. The English roasted heron with ginger, the Italians with garlic and onions; the Germans and Dutch made them into pies; the French thought it bad form to serve heron without any sauce, and La Varenne further suggested decorating the platter with flowers to make the dish look more appealing.

As taste has changed over time, so has what we define as being too disgusting to eat. Medieval princes may have supped on lampreys; now these jawless fish are left largely to their own devices.

I’ve been reading a collection of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s journalism, Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All (2006), and was struck by an article in which he lists all the unusual – and usually disgust-inducing – food which he has eaten and, for the most part, liked. In ‘Taste Not, Want Not’, he moves from the relatively normal (brains) to the weird (goose barnacles) to the (to me) utterly revolting (maggots). I was surprised, though, by his inclusion of donkey salami. Donkeys, to whose sanctuaries the British donate millions of pounds every year, and whose apparent uncomplaining willingness to be beasts of burden, seem to be the last animals who should be allowed onto a menu. They are too good – too noble – to eat. And yet they are eaten in France – along with horses.

My discomfort at Fearnley-Whittingstall’s admission – and he adds that he was initially uneasy about the salami – turned into a contemplation of how easily we distinguish between two groups of animals: between those that we will eat, and those that we won’t. More importantly, we imbue these two categories with moral meanings. It’s not just disgusting to eat dog, but morally wrong too. Our shifting views on the acceptability of eating animals are determined by a range of factors, not least of which is how we think about our pets. Humans have domesticated animals for thousands of years, but it’s only relatively recently that we’ve begun to keep animals exclusively for our amusement. This is not to suggest that Xhosa herdsmen during the 1700s felt no affection for their cattle, but, rather, the idea that a family should include an adored pet originates in the West during the nineteenth century.

Along with our pet-keeping, our increasing concern for protecting wildlife has helped to diminish our enthusiasm for eating wild animals. It’s interesting how willing the employees of the Dutch East India Company stationed at the Cape Colony during the seventeenth century were to eat hippopotamus – and their enthusiasm was rewarded by the fact that it tasted ‘like calf’. Now, we eat neither hippopotamus nor calf. Indeed, veal is an interesting case: its popularity diminished substantially during the 1980s when the appalling conditions in which male calves were reared were made better known. I’ve never eaten veal mainly for this reason. But there is an excellent case for eating veal: bull calves are a by-product of the dairy industry and those which are not marked out for consumption as veal, are shot at birth. As an omnivore, I do have an obligation, then, to eat veal.

Veal: the ethical choice?

My disgust at eating veal is not because I am revolted by the idea of eating cattle or, even, young animals (I eat lamb, after all), but as a result of the fact that these calves had to suffer so that I may drink milk. I think it’s here that we could fundamentally alter the way in which we associate disgust and particular kinds of meat. With urbanisation and the industrialisation of food processing, we are no longer as familiar with the ways in which animals are raised for food: for someone brought up in a town and whose only close association with animals is the family pet, watching a chicken being killed is, understandably, horrifying. But we should not allow this distance between ourselves and production of food cause us to become too disgusted to think about how the meat we eat is prepared.

It is absolutely hypocritical to eat pork – an adult pig is as ‘intelligent‘ as a dog – but to refuse to eat donkey. Rather, I wish we’d distinguish between humanely reared and factory-farmed animals. I don’t want to eat any animal that endured a painful existence to allow me to eat it. Moreover, it’s clear that the conditions in which cattle, pigs, and chickens are raised en masse are not only cruel, but ecologically unsustainable.

A range of thinkers – Gandhi, Peter Singer, and JM Coetzee – have described the slaughter of animals for human consumption as mass murder. I agree with Michael Pollan and others who argue that we do need to rear and eat meat for the benefit of our and the planet’s health. We should consume fewer dairy products and eat less meat, and all of these products should be free range. Most importantly, we must rethink our sense of disgust around eating animals: I think it is far more disgusting to eat factory-farmed chicken breasts than humanely reared and –kept donkeys.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, vol. I, ed. H.B. Thom (Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, 1952).

Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen (London: Atlantic, 2003).

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All: Dispatches from the Gastronomic Front Line (London: Bloomsbury, [2006] 2007).

Other sources:

Kathleen Kete, The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, [1994] 1995).

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).

Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

Peter Singer, ‘A Vegetarian Philosophy,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 71-80.

Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1996).

Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India (London: Harper Press, 2006).

Sandra Swart, Riding High: Horses, Humans, and History in South Africa (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2010).

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