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Dude Food

A couple of weeks ago Tamar Adler, former chef and editor of Harper’s Magazine, wrote an article for the New Yorker in which she politely and neatly eviscerates Anthony Bourdain for leaving ‘a crude hickey’ on America’s ‘food culture’. Although he is probably now better known – at least in the US – for his food-and-travel television series, Bourdain rose to fame, or notoriety, for his memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000).

It is a deeply entertaining, amusing, and often instructive guide to the strange world of restaurants and professional cooking. It explores the ‘personal and institutional perversity that runs fast through the veins of restaurants’. Bourdain details the astonishingly crude language and behaviour of badly paid, sleep deprived chefs in the hot, tiny restaurant kitchens he worked in and, later, oversaw. But it is also an excellent introduction to the mechanics and the politics of how kitchens function.

Although Bourdain and his crew do some pretty repellent things, all this is balanced by the fact that, as Adler notes, Bourdain does ‘not prescribe that life, or condone it.’ Indeed, he devotes a whole chapter to kitchens which don’t run the risk of collapsing into anarchy and violence if the chef for one moment ceases swearing at the staff. He admits:

It is no coincidence that all my kitchens over time come to resemble one another and are reminiscent of the kitchens I grew up in: noisy, debauched and overloaded with faux testosterone – an effective kitchen, but a family affair, and a dysfunctional one, at that. I coddle my hooligans when I’m not bullying them. I’m visibly charmed by their extra-curricular excesses and their anti-social tendencies. My love for chaos, conspiracy and the dark side of human nature colours the behaviour of my charges, most of whom are already living near the fringes of acceptable conduct.

He adds:

Not all kitchens are the press-gang-crewed pressure cookers I’m used to. There are islands of reason and calm, where the pace is steady, where quality always takes precedence over the demands of volume, and where it’s not always about dick dick dick.

And that is the issue with Bourdain’s description of the food world: it is overwhelmingly, completely male. The women chefs whom he respects are those who are ‘tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, trash-talking’ – the ones who go out of their way to fit in to ‘the testosterone-heavy’ world of restaurant kitchens. But, at least in Kitchen Confidential, he acknowledges that there are kitchens where women aren’t expected to put up with being groped, or with their colleagues festooning their stations with pornography. Visiting Scott Bryan’s restaurant Veritas he notices

A tiny young woman working at a corner station, and I made the immediate Neanderthal assumption as I first took in the crew: ‘Extern, maybe from Peter Krump or French Culinary, having a learning experience dishing out veggies.’ I passed right over her as I swept my eyes down the line looking for the heavy hitters. In time I began, peripherally, to become aware of her movements. I looked again, closer this time, and saw that she was plating fish, cooking risotto, emulsifying sauces, taking on three, then four, then five orders at a time – all the whole never changing expression or showing any visible signs of frustration or exasperation (as I would have under similar circumstances).

She was, in other words, ‘generally holding down her end like an ass-kicking, name-taking mercenary of the old school, only cleaner and better.’ It turned out that she’d been trained by Alain Ducasse.

The problem is that Bourdain loses much of this self-reflection in his later books and series. As he became better known ‘he confused what he’d written about once with the world itself.’ Adler explains:

What Anthony Bourdain does is to bathe everything, even if it’s naturally quiet and normal, in brutishness. It is the difference between not pulling punches and indiscriminately punching. Bourdain now travels round the world, with a camera crew trailing, to eat food in other countries. On his stops at noodle shops, he turns his anxious libido on his bowl of food: ‘Take me to that place where everything is beautiful.’ ‘This is fucking driving me out of my mind. I’m fucking quivering with desire here.’ ‘I would jerk a rusty butter knife over my best friend’s throat just for this,’ he says to the camera while waiting for soup. ‘Come to papa,’ he wheedles.

His relationship with – and views on – food have become centred around his masculinity:

He has managed to insert, through performance of the great feat of eating Vietnamese or Tunisian or Parisian food, the neurotic notion that eating is best understood as a competition or conquest – man versus food. Why choose to merely ingest, he asks, when you can vanquish?

Although I agree with Adler’s point that it’s a pity that he feels the need to dress up his opinions on food in a kind of gung-ho machismo because much of what he says is worth listening to, it was time that someone called out Bourdain for his casual sexism. Bourdain seems to insist that good cooking can only be produced by kitchens overseen by obsessive, potentially murderous alpha males caught up in a kind of adolescent, On the Road-like existential struggle with the meaning of existence. Women – unless they behave like men – are to be viewed with suspicion, as is the food which he associates with them:

Few chefs can really and truly bake. Most chefs, like me, harbour deep suspicions of their precise, overly fussy, somehow feminine, presentation-obsessed counterparts in the pastry section. All that sweet, sticky, messy, goopy, delicate stuff. Pastry, where everything must be carefully measured in exact measurements – and made the same way every single time – is diametically opposed to what most chefs live and breathe, the freedom to improvise, to throw a little of this and a little of that any damn place they want.

It’s no coincidence that most pastry chefs are women. Bourdain implies that pastry, like women, is difficult, too sweet, boring, and unimaginative: real chefs are men – wild, creative genuises – who cook ‘Flintsone-sized lengths of veal shank,’ understand the value of bones, and who carry long, sharp knives.

For an industry with a reputation for not dealing adequately with charges of ingrained discrimination against women, Bourdain’s attitudes towards food and cooking certainly don’t help. But it’s worth noting that for all the excitement that surrounded the publication of Kitchen Confidential – when it was hailed as a fresh and unconventional take on America’s restaurant world, which it was, to some extent – Bourdain’s views on the relationship between masculinity and food are neither particularly new, nor limited to himself.

There has long been an association between meat-eating and manliness. Until the late eighteenth century, when eating in moderation and a slim physique were connected, increasingly, with the ideal Enlightenment male, a healthy appetite for wine and meat indicated strength and vitality. In England, a taste for roast beef was, as Roy Porter notes, linked to a patriotism which associated roast meat with English vigour and virility. Even a century later, Victorians argued that men’s strong, machine-like bodies needed meaty fuel in order to function efficiently.

Men, in other words, needed to eat ‘man food’ – spicy, strong-flavoured, and rich in protein. This was taken to a logical – or an illogical, depending on your point of view – extreme by the Italian Futurists and Mussolini-enthusiasts FT Marinetti and Luigi Colombo in their 1930 Manifesto of Futurist Cooking. Of course, the document is completely mad – like just about everything Marinetti did – but it’s a useful window on to the ways in which fascists of the 1930s understood gender. As the Italian state recast women as mothers – and only mothers – of the nation, so men were urged to become its warrior-protectors.

Marinetti and Colombo write:

We also feel that we must stop the Italian male from becoming a solid leaden block of blind and opaque density. … Let us make our Italian bodies agile, ready for the featherweight aluminium trains which will replace the present heavy ones of wood iron steel.

Italians should do this, they argue, by giving up pasta:

A highly intelligent Neapolitan Professor, Signorelli, writes: ‘In contrast to bread and rice, pasta is a food which is swallowed, not masticated. Such starchy food should mainly be digested in the mouth by the saliva but in this case the task of transformation is carried out by the pancreas and the liver. This leads to an interrupted equilibrium in these organs. From such disturbances derive lassitude, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism.’

They suggest that rice take the place of pasta. But this is only the first of several ideas for the remaking of food for a faster, more efficient future. Their most significant point was that science should ‘take on the task of providing the body with its necessary calories through equivalent nutrients provided free by the State, in powder or pills, albumoid compounds, synthetic fats and vitamins.’ Not only would this make Italians better-fuelled and more efficient workers, but it would reduce the amount of food they ate.

Those few meals which they would then eat would be, as they write, ‘perfect’. Given the role of Italian women in feeding their families, what Marinetti and Colombo advocate is a kind of man-made food: the dishes they describe for their ‘perfect meals’ – like the Woodcock Mount Rose with Venus sauce – are invented by chefs.

Although their remaining ideas are increasingly ludicrous – ‘The rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and others they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise and imagination’ and ‘The creation of simultaneous and changing canapés which contain ten, twenty flavours to be tasted in a few seconds’ – their association of ‘perfect’ cooking with men, and homely, everyday cooking with women, was – and is – hardly unusual.

A great deal has been written about the irony that while most of the world’s ‘top chefs’ – whatever we may mean by that – are male, the overwhelming majority of people who cook to feed their families are female. I think that this distinction is something of an oversimplification: while it is certainly true that the most Michelin-starry chefs are still male, this is changing, albeit slowly. More importantly, the chefs and cooks who have had the greatest impact on the way we all cook in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have, arguably, been women: Constance Spry, Marguerite Patten, Delia Smith, and Madhur Jaffrey in Britain; Julia Child and Martha Stewart in the US; Nitza Villapol in Cuba; Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer in Australia; and Ina Paarman, Ina de Villiers, and Lynn Bedford Hall in South Africa.

Moreover, there has been a recent and relatively widespread decrease in tolerance for the antics of bullying, super-macho male chefs. Gordon Ramsay’s spectacular fall from grace – the collapse of his business empire, the decline in quality of his restaurants – is a particularly good example of this. Adler’s take-down of Bourdain is part of this trend – and it’s particularly telling that Bourdain devotes his highest praise to Ramsay (‘England’s greatest chef’) in A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (2001), excusing and celebrating Ramsay’s reputation as a bully on the grounds of gender:

He’s doing what everyone told him growing up that only women should do. … You better have balls the size of jack-fruits if you want to cook at a high level, where an acute sense for flavour and design, as much as brutality and vigilance, is a virtue. And be fully prepared to bulldoze any miserable cocksucker who gets in your way.

This kind of macho chest-beating now feels distinctly passe. The male celebrity chefs of the late 2000s and early 2010s are an altogther nicer, kinder group of chaps: from earth-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and home-cooking dad Jamie Oliver, to shambling Valentine Warner and lovely Nigel Slater. We have cerebral, thoughtful Fergus Henderson and Heston Blumenthal.

I’m not absolutely sure what this shift in public taste suggests – and it’s certainly part of a wider, cultural change, which has seen Ryan Gosling and James Franco replace Sylvester Stallone and Steven Segal as male icons. It’s also occurred at the same time as the emergence of a food trend which can only really be described as ‘dude food’ – food made to appeal to men. Craft beer, the wild enthusiasm for bacon, even the recent rediscovery of the burger, are, I think, driven partly by a belief – held by magazine editors, television producers, and some food writers – that food needs to be made ‘manly’ to appeal to men. Tellingly, most of this is pretty meaty food.

What I find so interesting about dude food is that it’s directed at a generation of young men – my contemporaries and younger – for whom cooking is not necessarily seen as being, as Bourdain noted earlier, something that only women do. Unless I have the good fortune only to have dated, and to be friends with, peculiarly enlightened men, it seems to me that Generation Y men don’t seem to feel that cooking and baking undermine their masculinity. After all, not only were all three finalists on the last series of Great British Bake Off men, but two of them were fairly young. So is dude food a kind of ironic embrace of the manly, meaty food associated with being male since, at least, the seventeenth century – much in the same way that contemporary feminists have reclaimed baking and, crucially, the cupcake – or is it something else altogether? Either way, I can’t imagine that Marinetti would be all that pleased.

Sources

Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (London: Bloomsbury 2000).

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, 2003).

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

Food Links, 10.10.2012

How rubber tappers in Indonesia are experiencing the food crisis.

Taking another look at African agriculture.

Tristram Stuart on food waste.

The implications of high food prices in the Middle East.

How Mitt Romney helped Monsanto to take over the world.

Hooters is trying to attract…female customers.

Jay Rayner on the incredible value of school breakfast clubs.

Justice Malala looks forward to the food at Manguang. (Thanks, Dad!)

Australia‘s food revolution.

New York’s earliest hamburgers.

An introduction to the tomatillo.

Chef’s Mask II. (Thanks, Mum!)

The rise of haute macho.

Prize-winning giant vegetables.

Microbiology and food.

How to make a baking tin out of foil.

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins opens a…tea shop.

Durian ice cream.

Is hundred-year-old sourdough be a myth?

Simon Hopkinson on how to boil an egg.

Zelda Fitzgerald, in cake. (Thanks, Jane-Anne!)

Gatsby gumballs.

A short interview with Yotam Ottolenghi.

The black-and-white McDonald’s burgers in China.

How to boil water without bubbles.

Nigel Slater’s favourite recipe books.

An A to Z of food trends.

The world’s most expensive meals.

Quinoa.

Why French Masterchef is better than English Masterchef.

An extract from the second volume of Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries.

The perfectly fried egg.

Fifty Shades of Chicken.

Preserving quinces.

Jerusalem street food.

What to eat and drink in Mauritius.

is on holiday.

I’m away this week and will be spending the rest of the month eating. Hurrah! But I leave you with some holiday reading:

A ‘Jewnitarian‘ Christmas.

How to bake two perfect Christmas cakes: by Felicity Cloake and Edd Kimber. (This is an interview with him.)

David Lebovitz on Christmas in France.

Seventeenth-century decorations for mince pies.

A frugal Christmas cake for the recession from the Observer.

Yum – panettone.

Eva Wiseman on the Christmas sandwich.

Making Estonian blood sausages for Christmas.

It’s time to make latkes.

Christmas recipes from Nigel Slater, Giorgio Locatelli, Sam Harris, and Jacob Kenedy.

Two of my favourite things: stollen and egg nog.

Christmas in Mexico.

Christmas recipes for those of us sweltering in the southern hemisphere.

Also, the Design Indaba magazine’s theme for its final edition of the year is food and design. Do take a look. (I’ve a piece in its Food Fight section, but don’t let that put you off.)

See you in 2012.

Food Processes

A fortnight ago my mother and I devoted a day to our annual chutney making, and we spent the evening recovering from the inhalation of vinegar fumes, in front of the television. We watched the first episode of the new series of Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers. Being fans of Slater’s recipe books, we had high hopes, but these began to crumble when he remarked conspiratorially to the camera that ‘some people buy jars of pesto.’

We groaned. Of course, pesto out of a bottle is never going to be quite as amazing as pesto made freshly. (I’m not going to wade into the tiresome debate over whether pesto made in a food processor is better than that made with a pestle and mortar.) But it’s fine. Really: for a quick, warming supper, it’s absolutely delicious. And, as my father pointed out as he walked past to switch the kettle on, it’s great to be able to support businesses which train people and provide employment.

As an antidote to Slater’s preciousness, I read a couple of Calvin Trillin’s essays from Eating with the Pilgrims, a collection published in Penguin’s newish Great Food series (the one with the beautiful covers). Although he’s also a poet and journalist, Trillin is probably best known for his food writing in the New Yorker. His writing is clear, clever, and deeply sympathetic to others who, like him, love eating. Trillin tends not to write about food itself, but, rather about how people think about it, as he remarked in an interview: ‘I’m not interested in finding the best chilli restaurant in Cincinnati. I’m interested in Cincinnatians fighting about who has the best chilli.’

What I like about Trillin is that he writes about buffalo wings and barbeque with the same seriousness that other writers devote to stilton or cassoulet:

The sort of eating I’ve always been interested in is what I guess you’d call vernacular eating. It has something to do with a place. Buffalo chicken wings have something to do with Buffalo. The fact that people in Cincinnati have something they call authentic Cincinnati chilli, and seem unaware that people in the Southwest eat chilli, let alone Mexicans, and think that chilli is made by Macedonians and served on spaghetti, that’s interesting to me. Whether Skyline chilli is better than Empress chilli I don’t really care about.

This is Trillin on fried chicken:

Because a superior fried-chicken restaurant is often the institutional extension of a single chicken-obsessed woman, I realize that, like a good secondhand bookstore or a bad South American dictatorship, it is not easily passed down intact. Still, in sullen moments I blame these lamentable closings on the agribusiness corporations’ vertical integration of the broiler industry. In fact, in sullen moments I blame almost everything on the vertical integration of the broiler industry – the way some people trace practically any sort of mischief or natural disaster back to the Central Intelligence Agency, and some people, presumably slightly more sophisticated, blame everything on the interstate-highway program. If the civilisation really is about to crumble, everybody is entitled to his own idea of which is the most significant crack. Which brings us to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I urge you to read Trillin’s excellent cultural history of buffalo wings and his fantastic account of seeking the best barbequed mutton in Kentucky. My favourite essay, other than his celebration of Shopsin’s, the legendary-despite-its-best-efforts New York restaurant, is about boudin, a staple of Cajun cuisine which is, in its purest form, a kind of sausage made out of pork meat, rice, and liver. (I wish I could provide a link, but the New Yorker has an unfriendly unwillingness to open up its archives.)

These are not particularly sophisticated dishes, and they’re often produced with a heavy reliance on processed foods – pre-packaged seasonings, the inevitable Campbell’s mushroom soup – whose flavours become as important to the finished product as those elements which make boudin or buffalo wings unique. In fact, in between Slater’s snobbery and Trillin’s celebration of deliciousness is a useful way of thinking about what we mean by processed food.

We know that the cheapness and easy availability of processed food has been blamed, rightly, for facilitating a global obesity epidemic. (Even if the increasing prevalence of obesity can’t logically be described as an ‘epidemic’. Obesity isn’t really catching.) High in salt, preservatives, and calories, most processed food provides eaters with meals which are temporarily filling and satisfying, but without much beneficial nutritional content. In food deserts – areas where low incomes, and poor transport infrastructure and distribution networks make access to fresh food very difficult – it’s usually only processed food which is available at corner shops and discount supermarkets.

But, technically, most food that we eat – even ‘good’ food – is processed. I know that blogs have been criticised for simply listing the contents of bloggers’ fridges, but I’m doing this for a reason: with the exception of the eggs, lettuce, leeks, herbs, and cherries in my fridge, the rest of it is processed. This includes the milk and cream (nearly all dairy products are pasteurised and homogenised before they’re sold to the public), blackberry jam, sun dried tomatoes (laugh if you must), butter, Colman’s and Pommery mustard, mum’s and Mrs Ball’s chutney, salami, tomato paste, and the tube of sweetened chestnut puree.

By ‘processed food’ we mean food that is prepared in some way before it’s sold: from the most severely limited run of cured hams, to the strangest possible non-food imaginable. So it’s not all bad. In fact, I’m not sure that most of us would cope without processed food of some variety: I can’t buy raw milk in Cape Town, and I rely on tinned tomatoes and frozen peas. I am not about to make my own couscous, or knit my own yogurt, despite being politically left-wing.

We do, though, eat more processed food than ever before. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century as food production became increasingly industrialised, first in the United States and then in the rest of the world, our diets have changed. We eat more of those products which are difficult or time-consuming to prepare at home (bread, pasta), and mass production has made formerly expensive, ‘artisan’ items (Parmesan cheese, chocolate) cheaper and more readily available.

I think that that one of the reasons why I was surprised by Slater’s snobbery was because of the lengthy and often quite nostalgic descriptions of the processed food of the 1960s in his memoir Toast. We tend to associate the rise of processed food with the post-war boom: with bizarre recipes for spam fritters, and a hundred and one ways with Angel Delight. In the modernist 1950s, this was the sophisticated food of the future – the food of the newly prosperous middle classes. Michael Pollan remembers:

The general consensus seemed to be that ‘food’ – a word that was already beginning to sound old-fashioned – was destined to break its surly bonds to Nature, float free of agriculture and hitch its future to Technology. If not literally served in a pill, the meal of the future would be fabricated ‘in the laboratory out of a wide variety of materials,’ as one contemporary food historian predicted, including not only algae and soybeans but also petrochemicals. Protein would be extracted directly from fuel oil and then ‘spun and woven into “animal” muscle – long wrist-thick tubes of “fillet steak.”‘

By 1965, we were well on our way to the synthetic food future. Already the eating of readily identifiable plant and animal species was beginning to feel somewhat recherche, as food technologists came forth with one shiny new product after another: Cool Whip, the Pop-Tart, nondairy creamer, Kool-Aid, Carnation Instant Breakfast and a whole slew of eerily indestructible baked goods (Wonder Bread and Twinkies being only the most famous).

The appeal of cake mixes, tinned macaroni cheese, and, later, boil-in-the-bag meals was that these were quick, labour-saving dinners. As middle-class women entered the workforce in ever-increasing numbers, so eating habits adapted to new work patterns.

The backlash against processed food and industrialised agriculture of the 1970s – in the United States, the largely California-based counter-cuisine, for example – associated the mass production of food with environmental destruction and social inequality. (Poorer people tend to eat the worst processed food.) We’ve since begun to associate the idea of processed food with strange non-foods – with turkey twizzlers and cheese strings – rather than think of it as food which has been prepared in some way, and usually in large quantities, before being sold.

I know that this may seem like a fairly nitpicky point, but we need to acknowledge the extent to which we rely on processed food in order to feed ourselves. Most of us eat better and a greater variety of things because of the mass production of food. To my mind, the more pertinent question is not how we should prevent people from eating processed food, but, rather, how we can make this food better and healthier. Obviously, we need to teach people how to cook healthily – and we have to consider the relationship between eating patterns and the hours that people work. Middle-class foodies and other well-meaning campaigners around nutrition must realise that their anti-processed food stance is not only a kind of snobbery, but entirely impractical.

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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