Me and the Animals
When it comes to eating animals, I have to admit to a nodding acquaintance with the sensibilities of
vegetarians and vegans. Actually, I am neither. But I can see what they are getting at. The thought
process really got kicked off by Lisa. She was a slim, shapeless, girl with straight, black, simply styled
hair to match. She used to spend quite a lot of time up trees in a vain attempt to save them from road
builders. She was not a great looker but very interesting and, for me, interest is a major issue.
“How do you feel about eating these eggs?” she enquired one day, while retrieving some vegetables
from my fridge.
“Well, they’re my eggs so I eat them.”
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “When you’ve grown them in your belly and have had them squeezing
painfully out of your bottom, then you can call them your eggs.”
She handed me a cauliflower, tomatoes and a bag of mushrooms.
“Don’t be so... biological. Anyway, chickens are born to serve. They get a life in a hen house, raised
from a tiny ball of feathers. They might even be grateful for all I know.”
“Grateful?” Her voice rose half an octave. “The hen house, as you call it, is a building crammed with
multi-storey wire cells so small they can’t even turn round. The eggs drop into a channel and that’s the
last they see of them. In fact, they don’t see them at all. We manipulate their natural generosity, forcing them
to give birth daily to sterile waste products. It’s like genetic diarrhoea.”
“Eggs aren’t waste products. They’re very tasty,” I retorted, as I placed finely chopped garlic and a chilli
into a sizzling frying pan.
“I’m sure they’d be pleased to hear you say that, but it’s irrelevant. Waste doesn’t mean unpleasant,
it means unwanted. Don’t confuse the label with the content.”
“But they aren’t unwanted either. I want them.”
For a few minutes we silently shared the slicing up of the vegetables and I poked the boiling potatoes.
There wasn’t much friction. She took life very seriously but we had developed a rapport which allowed
remarks with sharp edges to be delivered with underlying good humour. But Lisa wasn’t done.
“The least you can do is buy eggs from chickens who have had a bit of life.”
“You mean, if they’ve got a field to play in, they can relax by the pool, sunbathe, whatever.”
“If you wish to be facetious, yes.”
“Okay, next time I’ll buy free range eggs, alright? And I’ll ignore the fact that the chickens’ lives are in more
danger from natural hazards like foxes.”
“As you say, foxes are a natural hazard, wire cages aren’t. Anyway, foxes are just as entitled to eat as you are.”
The potatoes were done enough. I poured out the water and dropped them, damp, into the frying pan with
the cauliflower. The mixture roared at me and then settled down. I sprinkled heavy doses of oregano and curry
powder over the lot and stirred.
“Ah, so you’re happy to see them having a bit of a life even if they get abruptly and brutally murdered by a fox.
Whose side are you really on?”
“So? All the chickens that are not exhausting themselves laying eggs for us have already been abruptly and
brutally murdered for our dinner plates.”
Lisa handed me the tomatoes and mushrooms and I dropped them in the frying pan and continued stirring.
“These chickens that you clearly have a close rapport with. I can see them now with their placards outside
the factory: ‘We are our own chickens. We make our own destiny. We shall not be enslaved. We have an
entitlement to self-determination.’ I bet they would line up to be owned and protected if they thought the
alternative was to be torn apart by a fox.”
“Wild animals, including foxes, have got their self-determination. We should leave them that way.”
“But that determination includes the decision to kill others. It’s a brutal world out there and we are part of it.”
Mentally, I savoured this philosophical remark.
“Animals just kill to survive. We do it for any number of appalling reasons.”
“Animals can be pretty indiscriminate too. A fox isn’t going to sign a contract with someone prepared to
offer a bit of shoulder or leg. She’s not going to round the corner and negotiate for a pound or two of voles
and a bag of field mice. She’s just going to go for it.”
The stir fry was ready. Lisa set the table while I dished out the meal and took it to the dining table. She still
“Did you have pets when you were younger?”
“Could you eat something with a name?”
“I couldn’t eat it because it was a pet. The name just comes along with it.”
“It’s the name. Imagine a butcher’s shop down the road with names attached to the meat. On the chickens it
says ‘Florence’, ‘Esmerelda’ or ‘Charley’. On the beef it says: ‘Part of the rumps from Betty, Cis and Lilly’. On
the sides of mutton: ‘Get on the right side of Daisy’. How much meat do you think they’d sell?”
“You mean a fox wouldn’t eat a chicken if it knew its name?”
“I mean we wouldn’t. We’ve got intellects, ethics and sensitivities and it causes us problems and makes us
think.” She looked at me. “Well, some of us anyway.”
The meal was peppered with silences and the evening never recovered a romantic edge. It’s certainly possible
to get emotionally involved over a political statement but there are times when a relationship needs a little more.
But I admit she made me think. I do see what the veggies around us are getting at, so I do get a few troubled
moments, not so much about the fact that we kill animals to eat, all carnivores do that, but about the way we
keep them when alive. I spent many hours in an abattoir once, as part of a course in environmental health, and
remain convinced that many of us would eat less meat if we were all to gain the same experience.
In modern society, there is a paradox – dare I say hypocrisy – in the way many of us tuck into roasts and steaks
while making considerable efforts to ensure we remain unaware it used to be part of another living being.
People like eating animals but really do not want to be reminded that’s what they’re doing. It’s all down to the
appearance. Don’t put a head on the plate or eyes or ears. Tongues might be acceptable, provided they are so
well pressed and sliced they look like home-made strawberry cake. Legs and bodies are often alright if
they were originally so huge that the lump you get is no longer recognisable. The general rule is: do not offer
bits of animals that force your guests to realise that what they are about to eat could once think, move
around and appreciate its surroundings, in other words do the things they do themselves. Changing names
is the first way of avoiding the issue. We do not, after all, actually eat pigs, sheep and cows. We eat pork,
mutton and beef.
Offal takes the problem a stage further. Some people love it, but others, confronted with the fact that the
previous owner of their meal once lived and breathed, cannot handle the notion of consuming lungs, stomachs,
livers and kidneys. Once again, it helps if you change the name. ‘Sweatbreads’ sound a whole lot better than
thyroid glands, though whoever decided that ‘tripe’ was an improvement on stomach linings wasn’t really up
to the job.
But outside my Lisa period, when I offered a pie, mince, Bolognese or chilli con carne, it didn’t feel so bad.
Then the bits that were animals became just part of the general milieu of the meal and its origin could be
conveniently forgotten. I often used mince in a curry to good effect, particularly if I poured it into a frying
pan with chopped onions and spices before anything else. That way it got slightly burnt, added nicely to the
flavour and reminders of where it came from became ever more distant. When I was an absolute beginner
I got confused between mince and mincemeat. Some women I confessed that to later looked at me as though
I was one sandwich short of a picnic. It was obvious to them that mincemeat contained no meat and mince
was nothing but.
Braising steak or stewing steak have a slightly more direct relationship with the animals they started out in,
but not so meat eaters would complain. They were very useful for making bourguinonne, casserole or hotpot,
though the cheaper the steak the more difficult it becomes. The really cheap stuff takes hours to cook and,
even then, could leave my guests with aching jaws. I could ask how they’ve been or what their holiday was
like and be left with acres of silence while they chewed away politely, trying to get the rubbish that they’ve
picked up off their plate in a suitable form for passing down their throat. At worst, they admit failure, say
‘excuse me’, remove the sodden, sinewed tissue from their mouths and lay it neatly to one side. Only the
brave or foolhardy continued on to try another piece. Do not buy cheap steak.
I tried buying whole pieces of meat for subsequent dissection but, unless it was truly expensive (in which
case why chop it up), my hands got into an exceptionally unpleasant mess amongst the sinews, fat, ligaments
and bones. I gave that up very early on.
Fish are different. Many people who would not approach a plate with a pig’s head on it are not quite so
concerned if they see the head of a fish. It’s one more stage removed from humanity. I find it safer just to offer
fish steaks. Shellfish are even further removed and some eat them as though consuming fruit. Indeed, the French
call them ‘fruits de mer’.
After a few tragic evenings, I now never buy fish unless it’s boned. Fish bones are a complete menace. They
stick to the plate, hide themselves on the kitchen floor for weeks, discover holes and gaps in your teeth, pierce
your cheek and tongue and generally turn a pleasant meal into an assault course. Guests are forced to stop talking, even to stop listening, while they search around their mouths for offending articles looking like tiny translucent twigs. Often they would fail to find them. The site of the pain and discomfort would be clear but the source of the aggravation would conjure itself away in the folds and creases of gums and dentures. Some would go to desperate lengths by disappearing into the bathroom for several minutes and I had nightmares imagining
one day someone, protocol having been subsumed by desperation, would remove their false teeth,, examine
them for bones and wash them in their wine glass. I never got convinced, as Lisa and her vegetarian friends did, that it is immoral to eat animals. Eat animals if you must but don’t be surprised if they fight back, even in spirit.
My relationship with Lisa lasted some time but in the end I realised I only loved her mind.