One of my earliest memories of Italy occurred once I had already left the land of my birth. It was a cooking program on television and a southern Italian family were slaughtering their family pig… Dave. (N.B. may not be his real name.) They’d fed Dave for six months, cared for him, housed him, perhaps even loved him… and then they slit his throat and cut him into pieces. This family would live off Dave for the entire winter, so every part was transformed – blood, guts and glory – into pancetta, salami, chops, ham, trotters et al. By all accounts, Dave was delicious.
Despite being born in Italy, there was an immediate disconnect. Why would they do that? In Britain, our meat came seemingly death-free and ready-Styrofoamed. Though we are somewhat more informed with where our meat comes from, this disconnect between meat and death remains. It even exists in the disparity of feeling between meat and offal. A steak is just meat whose raison d’être is to be eaten – but a kidney, with its squishy, fragile tissue carries too strong a whiff of death and therefore, the scent of life. There is no other word for this than hypocrisy.
Historically, I have been rather unkind to our vegan brethren, but then I do attract them. Something about my face must just say: lecture me. Naturally, I adore not-starving people dictating their self-righteous, joyless opinions to me based on the viewing of one Netflix documentary… But. Are they wrong?
I eat nose to tail. Sweetbreads, chitterlings, boudin noir – everything but the spleen. If you relish your Sunday Roast but get queasy at the prospect of andouillette, then you have my pity. You also have a soupçon of my contempt. If you are happy for an animal to die, so you can eat one-percent and let the rest rot, you might just be an asshole.
Where was I? Vegans being right… sounds even worse out loud. But the truth is I could survive without meat. It’s easier than ever, I just don’t want to. And while I have tried to keep an eye on the bigger picture – free-range, sustainability, nose-to-tail and so on – that disconnect remains. How can I eat meat when I’ve never confronted the reality of killing an animal? By distancing myself from the act of killing, where is my accountability? Or is it buried in layers of my own hypocrisy?
So, when the opportunity arose to witness a goat being slaughtered on a local farm, I seized it. Here was the chance to understand where meat comes from and bury accusations of hypocrisy once and for all… and almost immediately I was overcome with nerves. I’d never seen an animal killed before. I’d never seen anything die before. What if it turned my stomach? Or worse, turned me vegan? What if all this time, I had been venting against the anti-foie brigade because deep down I knew, meat is murder.
It takes a special kind of bell-end to realise he might be a closet vegan, and walking to the farm, I had genuine concerns of weeping. Sensing my cowardice, the goats twisted the knife; licking my hands, nuzzling my thighs and making generally adorable goat-y noises. I worried every animal I petted was being marked for death. How was the choice made? Did you just pick the ugliest, fattest one? Surely that was the most democratic? But only the males are slaughtered. Good for equality, bad for me – even the males look like Bambi with horns. Then, a single on-rushing thought, “Don’t name him—don’t name him—don’t name him…” Thanks, Dave.
He is led into the tiny shed of death. The land owner holds its horns and his protégée clutches his hind legs. Only now is he scared. Only now does he know something is wrong.
It’s a strange thing to watch an animal die. It feels too intimate. This was a mistake. What kind of ghoulish voyeur volunteers to witness such barbarism just to prove a point? This is a living, breathing creature and I will be complicit in his murder. As I contemplate whether I had been wrong about Morrissey… it’s over.
POP. Like a paper bag bursting.
I could tell you how the light went out in Bambi’s eyes. I could tell you about that last pulse of life as the captive bolt pistol shot through its cranium, its legs relaxing like an old man sighing, how the horror bore a hole in my soul; I could tell you that, but… The moment I heard the POP and I mean, the moment… that frolicking kid became meat. POP. Meat. My ethical conundrum vanishing instantly.
The Billy goat gruff-shaped bag of meat is strung up by the hind legs and its throat slashed. Blood and less enticing fluid drips into an old bucket that appears to have borne witness to a hundred prior deaths’ surfeit. With a tiny blade the first incision is made under the hoof and we glimpse the pink, sinewy meat beneath. Unlike mutton, where the hide and skin are so loose it can be pulled off like a macabre table-cloth trick, the younger hide clings tightly to its owner’s limbs. No matter. A little more elbow grease and the hide is pulled down and discarded with the severed head.
The land owner and his protégée gaze at the hanging carcass for a moment, possibly paying homage to the kill but more likely, basking in its nourishing beauty. It’s still so warm. Beads of sweat already forming on the skin. Yet there is no scent; no pungent odour of death, as if this was an act devoid of sin. A bigger knife is presented, and the animal is split down the middle where its hidden treasures are revealed. Warm cordial steam caresses our cheeks. The entrails, stomach and rectum are spilled into another bucket. With a razor blade the heart and liver are carefully removed and bagged to be frozen immediately. The kidneys, like the spoils of war, the land owner keeps for himself.
As I return to the farmhouse, a weight seems to lift. Any lingering feeling of hypocrisy is long gone. Butchering from scratch has no fear for me now and I can be secure in my choice to eat meat. I pass through a herd of goat kids who lick my hands unaware that I just watched their bestie snuff it. This is what farming is. These animals are bred for the nourishing life-giving powers they possess. That is their purpose. There is no malice in it. No cruelty. This is life.
I neglected to mention that among those in attendance was a nine-year-old girl. This was already her fifth slaughter. As we ate the goat’s liver, heart and roasted carcass the following day, the four-foot child would explain to me – an adult – that she was no more afraid of seeing an animal killed than she was of seeing it born. “It is only life,” she replied, “It is all the same.” Again, she’s nine.
In a recent poll, one in five British children questioned, were unaware that bacon came from pigs. Galling certainly, but this is a failure not of them, but of us. If we do not understand where meat comes from and thus the nature of slaughter, then clearly, we are not offering them a real moral choice. Would they still want that bacon sandwich if they had to watch Babe die first?
Are the plastic wrapped trays on every supermarket shelf a kind of carnivore’s Nuremberg defence? Are we just following orders in abiding by social norms, while abdicating moral responsibility for what had to happen for meat to reach our plate? Or, have we simply become too domesticated, too prissy and afraid, that we would just rather not get our own hands dirty?
Which bring us back to vegans. Yes, they may be the Jehovah’s Witnesses of culinary morality, yes, some may be hypocrites, and yes, some may be dangerous fanatics, but many have just looked at the realities of farming and decided that it’s morally wrong to take a life. And certainly, the act of killing can only be amoral at best. I watched a slaughter and felt only a carnivore’s desire to eat. Others may have given up meat entirely, unable in good conscience to contribute to the death of a living animal. I guess you won’t know until you see it, in the flesh, as it were.
I believe that if you take an animal’s life, the only decent thing to do is to eat as much of that animal as possible. If you are complicit in an animal’s death by buying its meat, then you owe it to the animal and yourself to eat everything. If you’d let an underpaid farmer kill a cow but are too squeamish to eat more than the fillet mignon – the vegans may have a genuine point with you.
Thinking back to that Italian family, as horrific as Dave’s fate may be, they didn’t buy any more meat until spring. One animal, one family, one season. How many animals did you eat this week? It’s important to think in these terms, not only because it’s moral (to the animal) and sensible (for the planet), but also because it makes economic sense. One animal reared humanely by a better-paid farmer for a healthier, cost-effective meal is better all around.
So, embrace your inner Italian and eat everything. Especially the marrow. And the tripe. And maybe watch a slaughter. Just to check you’re not a hypocrite… or a closet vegan.