Posted on March 16th, 2012
Raise a chicken – eat a chicken; catch a fish – eat a fish; culinary terminology seems simple enough, right? Kill the animal, eat the animal. Things get more complicated as the animals get larger. Raise a cow-eat a cow? Hunt a deer-eat a deer? Raise a pig-eat a pig? Concretely, the answer to the previous three questions is yes-but according to well-established vernacular the answer to each is no and beef, venison, and pork, respectively. It seems we frequently kill an animal and eat something else – linguistically, at least. Our culture disconnects the meat we eat from the actuality of the carcass it came from in many ways, and language plays an important role in that process.
Let’s start at the beginning: Anglo-Saxon England. It was at this time and place that the dissonance began, thanks entirely to an iron-clad class system that used even language to distinguish the privileged from the peasants. The poor working class raised and killed the animals and called them by their Germanic-influenced early Middle English names, which have evolved into the Modern English names: chicken, pig, lamb, cow. The nobility – who had the pleasure of eating the meat and naming the dishes without having to handle any livestock – spoke French. So it has evolved that many names for meat in English actually have romantic – rather than Germanic – roots: beef/boeuf, mutton/mouton, poultry/poulet, pork/porc. While the history and etymology isn’t riveting, it does give insight into the early development of the divergence between animal and food in our culture.
For centuries, this dichotomy went on eliciting slight, but ever-present, dissonance in our relationship with game animals. Feudalism eventually evolved into agrarian societies which flourished throughout the Western hemisphere and the majority of people lived on subsistence farms; it became impossible for most to avoid familiarity with the connection between carcass and dinner no matter what you called them. That all changed when the industrial revolution brought with it all the tools to take animal versus food from a simple, quiet dichotomy to full-fledged cognitive dissonance. Meat came in all shapes and sizes, including sausages and loaves. It came from a butcher, neatly packaged for cooking and consumption – not the back yard or town paddock – making the animal/food split a little more dissonant. Next, cooked and canned meat, poultry and fish hit the market. While they usually required some kind of additional preparation, the need to handle any raw flesh was eliminated – thereby further separating food from animal. Frozen dinners followed, and the meat was not only fully cooked, but entirely prepared. Just heat and eat, no contact necessary before fork and knife. By now, any link from farm-to-table was clearly buried deep in marketing about quality and convenience.
With a culture focused on convenience and the farm-to-table link all but forgotten, the marvel of modern food science rushed out of the gate. Fish sticks, chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs, chicken patties, pre-made hamburgers already on buns, little smokies, skinless sausage; anything is now possible, and none of it resembles anything on the dinner tables of the French nobility of Anglo-Saxon England or our agrarian colonial forebears. Meat products have become a commodity; an industry predicated on marketing that’s about everything except the animal. Though animal welfare has found a niche in food marketing and can be a hot-button topic, that is not what this article is concerned with. No matter how well-cared-for the chicken in my patty was, it still isn’t recognizable as any part of a chicken.
In its purest form, food science is striving to use all the parts and feed the masses, and that is commendable. Its inventions wouldn’t succeed if they weren’t being purchased, so I’m not here to pass judgment; merely to make an observation. Transforming the animals we kill into the sanitized meals we consume has been a slow collective decision in a world where instant gratification is becoming the ultimate goal. Do people really need to take the time to think about the humble origins of a delicious salami? I don’t know. What I do know is that we have (for better or for worse) chosen to remove the animal from the table, and it seems to me the larger the animal the further away we would like it to be.
Regardless of how chicken meat is shaped and formed, it is always preceded by the word chicken: chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, chicken sausage, chicken patty. When is the last time you elected to eat a cow patty or pig nuggets? Not quite as enticing as a burger or sausage and peppers, right? Even big game meats have a lovely euphemism– “Would you like some of the deer I killed last weekend?” versus “I have some venison if you’re interested.” I like to think this is because we know we could take on a chicken without considerable effort, but faced with the enormity of a cow or bluntness of a pig, we would rather not imagine how in fact it got from there to here.
Some folks today do want to think about how each animal gets from pasture to plate. Ironically, it’s the very same class of people who had the privilege of not confronting it in Anglo-Saxon England. While the wealthy today can certainly afford to not recognize the link between farm and table, a growing number of them are choosing to do exactly that. The ‘foodie’ culture is one born out of privilege that is seeping into the mainstream of high-class culture. I don’t think that everyone with a more than comfortable income is opting to take a farm-to-table experience vacation, but I would bet that they have all been to a trendy white table cloth restaurant that lists all the farms that supply each menu item. Or at least a restaurant that offers entrees that are inescapably derived from a carcass: veal sweetbreads, half roast duck, Cornish game hen. At the same time, people who are struggling to cover their basic expenses, those historically associated with farm labor, are becoming more and more removed from the reality of where food comes from. They are much more likely to frequent quick-service restaurants offering patties and nuggets of various sizes and origins. Farm-to-table acknowledgment has gone from a reality the poor couldn’t ignore to a luxury they can’t afford.
Most of us though, sit somewhere in between the thirty-five dollar locally raised chicken entree and a daily dose of nuggets. We are part of a culture that may universally give a chicken the same name at the farm and on the plate, but still does not fully confront the reality of the nuggets. The agrarian school year may still be with us, but farm-to-table education has gone the way of the horse-drawn plow. Just imagine if “Old MacDonald” was about the purpose of each animal on a farm instead of the sounds they make: “…and on his farm he had a pig, made some pork chops here, and a little bacon there… E-I-E-I-O.” What if you took your child to a small petting zoo and pointed out that the chicken walking around is where eggs and dino nuggets come from? It seems fundamentally wrong, like telling them that Santa isn’t real; but there was a time before Santa when all children knew where dinner came from, if only because their favorite pet wasn’t out in the pasture anymore. The decision to leave ‘animals’ at the farm and eat ‘meats’ began long ago and has evolved with society the same as anything else. And as with anything else, each must choose if the decision made collectively is the correct decision for him. I am not suggesting you start inviting friends over for barbequed cow patties or creeping out your waiter by ordering the pig loin when dining out…or even that you forgo the wonder that is the dino nugget. I am merely asking you to take a moment to recognize the disconnect; then make a conscious choice whether you will accept the dissonance or be more cognizant that what’s on your plate was once walking, clucking, and flapping…though it may now take the shape of a T-Rex menacing your French fries.