Caught in the Crosshairs of the Omnivore’s Dilemma

Animals sure are delicious and cute — it’s a difficult dilemma. As an alternative: did you know cannibalism is considered vegan?

“I feel physically sick,” was how my husband summed up his feelings about Tim Burton’s film Sweeney Todd, and I had to admit, it wasn’t the best movie choice for the day after Christmas. He also felt a little misled; I said we were going to a musical and we ended up at slasher film. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it, or at least, if I didn’t enjoy the experience in the usual sense of fun holiday fare, I was profoundly moved. You could even say I’ve become semi-obsessed by Tim Burton’s demandingly dark vision.

The Meatpaper arrived the next day, and although I’d been eagerly waiting for my first issue to arrive, now I can’t even bear to open it. The Meatpaper is pretty much what it sounds like: a niche journal devoted to all things meat. Judging from its cover and a New York Times article about it, it combines cultural commentary, humor, and straightforward reporting about meat through what can only be described as a self-consciously aesthetic lens. But then, what do I know? I haven’t been able to make myself actually read it yet.

The sight of gallons of spewing blood and the sickening crunch of bodies hitting the floor in Sweeney Todd are still vivid, and I’m just not quite feeling the same way about the “fleischgeist,” as the New York Times describes it, as I did in the past. I’m not in the mood to read articles about married couples discussing cannibalism or photo essays on found meat (can I tear out my eyes now, or should I wait for the next issue?).

Much has been made about the failure of movies this year about the Iraq war, but even more, I think, will be made about all the other films, ostensibly telling other stories, that offer more insightful commentary on our particular moment in history. From the existential Zodiac, to the bloody celebration of Grindhouse, the claustrophobic end-chapter of The Bourne Ultimatum, and to the nihilistic No Country for Old Men, splashed across the screens of America seems to be a message that we can’t trust authority and we can’t, at the same time, trust our own Hobbesian souls to make choices unsullied by self-interest. Like the young lovers in Sweeney Todd, we might continue to hold out hope for a more munificent future, but anger, obsession, and blood lust dog our every step.

Sondheim’s attack on us is as pointed today as it was when it was written in 1979 (remember the “Me” decade, anyone?). But under the unregulated capitalism of the Bush administration and with the slaughter happening every day during the Iraqi war—an act of unparalleled misplaced vengeance—the image in the mirror Sondheim and Burton unflinchingly hold up to us looks a lot more like Sweeney than his sweetly creepy daughter Joanna.

At the same time, while we watch “Alive in Baghdad” on our iPhones, “it’s finally cool to be a carnivore,” as Bill Buford wrote in his essay, “Red, White,and Bleu,” in The New Yorker. In addition to the three meat-only based cookbooks mentioned in his article, Stéphane Reynaud’s Pork & Sons, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Book, Martin Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon, I also received a copy of James Villas’s new book, The Bacon Cookbook. All are unabashedly carnivorous and all celebrate unrepentantly in the consumption of animal flesh. It’s a little odd, though, for all four of them to suddenly appear within the same year.

sweeney.jpgI’m no vegetarian, but after two plus hours watching people ground up and consumed by other people in meat pies, I feel forced to pause and reconsider. All of the authors (including Buford) are quick to point out the evils of factory farming and instead direct consumers down the well-trodden path of localism. All of which, I agree, is nice and valuable and can’t be repeated enough.

Staring at the insides of your dinner is easier in theory, however, than in practice. I was shaken after seeing an enormous washtub of skinned rabbits in the living room of one of my husband’s relatives in Spain, and after that experience, I know if I had to get up to my elbows in a pig the way Stéphane Reynaud does in Pork & Sons, I might very well give up my all-time favorite food—permanently.

We’ve been constricted, we who love food, for a long time by the strident moralistic stance of vegetarianism. Not only is red meat bad for your heart, but chicken is full of bacteria, and even the poor little fish of the sea carry nasty-looking worms around with them. But wait a minute. You were thinking of yourself again, weren’t you? The real problem with eating meat is that it means animals (who usually live under appalling conditions) will be killed for your culinary pleasure. Now, do you really deserve that privilege? In the past, I would have unthinkingly said yes, but now, I’m a little unsure.

I think now that unfettered carnivorousness is perhaps akin to an unregulated economy: fine in theory (maybe) but devastating in practice to so many of its unwilling participants. And although each of the new meat-centric cookbooks is ostensibly a kind of tribute to the particular animal it grills and roasts, I think there’s a touch of anger lurking beneath the pages of frolicking pigs. Each author seems just a little too quick to rebut the claims of vegetarians and drive home the sanctity of animal husbandry. As the books arrived with a thump on my doorstep, one after another, taken collectively the publication of all four seems like a defiant slap at any naysayers. I love a thick hunk of beef (well, until I saw Sweeney Todd) as much as the next person, but am I the only one who thinks a real-life bucket of dead, raw rabbits is kind of horrific? I think I might recoil from a big, dead cow too.

I know I felt sick when I saw that backbone on the top of contents Mrs. Lovett’s giant meat grinder. I’ve always been a firm believer in the clear difference between animals and people, but Sondheim’s literalization of the metaphor, “man devouring man” erases distinction between meats—of all kinds. Still, I’m not ready to take a giant leap into the purer world of vegetarianism. Not in practice. Not yet. What I am willing to do is think harder about the Sweeney Todd that’s been allowed to lurk within all of us. That’s not to say I don’t realize the contradiction in condemning the culture at large for my inability to say no to a piece of bacon. I have to wonder, however, if I really should be congratulated for that inability.

  • error

    Report an error

There are 5 reader comments. Read them.