Food Stuff

I probably shouldn’t even attempt to write this article. I lack any real background knowledge on the subject, and have no academic credentials of any kind whatsoever. While I enjoy writing and contributing the occasional essay, I really ought to be devoting the time to my fiction-writing career instead just now; it’s at a crucial point, and not in a good way. Nor will many people will read this compared to my works of fiction. I’m beginning late at night after a long, hard shift at work knowing full well that I’ve got to get up extra-early tomorrow, and this after going short on sleep last night for other reasons entirely. In short I’m a damned fool to be sitting here typing this. And yet here I am, pounding out the words into my iPad at the local 24-hour eatery.

Why? Because I feel a strange compulsion to do so. A compulsion, I feel, that has much to do with not only who I am as a person, but also why I’m a fur. And it was inspired, of all things, by a coincidence in timing. Just days after finishing the final draft of a novel that in large part deals with the taboo of human cannibalism, I watched with wonder as the British media erupted in outrage over the discovery of horsemeat in the human food chain.

Now, after writing hundreds of pages dealing with the ethics, morality and psychological aftereffects of consuming human meat under survival conditions, well… I have to admit that at first I found the controversy more amusing than anything else. A late Canadian friend of mine was a big fan of horsemeat as a delicious, healthy and cheap alternative to beef. (And yes, as a matter of fact he was an equine-type furry. Whyever do you ask?) This same friend was always mildly amused that horse was banned as a foodstuff in so many countries. For my own part, I spent a couple years working for a fast food chain that was up until that time perhaps best known for having one of their Australian suppliers caught substituting kangaroo meat for beef patties. The tainted shipment never made it to the public, but a good decade or so after the story broke people were still joking about “bouncyburgers”.

Both then and now, I have a great deal of trouble understanding why people get so worked up about this sort of thing. Dead flesh is dead flesh, and even if we limit ourselves to the Western tradition of cuisine we consume a staggering variety of the stuff. Within the past year I personally have eaten dead pig, dead cow, dead chicken, dead sheep, dead shrimp, dead fish of more varieties than I can name, dead clam, dead scallops, dead crab, dead lobster, dead frogs and even dead alligator. (Sorry, I’ve never tried dead snails. Though I’d be willing!) This list covers all five orders of vertebrates plus several invertebrates. And you know what? It all tasted pretty much the same. The invertebrates less so, granted. But if cooked in unfamiliar recipes, I doubt that I could name any of these meats solely by taste. They’re all pretty much pure protein; if you want variety in taste, the vegetable kingdom is without a doubt the place to look.

Obviously, then, our preferences in meat-animals are driven largely by factors other than flavor. Most Europeans salivate over hot roast pork, a Bedouin licks his lips at a platter heaped with roasted camel, some Indian gourmets reportedly roll their eyes over monkey-brains, and in certain parts of Asia nothing makes a diner happier than well marbled dog steaks. While I’ve never tried most of these…

…how much do you want to bet they all taste pretty much the same?

Ethically, I have to admit, I consider them all pretty much the same as well. While I’m very much a meat eater, it’s not because I think that routinely killing self-aware beings is a good idea. The fact is that I am a creature of very little to no dietary self-control. I’m grossly overweight as well as being a carnivore; being so fat is merely another manifestation of my own lack of self-discipline. As a six-year-old I once wept at the death of about a half-dozen trees that’d stood for years on my grandparent’s property; they’d grown too large to be safe, and so had to be cut down before they fell on the house and crushed it. Part of me has never quit weeping at the uncounted thousands of creatures I’ve consumed or otherwise killed since. And yet…

I also recognize that I’m a born carnivore as well. I’ve taken a couple-three classes in anthropology and read numerous books on the subject. This is more than enough to make me fully aware of the massive behavioral, cultural, and even physical effects that the act of hunting has had on the development of mankind. A major change of diet is a radical thing in terms of evolutionary pressures, a massive driver of change. When our ancestors were insectivores, we were tree shrews. When we were (mostly) vegetarians, we were apes. When we became hunters, we became men. That’s an oversimplification, yes. But it’s not all that much of one, which underlines the importance of diet to who and what we are as a species. I’m the son and great-great-great to the nth power grandson of the finest, deadliest hunters this planet has ever produced. My genes, my very identity and the manner in which I view the world necessarily reflects this truth. Should I be ashamed to eat meat? More ashamed, say, than a Bengal tiger who’s not half as capable and versatile a hunter as I am?

There are a thousand million arguments in regard to the ethics of meat-eating, and I don’t intend to even begin to deal with them all here and now. Suffice it to say that I, as a dedicated technologist, believe that the single greatest techno-ethical advance in human history lies not far in our future. Soon—within my lifetime, I very much hope, though I don’t have all that long left— we will finally perfect the “vat-grown” meats and meat products that science fiction has been predicting for fifty or more years now. Meat that’s grown with no brain, and comes packaged with no conscious mind that must be snuffed out prior to consumption, in other words. On that great day, perhaps the seven-year-old in me will finally take a day off from weeping at the tragedy of it all and enjoy a nice guilt-free t-bone steak. It’ll be the finest one I’ve ever had, I assure you. Make it medium-well, please!

Some meat-linked eating traditions are easier to understand than others. Despite the fact that thousands of protein-starved adolescent midshipmen of who knows how many navies thrived on them during the Age of Fighting Sail, one can appreciate why most cultures frown on eating rats. My own Ozark-mountain ancestors, perhaps up to and including my grandparents, almost certainly relished a well-cooked opossum. Yet today only a small fraction of American households would even consider eating one; the more one learns of the dining and personal habits of the common ‘possum, the more understandable this viewpoint becomes. I know of no culture that eats much in the way of voles and mice; they’re not worth the effort of catching and cleaning for at best a forkful of meat. But the world’s religious prohibitions on meat, well…. They’re pretty much beyond me. From where I stand, they look almost… Random.

One other thing I’ve noticed about food animals over the years is that they seem to get very little respect in our fandom. While many ancient Amerindian cultures are totally centered on the corn plant and it’s essential role at the root of everyone’s lives… Well, let’s put it this way. How many fursuiters do you see at the average convention dressed as a cow or a chicken or a pig? Rabbits excepted, you see almost no food animals of any sort (and you can be pretty sure that the bunnies don’t as a rule hold the nutritional benefits of their species-of-choice foremost in their minds). How odd, that the animals we benefit from most of all are the ones that most commonly serve as the butts of our jokes and get the least respect!

Culture, evolution, food… All are intertwined so perfectly and so thoroughly that the closer we examine them the more the threads merge and become one. What a wonderfully complex and mysterious world we live in!

About Rabbit

Rabbit Is the author of over thirty published furry novels and novellas as well as numerous columns and articles in other furry venues. He's a retired Tennessee auto worker.

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13 thoughts on “Food Stuff

  1. I can’t resist pointing out that in spite of your fairly whole-hearted endorsement of a carnivorous diet, you still touch upon the horns of this dilemma. While dead meat is just that, the ethics and trauma of turning live flesh into dead meat is what lies at the core of the controversy. Some of us have a lot more difficulty in “swallowing” the supposed necessity of eating meat for that reason.

    I have no problem with eggs or even dairy foods (and yes, I am well aware of the issues with dairy production as it is practiced) but the shadow of the slaughterhouse still lies long over the meat counters at the supermarket.

    We don’t eat dogs and cats in our culture because we live closely enough with them to be aware that they have personalities, feelings, emotions, fears, and yes, thoughts. The fact that they don’t speak our language doesn’t change this. As we’ve noted here this week, those of us who live closely enough to the horse to know him well feel the same way about the equine species (which include the donkeys, mules, and zebras of course, though for some reason no one seems to want to eat any of them.)

    I don’t think this is so much a “taboo” as it is a response of conscience. Religion has nothing to do with it in my case, I assure you.

    1. I don’t know that taboos have to be religious. I think even non-religious people have a taboo against eating human flesh, and I agree with you that it is much easier to eat animal flesh if one is distant from it. The more you are familiar with an animal and get to recognize its intelligence and emotions, the harder it is to kill it so that you can consume it.

      There are several ways around this dilemma–I can think of at least six.

      One by distancing oneself and not thinking about it (as many do) This hardly resolves the ethical issue but rather ducks it.

      Two, by becoming vegetarian or vegan or otherwise restricting diet to foodstuff without incapable of thought. The vegan route is of course the most pure, although there is evidence that plants do feel pain and suffer as well send signals to other plants, but no evidence of actual consciousness. As you point out there are ethical issues with how dairy animals and egg laying animals are treated. One can try to buy from farmers who treat the chickens and cows more decently and give them free range–I am personally willing to pay extra for that. Some “vegetarians” also eat fish and invertebrates, but these animals do indeed feel pain as well–in fact even bacteria show avoidance of painful stimuli.

      Three: scavenging roadkill and other animals that died but were not killed by humans for food. This does avoid the obvious ethical consequence of killing a conscious being, but there is a health risk and further more you are then depriving normal scavengers of a meal.

      Four: Eating only fruit and other plant products “freely given.” This was tried back in the 19th century but did not last long. It is not a sustainable healthy diet.

      Five: Justifying it a la Lion King circle of life or through religious beliefs. This is rather a sham. The lions say we eat the gazelles and then when we die we become grass and the gazelles eat us; it is the circle of life. Firstly the lions in this scenario end the gazelle’s life early to eat it whereas the lions die a natural death and only later are its nutrients recycled. Secondly the gazelles could get along quite well without the lions, thank you. Grass will grow even if there are no dead lions.

      Six: recognizing what you are doing and apologizing/giving thanks to the animal that you killed, as well as trying to avoid adding any more pain than necessary to its death. Supposedly a common practice in some Native American cultures was to thank an animal that was just killed and explain to it why it was killed. Also consider Jewish law which prohibits causing pain to the animals that are slaughtered.

      1. There are also historical and economical resons behind many food taboos, for example the ban of pig meat in Islam and Judaism, which was due in part to the high water consumption of pigs and their ability to feed on many different food leaving nothing for other grazing animals.
        Similar explainations ca be found for the horse meat taboo found in most Western cultures. For a long time horses were owned only by nobility and they weren’t even familiar animals for common people. That’s why they rarely appear in fables like Aesop’s compared to donkeys and other domestic animals. There is a fable by La Fontaine which states very clearly the privileged position of horses compared to other domestic animals, I find it a fascinating insight:
        The mere thought of eating an animal who was exclusive of nobility would have been considered subversive, and this situation lasted for centuries. By the end of feudalism horses became more affordable, but by then the cultural taboo was deeply rooted in most Western countries and it reamined especially strong in countries where horses retained a very high value as means of transport workforce for special environments (e.g. mines) such as the UK and the USA. Instead the taboo grew weaker in the southern countries where horses were mostly needed for agricultural work. In fact it’s not difficult to find horse meat shops here in Italy and some regions have a tradition of making donkey sausages too.
        I belive that these practical reasons would be very important in the past, when people needed to exploit every possible food source but at the same time had to enforce the sustainability of food sources. There is at the very least some heavy interweawing between practical reasons and psychological and moral reasons for forbidding certain foods.

        1. What I find interesting though is how the practical reasons often can become lost and all that remains is an unrooted emotional response,

        2. That’s a really nifty fable Scale, and new to me, so thanks for sharing. It feels like it might be useful as a metaphor for getting sucked into antagonistic comments threads on the internet.

          Not that we see anything like that here on [adjective][species] of course.

      2. Keito–

        Another way around the dilemma is what I fear is the most common one, historically speaking. That’s to actively enjoy the process of killing things and experience no guilt whatsoever about the creature’s pain, terror, etc. Indeed, an awfully large percentage of our ancestors seemed to feel (or perhaps more correctly, not-feel) exactly this way even about killing members of their own species. It’s this very-human attitude and the fact that I believe it remains widespread in the world that leads me to continue to support large expenditures on national defense.

    2. Hello, Altivo!

      This article really wasn’t meant to be an endorsement of anything, but rather a sort of broad overview of the subject and its implications. I could never heartily endorse the action of eating meat, even though I do it myself. If I came across as a meat-advocate, I assure it was not intentional.

  2. The professor in me has to take issue with a few things, which are actually, not essential to your main point. Nonetheless, vertebrates are a subphylum, below that we have classes, such as Class Mammalia. Beneath classes we have orders, such as Order Lagomorpha. So it shouldn’t be “five orders of vertebrates.” Plus there are more than five, if you go traditional you have seven classes Agnatha (e.g., lamprey), Chondrichthyes (e.g. tiger shark), Osteichthyes (e.g., tuna), Amphibia (e.g., frogs), Reptilia (e,g,, snakes), Aves (e,g., eagles) and Mammalia (e.g., bunnies). There has been some argument that Agnatha should be broken into more than one class, but also that Aves should be combined with Reptilia, so that would keep it stable at seven. Of course there are some extinct classes too, but even a pedant such myself wouldn’t expect you to include them.

    With regard to some of the ancient taboos, wild pigs are omnivorous and will root about in offal, feces, scavenge long dead animals and otherwise have habits that make them likely to get parasites. Bears will likewise engage in this behavior and trichinosis is most commonly contracted from eating undercooked pork or bear meat.

    I wonder if the lack of pig and cow furries has more to do with them being rotund than foodstuff. We also do not see many hippos. We do of course have a fair number of deer (which are eaten by many), some bulls, and some rams.

    1. Keito–

      Actually, you took note of what I as a writer considered the most difficult passage in the entire essay. I was aware that there are more than five chordates, and had actually begun to google the name of the sixth (I admit I didn’t know of more than six) when I shook my head and decided that it was a bad idea. Why? Because though I knew of the existence more than the classic five chordates, I didn’t learn about them in high school or even the three years of college I attended towards a science-related (geology) degree. (Instead I read about them in one of Isaac Asimov’s numerous non-fiction collections, which did more to educate me in my own opinion than all those years of classes.) In my experience as a writer, the moment one introduces a word that’s obviously of Greek or Latin origin into a general-interest level article, well… At that point you pretty much kiss 7/8ths of your audience good-bye. Even worse, they don’t come back. Ever. In my opinion, the trick of writing stuff that’s even tangentially science-related (such as the article we’re discussing here) for a general audience is to a) never use a word a bright eighth-grader won’t recognize and b) if more advanced concepts are _absolutely_ required, to introduce them dead-slowly all the way from first principles and with the bare minimum of confusing terminology. Avoiding side-tracks is one of the major tricks of writing coherently and in an interest-capturing manner; had I tried to go into the differences between a notochord and a spine in an article about food-related ethics, well…

      On the one hand, I tend to want to defend my choice as sop to readability (which is how I justified it in my own mind to begin with). On the other, I’m forced to acknowledge the justice and even essential correctness of your position. In retrospect I perhaps should’ve said something like “all five of the commonly-known chordates”. Please know that in the future, due to your kindness in taking the time to point this out, I’ll work harder to find better solutions.

      Thank you!

      1. I certainly understand the need to balance these issues. It wouldn’t have gnawed at me so much if you had said five “groups” of vertebrates since group is very informal, but “order” is a technical term when talking about groups of organisms, and so that rather got my professor side going.

      2. Oh and since you mention the aspect of latin terms being problematic sometimes, here are the common names for the groups (with technical term in parenthesis
        1) jawless fish (Agnatha)
        2) cartilaginous fish, or “sharks and rays” (Chondrichthyes)
        3) bony fish –i.e., most things that are considered fish (Osteichthyes)
        Most people are familiar enough with amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, that those terms do not need an explanation, but if you have not been to school recently you may not be aware that birds have been folded in to the reptiles because they are descended from a group of dinosaurs and so technically are themselves dinosaurs.

        If you eat chicken nuggets, you are eating dinosaur!

  3. Forgot to preface my earlier comment with the fact that I did enjoy your essay, Rabbit, my pedantic professorial side just rather took over.

    I too am an uneasy carnivore, but as you noted we do not consider lions to be bad animals because they eat other animals, but still I am willing to pay more for meat from free range animals.

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