EATING WITH EMPATHY
The other night, after a dinner of crock-pot cooked Red Ranger chicken, I stood at the counter, picking off the remaining bits of meat from the bones. I came to the furcula, the wishbone, and called my daughter in to break it with me.
“What is that daddy?” She asked, turning the small forked bone in her hand.
I explained that it came from the breast of the chicken, marking the place on my body where this bone would sit if I were a bird with wings.
I was reminded then of other conversations I’ve had with people about where the bones and cuts of meat come from in the animals we eat. In every case I would use my own body as the map—a t-bone comes from here, I’d say, gesturing to the muscle running along my spine or bacon comes from here gesturing over my belly. It may seem a strange practice, but I’ve seen others do it–farmers and butchers and foodies.
One could read the gesture as a macabre practice, an invitation to the cannibal’s imagination, a reverse of those those old Loony Toon cartoons where the predator would imagine the body of the prey according to the available cuts except that here we are the preditor imagining the prey in terms of our own bodies.
Macabre or not, I think this practice, which is reflexive among those who work with meat, is a way of expressing an important truth. We are meat and bone. We share with the animals we eat these basic physical realities of embodiment; as vertebrates, our bodies and the bodies of our common fare are more similar in structure than different. By mapping their bodies onto our bodies we share a sympathy with their flesh because it is both like, and about to become, our flesh.
In the beautiful movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild, there is a woman teaching children in a bayou community about their place. She leads the children through a series of jars containing crawfish, crabs, and other creatures of the area. She points to each and says: “meat. meat. meat.” She then turns to the children and tells them:
“Every animal is made out of meat.
I am meat, ya’ll [are] meat.
Everything is part of the buffet of the universe.”
This is the truth we point to when we map the flesh we eat onto our own flesh. It is not a way in which we reduce all life to meat, but a means by which we open up the meat we eat to the complex realities of any sentient life. We then become sympathetic eaters, as most of our early ancestors were, trying to imagine how animals experience the world. It is through this sympathetic imagination that we are able to care for and about the animals we eat.
The sympathetic imagination is what that enables good butchers, good farmers, and good eaters to eat animals and yet care for the quality of their lives. It is the kind of imagination employed by the farmers of the Grass Roots Cooperative, and it is the kind of imagination that we who eat the meat of their animals should also employ. So next time you get a rib-eye or clean a chicken down to its wishbone map it to your body. Then you will enter into the ancient truth that we are all meat and more than meat.