Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Meat is Murder (Tasty, Tasty Murder)


The Guardian's Word of Mouth comment section, like many popular topical internet message boards that allow the rationally-challenged to hold forth on issues way outside of their sphere of understanding, is a hotbed of vitriol and hyperbole. I should know, I'm a frequent contributor myself. And given the nature of the passions on both sides, it's perhaps not surprising that the issues surrounding the dispatch and preparation of animals for consumption should be a regular flashpoint. But it has been increasingly alarming just how far vegetarians (for it is mainly vegetarians, and their even more rabid cousins, the vegans) will go to find offense. I can just about understand how people who choose not to eat meat would be squeamish towards the slaughter and butchery of a cute little baby cow or a fluffy wild bunny, but when the cooking and eating of snails and crabs becomes an issue for the Animal Rights League you know all sense of perspective has gone completely out of the window. Take this gem, which appeared beneath Tim Hayward's excellent Giant African Land Snail adventure:

They're responsive, emotional and very sweet creatures. You can tell if they're in a "good mood" by how much they let you handle them, when they're very "happy" you can stroke them down their back and they move their eyestalks in happiness

[...]

Award winning writer? Was it a nice big heavy award that he can murder more things with?


It's. A. Snail. If you think a 5-inch gastropod is responsive and emotional, you should meet my ex-girlfriend. Convincing yourself you're receiving valuable feedback from an animal whose two main functions on this planet are to move very slowly and eat lettuce is desperately worrying - do you think maybe you're confusing "the moving of the eyestalks in happiness" with "the being of a snail"? Just a thought.

What's irritating, however, is that chefs and foodies are willing to make concessions to these sentimental extremists by going through ludicrous preparatory hoops to convince them that the animals in question have been "ethically" killed. Take crabs, for example. Essentially a nervous system in a shell, with what can only be loosely described as a "brain" so small you can barely see it, there's no more reason why you should care if a crab is "ethically" put to rest (whatever that means) than the troublesome ants nest in your back garden or the cockroach in your bread bin. And after all, edible snails and crabs can also be considered vermin in most cases. But in countless recipes on the web and in timid populist celebrity chef books, we are advised to put the animals in the freezer for half an hour to slow its metabolism down, then "ethically" jab a sharp knife in between its eyes to mangle its brain. Similarly for lobster - a sharp stab through the head is apparently the preferred method here, because if you omitted this pointless stage between the catching and the eating, PETA would bash your front door in and set fire to your children.

But I think I know why - jealousy. Given that we don't (generally) eat ants or beetles or mice or rats, the veggies are quite happy to turn a blind eye to pest control. But once they see us taking pleasure from eating something, suddenly the rules change and we're cruel and bloodthirsty carnivores who are only eating crabs and snails to make them mad. And if we are determined to eat the defenceless little things then the least we can do is feel guilty about it and be very sorry and admit we're just following a sordid and shameful urge for live flesh and don't deserve to enjoy it.

Well, the fightback starts here. We can concede, as omnivores, that an animal with big brown eyes and hooves should be treated with respect during its final moments, given that its brain is just about big enough to make such an effort worthwhile. But there's no way on earth we should feel guilty about the passing of crustaceans and molluscs and gastropods. Next time you get hold of a nice fresh lobster or Dorset brown crab, make sure it's still alive and kicking when you drop it into the pot. It won't make the blindest bit of difference to you or the animal, but it will serve the very important purpose of pissing the vegetarians off.

Edit: Photo courtesy of The Springfield Files

27 comments:

catty said...

Confrontational? More like laugh out loud. Great post, tackling a touchy issue with amazing humour. Good writing, Chris :)

Angry Brit said...

I cooked a live crab once and I felt faintly guilty about it, but you're also talking to someone who feels guilty about killing ants and bees and things like that. However, you will never get me to agree that crabs, lobsters, or snails have any kind of emotional response or attachment. I've never met a crab who was desirous of being petted. I think the most important thing is that we offer respect to the animals that we eat and slaughter them in the least stressful, least painful way.

Simon said...

Magnificent rant. Reminded me the tale of someone who cooked a lobster in a bedsit sink using one of those mini immersion heaters that you can plug into your cigar lighter - the thing probably died of boredom before the heat got to it.

Helen Yuet Ling Pang said...

Tried leaving comment on WofM blog on the crab post but failed! So I'll say it again here - I always wondered why my dad would stick a chopstick up a lobster's bum all the way up before throwing it (the lobster) in to the pot of boiling water. I guess he stuck the end of the chopstick into its brain so it didn't thrash about in the pot which would be more painful. At least it died a relatively quick death...

Kavey said...

Heh, yep, I'm with you!

Cooked langoustines in France recently. They were in the fridge beforehand, just to keep them cool and fresh but still wriggling when I threw them into the hot water. They're sea insects, for goodness sake, not sentient beings!

Bloomin' tasty too!

Signe said...

Totally agree with you, though on a purely practical note, chilling the blighters for a while renders them less irascible when you try dealing with them before cooking. Had a very lively lobster to contend with one time when I had to cut it down the middle to grill, and if they're dozey to start with they're less likely to squirm all over the place.

Kavey's right, crabs + lobsters are sea insects, bottom feeders, cannibals! What's the vegetabilists' beef exactly?

Martin said...

Couldn't agree more Chris - live and let live is my ethos, unless they're tasty, in which case, well, I'm likely higher up the food chain than they are, and that's the way that goes.

Then again, it wouldn't be the internet without its collection of worldwide nuttery!

Caroline said...

Throwing an animal that feels pain (I think scientists concede that this applies to anything with a nervous system?) into boiling water is worse in my opinion than a quick bolt to the head for a cow or pig. Why not take an extra half an hour to slow down its metabolism? Don't be so lazy, you're about to spend half an hour happily devouring it's succulent flesh you can at least do that for it.

sugarpie said...

Thanks for manning the ramparts! Nothing makes me swoon like boiled live crabs. (And afterward sauteed in a black pepper/butter sauce.) Though I have to admit that the first time I had to kill a chicken myself was traumatic. Subsequently, it got progressively less so.

Really enjoy your blog-but this is the first time I've felt qualified to post a comment.

richard said...

Angry Brit - too bloody right that you feel guilt about killing bees - why on earth would you do that? Bees are in enough trouble as it is without guilt-ridden angry people squashing them, ethically or not! Instead, save the bee - http://www.soilassociation.org/Takeaction/Savethehoneybee/tabid/434/Default.aspx

Chris said...

Thanks all for the comments - depressingly you all seem to agree with me, oh apart from:

Caroline: I think "pain" is relative. I'm sure the spiders in your bath feel "pain" when you wash them down the plughole, or the bacteria in your stomach when you take a couple of Rennies, but it doesn't mean you should weep over each and every one. How is slowly freezing to death any less painful than a quick boil anyway? I'm not delaying my supper for anyone, not least the Lobster Rights Association.

Ollie said...

Hilarious post, Chris - it should rile the hatstand types lurking on those boards...

Browners said...

The best defence against being killed and eaten is to taste foul. If these animals had just been able to evolve this way they'd be fine.

But if you are going to taste nice... then you are going to get eaten.

theundergroundrestaurant said...

Actually Chris, vegans at least are reticent about killing 'pests' I once worked in a vegan restaurant which, like most restaurants, had mice. We were not allowed to get rid of it by normal means. The mouse was strolling around casually amongst the diners. It was as if he knew that it was a vegan restaurant.
You know, apart from the Guardian pages, meat eaters are in the majority in the West, not really a beleagered minority as you seem to suggest.
Vegetarianism can seem dull and worthy and the food, especially when cooked by meat eaters, is often disappointing. But good vegetarian food is stunning!
I don't think we can judge an animal, whether it feels pain, whether it is sentient. We simply don't know.

Aeyal said...

A few problems here, mostly that I do not know if you know what the animals can sense feel or experience. Although, is it jealousy on their part or guilt on yours? I am not vegetarian but I have a problem with people dismissing such concerns and with vegetarianphobia of this kind.

postJazz said...

How hard is it to stick a knife in the back of a lobster's head before sticking it in the pot? Or a spike in a crab's brain? Quickest death possible, surely. No bother about the water being the right temperature or not, not time waiting for them to get cold. And nothing to try and climb out of the pot as you put it in. Where's the harm? Just in case these things are more sentient and feeling than we imagine. Killing something with just a degree of fellow feeling. People will attack me for that concept, I suppose. But if I'm going to eat meat, and I do like meat, then I think that a happy life and a speedy death is the least I can do for something that is losing its life for my enjoyment. It's not like it takes much effort, and better quality meat (of the mammalian variety, at least) actually TASTES nicer. Win-win.

Dan Coward said...

Browners...nail...head. Reverse, double-bluff evolution...where did it ever go?

Chris said...

TheUG, Aeyal, postJazz: As you correctly point out, we basically do not know if these animals feel "pain" in the way that humans understand it. But going through the freezing and spiking rigmarole just in case they do seems a bit like an atheist going to church just in case he's wrong. A bit pointless.

TheUG: Nothing you say about vegans would surprise me. And I wasn't having a go at all vegetarians, just the hypersensitive irrational ones. The food I was served at your gaff was lovely :)

Aeyal: I was attacking people who think we SHOULD be guilty, not admitting to any such feelings myself.

postJazz: I suppose I could just stick a knife in without freezing it first. But I'd be worried about causing more damage than if I'd just not bothered at all.

genuiness said...

Great & funny article Chris. The only thing I could think about which remotely would support a quick painless death is that langoustines actually taste horrible if they are not correctly (and quickly) killed. It was mentioned in an article by Heston, and apparently they release a certain chemical when it is 'afraid' which makes them taste worse. So for all you langoustine activist, the best way to kill them is to rip off their heads :) YUM!

Time to try those 'still wriggling' prawns famed in Japanese cuisine :)

Food Urchin said...

Funny, I've just written a post about the rigours of killing a lobster and in line with Signe's comment, I am up for freezing them first. I would much rather handle a dopey docile sea insect than a thrashing, marauding monster of the deep. The screaming would be unbearable for my wife.

Another great rant!

Natasha said...

I think postJazz says most of what I intended to.

I don't eat meat, haven't for years, but I am interested in food and do enjoy your blog - it just feels a bit as if you're lumping all vegetarians in with the snail-strokers here. I know it's just light-hearted but it grated a little. People choose not to eat meat for a huge number of reasons.

On a sort of related note, have you ever read David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster essay?

Chris said...

Natasha: Bit of creative license taken admittedly - I know not all vegetarians are "snail strokers" as you so brilliantly put it :)

A couple of people have recommended that lobster essay. I will seek it out.

surfadelic23 said...

Vegetables, won't SOMEONE PLEEZE think of the vegetables?
That's it. I'm becoming a vegetable rights activist! Tomatoes are people too!! Haven't you seen the way they glisten happily in the sun until the butchers harvest them? Nothing sadder than the silence of the tomatoes...

msmarmitelover said...

Thanks Chris. I'm not a rabid vegetarian. Most of my boyfriends have eaten meat (though it is nicer to snog a veggie).
Snail strokers! Brilliant. Although I have a snail phobia and am happy to kill them with a dose of salt.
I do think vegetables have feelings. Why not?

Caitlin said...

Very funny post Chris, Can't believe the quote about snails being happy when they are stroked!Unbelievable! Now I'm craving crab!

Caitlin

JimT said...

Bit late to the party here! Personally I love lobster, but there are legitimate concerns over the best way to kill them. There's no real evidence that the knife in the back of the head technique actually works, for example, given the nature of their nervous system, which isn't centralised.

Here's David Foster Wallace's essay on the subject - it's actually about the Maine Lobster Festival and is great reading even if you don't really care about lobster "rights".

http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2004/08/consider_the_lobster

Helen - with regard to the chopstick up the bum (as it were) - do you think that maybe your dad did this to stop the tail curling, and therefore make the meat easier to carve? On the understanding he wasn't serving it whole, of course?

Anonymous said...

You have to draw the line somewhere, when it comes to ethical slaughter methods. Personally, I'd rather know if my meat is going to be halal, and if at all possible would rather avoid eating something that's been killed in a brutal way in the name of ridiculous religious dogma. Unfortunately, with many businesses increasingly pandering to these brainwashed zealots, and their medieval practices, it's becoming harder to do