Berbere rubbed chicken wing
A vegetarian acquaintance of mine who once worked as a waiter told me that he generally didn’t mind handling meat or watching guests eat it but for one exception: chicken wings. Something about gnawing and picking at the bones, returning back a plate full of discarded bird parts unsettled him. I understand what he was getting at: there’s a sort of primitive, mannerless character to eating meat off the bone. But it should be remembered that dining with the hands is not only the norm in much of the non-Western world, but also was typical in Europe up until the early modern era. It used to be that in order to be fit to eat, food also needed to be fit to touch. Distancing ourselves from our food, whether through the “civilizing” use of utensils or removing all traces of corporeality (such as bones), has been part of an ongoing process to impose propriety on the plate. The sterile, pre-packaged foods that dominate grocery stores today are a marker of how unwilling we are to think about both the literal and figurative guts and gristle that go into making food.
Of course, buying a package of neatly lined up, pre-butchered wings as I did here is yet another convenience that only obscures the violent origins of meat. But whether animal or vegetable, there’s not a single aspect of eating that hasn’t in some way been shaped by manners or morals. While the many meanings of meat have been discussed at length, and the farm to table and nose to tail movements have sought to remind us of the importance of knowing where our food comes from, it seems pertinent to remember that there are still many other conscious and unconscious attitudes that mediate our perceptions of food.
As this slightly ludicrous conversation between Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Anthony Bourdain reminded me, having “respect” for our food is a term that gets thrown around a lot. I know that Bourdain and others are trying to push for more transparency in the process of food production, but isn’t the real issue here first and foremost about confronting both personal and collective notions of acceptability in what we eat? Why is it that the death on our plates has suddenly become so abhorrent? We can no longer bear to think about it unless we can rest assured that it is an “ethical” death, whatever that means. Otherwise, all traces of mortality must be hidden from view. A scene like this one, from an English butcher shop circa 1900, is unthinkable in the modern high street :
I remember once as a teenager, walking down a street in the Bronx, seeing a butcher unload a lamb carcass from a truck and carry it into his shop. It had been completely skinned, but otherwise remained whole and seemed quite stiff (the effects of rigor mortis, perhaps). The intricacy of the fat and sinews that encased it, and in particular, its very round, very white eyeball are still vivid in my mind. I won’t deny that it was, and remains, a haunting image precisely because it was so extraordinary within the context of my urban, modern life.
Food is gross and messy, or at the very least, there are parts of its production that are such. As my vegetarian friend pointed out, eating can be crude, although manners and mannerisms have largely sought to erase any vestiges of primitivism from the table. Being truly aware of what we eat necessitates deconstructing the layers of ritual inherent in the meal: it is not only about seeking the “ethical”, but trying also to understand how our shifting and ever-changing morality is perhaps the greatest determinant of what is good to eat.
On a side note, looking at my photo of the wing reminded me of the shape of a sculpture by Giacometti, which, take it as you will, is titled “Woman with her Throat Cut“.