Sunday 11 June 2023

The Lives of Others

If you could boil our global problems down to seven words, they might be these: we don’t see where stuff comes from. We grow up staring at screens without ever seeing the coal plants that power them,  speed down motorways without ever visiting the oil derricks that fuel them, and eat the equivalent of several animals a year without having to wrestle them or smell blood. Like most things in our lives, our food just magically appears, brought by strangers.

That last example hit home for modern Irish several years ago, after the government tested frozen burgers from a major supplier and found that some of the alleged beef was actually horsemeat. The day after the story made headlines the top grocery chain here lost half a billion dollars in stock, and the next few months saw a reporter’s dream of press conferences, apologies, arrests, pledges and retests.

Of course, horsemeat is not harmful, and little different than cow, as evidenced by the fact that no one can tell which one they ate. Nor is it illegal; rather, the emotional punch – and inevitable punch-lines – that came from the idea of eating Black Beauty obscured more important details, like the fact that governments and stores can’t tell where much of the meat came from -- an especially sore point in the UK, which had already dealt with outbreaks of hoof-and-mouth and  mad cow disease. Restaurants and stores here proudly advertise their “Irish beef,” not only to support local farmers but to distance themselves from such disasters. Now, it turns out, it might not have been. (“How the horsemeat scandal unfolded – timeline,” Guardian newspaper, 15 Feb 2013.)

We accept buying meat from strangers for the same reasons we buy everything else in our lives from strangers these days; because we trust that someone, somewhere, knows what they are doing. On the rare occasions we associate the food on our plates with actual animals, we tend to assume they must have come from some kind of farm, like the overall-and-pitchfork images of preschool toys. We don’t picture the vast mechanised factories of reality, or supply chains so long and cobwebby that we can’t find out what kind of animal it used to be, or in what part of the world.

Consider how strange this would seem to most of our ancestors, for thousands of generations back. For most of them meat was life; while most foods could be grown or picked, meat was the Leibig’s Minimum that forced our primate ancestors to become predators. Their craving for meat transformed the landscape, wiping out the planet’s large animals as thoroughly as an asteroid impact did the dinosaurs, and we now know Neanderthals or Clovis people by their meat-getting technologies. It was the main reason we domesticated animals, and that spurred empires and conquests – the Sanskrit word for “war,” I’m told, means “a desire for cows,” and the ancient Irish epic the Tain Bo Cuailnge involves a nationwide war over a single breeding bull. The very word “meat” meant “food” in Old English, so inextricable were the two.

Yet such concentrated nutrition comes with risks; many of our human diseases come from domesticated animals, from the Stone Age up to (perhaps) the COVID-19 pandemic. When Europeans first encountered the Americas and Australia, they inadvertently brought ten thousand years of accumulated diseases to which they had built up immunity but the natives had not; wiping out 95 per cent of the native population in the largest mass death in human history.

Meat means life and death, so many of our religions bind us with meat taboos -- Jews and Muslims ban pig meat, Hindus cow meat, and Catholics all meat on Fridays and through Lent. Our rituals invoke the body and blood of the Word made flesh.

Because meat was so precious, most of our ancestors appreciated a lot more variety than we do: frogs and snails, pigeons and ducks, liver and heart. Old women in Dublin talked about making the cheapest meats – sheep’s heads and cow’s heads – into stew, or buying rabbits for pennies, or giving the children the heart and liver as a treat, or munching on pig’s feet in the cinema. On farms men killed one of their pigs every fall to feed them over winter, all the local wives gathered to turn it into sausage and bacon,
Francis Quinn said, and “there was none of the pig went to waste.”

Most people today could never endure such honesty about what we are eating. “The implications of having a pig in the window, head and all, could not be done nowadays,” said butcher Eugene Kierans. “People cannot tolerate the idea of what they are eating, yet they can turn on the telly and watch people getting blown up... I find it most peculiar.” (DocArchive: A Butcher's Tale – 2009)

In rural Ireland, most villages also have a butcher, and mine now features a sign about how he buys only from the local farmers. He actually gives me more meat than I ask for, knowing that I like the bones and cast-off meats for soups. Everyone here used to get their meat from people like him, if they didn’t slaughter it themselves; it was only recently that the globalised supermarkets, with their shelves of cheap frozen meat and opportunities for fraud, began to proliferate. In my native USA, though, one would have to rebuild the entire infrastructure – local farmers to local shops within walking distance to homes – from scratch.

But if we want to know where our meat comes from, we will need to backyard chickens, vacant-lot pigs and cows, and people who know how to make the most of them. And we need more people like my farmer friend, who I met bleary-eyed from staying up all night with a calf. He gives his animals a better life than any they would have seen in the wild, infinitely better than on a factory farm, before making sure their life ends quickly and painlessly. His small scale makes the butcher more expensive, but that’s as it should be. Meat needs to become hard work to get and precious to eat, so that we again put some sacral value in the lives we take.