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Meat As Lessons In Mortality

Over the weekend, I was preparing chicken for cooking. I had bought a whole bird, because I thought I wanted to roast it whole (and it was cheap that way!), but when I decided to cook it, I realized I wanted it cut into pieces. So I started cutting it up, something I don’t think I’ve done since I was a preteen because, like so many people, I’d grown accustomed to just buying the pieces I wanted already partitioned.

As I broke the joints and sliced the tendons between the major cuts, I had that thought I so often do when I work with raw meat for any real amount of time: this flesh is no different from my own human flesh. How easily might my own joints be pulled apart like this. How easily might my own muscles be rent asunder, split apart along their grains.

But it also had me a bit nostalgic for helping my mother in the kitchen. You see, one of the best ways my mother encouraged my curiosity and love of science as a child was by letting me help her in the kitchen. When she would prepare a whole chicken (which was quite often because, as I said, that’s the cheap way to buy meat, and money was tighter for my parents when I was a child), she would let me play with the pieces. Of course, there were rules. One doesn’t just let a child play with raw meat–there were instructions about safe handling and responsible cleanup, and so forth, all very valuable lessons. But more importantly, there was exploration.

She let me play with the tendons, so I could see how muscles pulled and contracted to make joints move. She would explain that that’s how it works in every animal, even humans. She would let me take a knife and dissect the heart, and see how the chambers interacted. She would help me learn about gizzards and livers, and I would try to place them in the bird where they should have gone.

Basically, it was a great My First Dissection experience.

And it wasn’t the only way my parents encouraged me to use our meat-eating as a way to explore the natural world, to appreciate the once-living creatures that we owed our dinners to.

It was something like that.
Photo by Steve via Stocksnap

One year, when my father came home from his annual hunting trip with his father, he brought not only the processed venison from the doe he harvested, but also–untaxidermied, just in a black plastic trash bag–the deer’s head. It had glassy eyes. He said he wanted me to know where the meat came from. He let me pet the fur on its snout (and then, of course, wash my hands–there are Rules!).

I took the lesson to heart: my meat is something else’s mortality. (Incidentally I also realized for the first time that day that dead things don’t generally have their eyes closed unless someone closes them–an important lesson that television didn’t teach me!)

I think a lot of people, when they start really thinking about the similarities between themselves and the meat that we put on our plates, tend toward horror and revulsion. For many vegetarians, that’s the push that led them to abandon meat entirely. When I tell people about these childhood experiences, most people respond with horror at the apparent morbidity, which honestly confuses me. It seems normal to me. Why should I not confront the reality that, for me to eat meat, something had to die? Why should I not meditate on the fragility of flesh while I prepare my dinner?

It is my firm belief that every meat-eater must, at some point, confront the reality that what they eat was once alive. I have the utmost respect for those who have confronted this reality and decided that they can’t, in good conscience, continue eating meat. Likewise, I respect those who, like me, have faced their food in the eye, taken the time to reflect on the moral implications of meat-eating and life-taking, and decided that they can continue eating meat while honoring the life that meat takes.

But for most of us… we package our meat pre-cut into nearly unrecognizable shapes shielded in plastic and styrofoam so we don’t have to confront this reality. Our butchers are hidden behind counters, or more commonly perhaps behind factory facilities far away from our points of purchase. We hide every trace that our food was once an animal, because the idea makes us uncomfortable.

But of course we keep other reminders of our mortality hidden away too. When a loved one dies, we have the body taken away immediately and prepared behind closed doors–if it wasn’t already sequestered in a hospital before death. We go to a viewing and a funeral and then we go back to work and hide our grief. We avoid talking about our own deaths, and we pretend that if we just eat and exercise right we never have to face our own mortality.

But it’s not healthy for us to hide from our own mortality. It makes facing that inevitable moment that much harder. And stifling our curiosity about death because that’s too morbid is really stifling our curiosity about life.

What I am really saying here is that it’s healthy for us to contemplate and explore even the things that we think are gross and morbid. Don’t hide where your food comes from, not from your kids and not from yourself.

When was the last time you took some time to visit your local cemetery? Or are you keeping death out of sight.
Photo by the author.

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