Last night, as Mr. Eats and I were reading just before bed, he chuckled a bit and said, “I think you may be the reincarnation of Herman Melville.” I wasn’t sure what he was reading or what prompted his comment, but nonetheless, I replied, “If that’s true, I am seriously not living up to my full potential.”
He was referencing chapter 65 of Moby Dick: The Whale as a Dish, which contains rather thoughtful prose regarding what flesh is palatable to eat in polite society. It was published in 1851, so what’s palatable has even changed quite a bit. However, this passage still resonates:
It is not, perhaps, entirely because the whale is so excessively unctuous that landsmen seem to regard the eating of him with abhorrence; that appears to result, in some way, from the consideration before mentioned: i.e. that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light. But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on his trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does. Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate-de-foie-gras.
[read more from this chapter]
Foie gras is still a bone of contention, if you will among vegetarians and “ethical” meat-eaters. Which relates to why he made note; yesterday morning, we were discussing the week’s news that included the outrage over horsemeat being found in hamburger meat in Europe. It’s not something I wholly understand.
Granted, I don’t want to eat anything that is mislabeled (obviously, I don’t want to eat anything I think is vegetarian, but is not). But the outrage that bothers me stems from the idea that there is some sort of hierarchy of animals according to their acceptability for consumption. A hierarchy based on something other than health concerns (poisonous animals, primates that are genetically close enough to humans to cause issues from consumption). It’s a hierarchy that varies among countries and cultures. Why does a person feel that it’s acceptable to eat some birds, but not others? Some mammals, but not others? Because parrots are prettier than chickens? Because cows don’t make good companions like dogs? Why is it gross to eat a rat but not a rabbit? Stripped of fur, tails and ears, they are remarkably similar. And what about tuna versus dolphins? Because Charlie Tuna was not as endearing or helpful as Flipper?
In sum, I don’t really understand why people happily eat some animals, but are (literally) disgusted at the thought of eating others. Even going so far as to mock other cultures (this may be uniquely Amurrican) for what they eat. Particularly those who eat factory-farmed meat (cheap meat from the grocery); back to foie gras, it is no more inhumane than much of what happens at large-scale chicken, pig, and cow farms. I don’t think someone can really morally object to foie gras if they routinely dine on chicken tenders, bacon, and/or hamburgers from unknown sources. Though I appreciate any help in the cause, I just don’t personally understand it. I cannot make sense of it.
For the record, I don’t think Herman Melville was a vegetarian. Perhaps he even ate whale meat. However, I do know that his alleged descendant, Moby is a vegetarian.