I selected of the 19 texts that conform this GRANTA issue. The two criteria of selection where its relevance regarding food studies from different contemporary or historical perspectives and also those are the same which I personally found engaging and rich.
On this post I’ll talk about the texts by J.M. Coetzee and Joan Smith and in a future piece I’ll discuss the remaining three by and make a parallel analysis of Margaret Visser, Laura Shapiro and Amartya Sen.
by J.M. Coetzee
Theosophists, anarchists and vegetarians seemed to appear out of nowhere in the late 1890s.
Some had political motivations, others religious, philosophical or ethical. In their high minded naivety their belief that the problems of the world were few and simple and easily solved […] the events reduced them to a footnote in history.
Eccentric and unsustainable only a handful of people in the world opted out from the conventional omnivorous diet and remained so for the rest of their lives. Most of them, first generation converts as its often the case are the most militant, many who were raised in that way lack of any other motivation than the mere fact that that is the diet they’ve come to know and have no interest in changing it.
-That is certainly the case of yours truly and I believe this is the first time I actually bring the subject up. …So yes dear readers, I am a full ovo-lacto vegetarian and had never eaten any kind of animal flesh, but unlike my parents for me it is not a matter of principles, its just the way I am. I am not militant nor I have any objection with handling or preparing meat-based meals. For me food is food.
But let’s go back to the text. Coetzee delicately addresses the arbitrary way in which we humans create loving bonds with certain species that we’ve come to domesticate to keep us company, but refuse to see pain or suffering in others who are farmed for food.
He points out that our modern obsession with cleanness and sterility has far less to do with hygiene and much more with the fact that: it is not death that is offensive, but killing, and killing only of a certain kind, killing accompanied by unnecessary pain […] and contrary to animals plants can be eaten with impunity because they have never been in the full sense of the word, alive.
But our constant avoidance of acknowledging the act of killing as a necessary process to obtain animal flesh is quite recent, as Coetzee mentions: One of the most bitter, unremitting and unremarked social struggles in European history, stretching from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century was over the right to hunt over access to game. So what does this say about us?
Maybe Marvin Harris was right and the history of mankind is a constant struggle to capture and control protein resources… but when societies achieve an unlimited access to it, they often become protein over eaters. After all that was one of the motivations of European colonizers who made their way into their colonies, to have free and unlimited resources of meat. This transition to an egalitarian access to food resources specifically meat proteins meant that no longer societies would be divided into hunters who ate meat and farmers and gatherers who mostly filled their tummies with plants.
The triumph of the hunter means that in the new world at least, unlimited access to meat is celebrated day after day, after day.
By Joan Smith
Humans have eaten humans since our distant evolutionary past. Reasons go from power struggles, vengeance, religious motivations, survival or a genuine preference for such source of protein.
Scholars, travellers and conquistadors have been as astounded as fascinated and shocked when encountering themselves face to face with anthropophagi. Quite often catalogued as savagery.
Joan Smith brings up historical arguments from ancient Rome and Mongolia to remark that cultures who did not perform cannibalism regarded those who did as brutes and condemned… and then came along the Christian Eucharist and everything changed.
The ancestral ritual of ending with someone’s life to transcend the individual’s body into a source of power and redemption is the ultimate sophistication of a universally accepted cannibalism, however symbolic.
Some explicit passages of St Catherine of Siena are mentioned when in a rampage of spiritual ecstasy drank pus and said to never in her life had tasted any food and drink sweeter or more exquisite… (gosh!)
For Levi-Strauss cannibalism which involves the physical incorporation of the other is then classified as “alimentary incest”.
We haven’t and I’m guessing shall never stop reading about incredible stories of modern cannibals and I suspect we’ll never quite get our heads around and have enough elements as to fully understand the preference, need or desire to feed on our own species.