Judging by the title, you might confuse the new book, A Girl and Her Pig, as a kind of Babe story about a relationship between a young girl and her sweet pet pig. (Perhaps the title is strategically marketed to turn those Babe lovers into bacon lovers? But I digress.) Instead, the story is about a young chef named April Bloomfield who draws on her working-class English roots to weave a romanticized and nostalgic tale of her humble beginnings and her current culinary success. “It’s all upbringing, I suppose. We eat what we’re used to eating and follow Lin Yutang’s axiom that patriotism is the love of food we ate as children.”
Continuing traditions of eating we were taught as children is the guiding principle behind Bloomfield’s “nose-to-tail” cuisine which Civil Eats writer Kurt Michael Friese says makes Americans wince. But beyond the differences in what is considered “edible” by Americans and Europeans, it would seem that there is a much more universal cultural phenomenon to Bloomfield’s confession about “eating from tradition.”
Each culture has its own taboos and its own delicacies when it comes to which animals are considered culturally acceptable to eat. Indeed, Bloomfield might find a book entitled A Girl and Her Dog, that chronicles the tales of a human-dog companionship — and that ends in the dog being slaughtered and cooked “nose-to-tail” — to be disturbing. And yet the same book read by a South Korean who has raised and sold dogs for slaughter would seem perfectly acceptable — perhaps even an affirmation of his trade.
The point here is that attempting to morally justify a behavior based on tradition and culture — as powerful as those forces are — is really a very weak and innocuous strategy. We have in fact attempted to justify any of our most derelict behaviors on tradition and culture. And yet we even progress beyond our historical baggage sometimes. In Spain, for example, bullfighting is now illegal in certain provinces. I often remind my Paleo friends that following the logic of the Paleo diet, cannibalism should be central to their diet as well. But we pick and choose what to borrow from our Paleo past to suit our modern sensibilities, and thus our arguments can become riddled with a patchwork of modern and ancient contradictions we can’t resolve.
Civil Eats claims to promote critical thought on the subject of what we eat, and I couldn’t agree more with that critical mission. That’s why we need to dig deeper and understand where our carnistic traditions originate and why they are still righteously lauded today. For that, we might turn to social psychologist Melanie Joy, whose life’s work has been devoted to the study of a belief system she has coined “carnism.”
In her seminal work, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, Joy presents the idea that nearly all justifications for eating animals originate with “the three N’s of justification: eating meat is normal, natural and necessary.” Her analysis of meat-eating traditions and cultures explains, with great thoroughness, how the dominant cultural and social forces in our society reinforce an unexamined belief in carnism. And then she demonstrates how carnism is just one important manifestation of objectifying a vulnerable other (whether human or nonhuman), the process of turning a “someone” into a “something.”
I know, some of you think this is too far of a stretch for a starlet chef like Bloomfield to think about. She cares about taste, not the ethical consequences of eating flesh, or so she might have you believe. But Joy would argue that there are good reasons why Bloomfield and most of us think it’s okay to eat pigs and not dogs. It’s not just vegans and vegetarians who come to the table with a set of values. Meat-eaters have a set of deep-seated beliefs as well, and the basis for understanding this inherited belief system called carnism is the foundation of Joy’s work.
Civil Eats claims to “promote critical thinking” about our food choices, but does this image and portrayal of Chef Bloomfield appeal to our more critical or civil side? I would argue that it is ironically an appeal to our basest instincts instead. When we fail to take the interests of animals seriously and continue to blindly objectify them as we have for ages, we are instead betraying our capacity for more evolved, critical thinking and further reinforcing our conventional blind spot on the subject.