Thrill of the kill

Pub date April 15, 2008


WITHOUT RESERVATIONS In our age of euphemism, it is shocking and/or refreshing to find a cookbook author using the word "kill" when talking about where meat comes from. The author is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingsall, and the book is The River Cottage Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, $35). Fearnley-Whittingsall is English, as we can guess from his hyphenated surname (a "double barrel," as my single-barrel English friend calls the complexly-designated), and the English perhaps suffer less from euphemism disease than we do. We suffer rather severely. People no longer die in America; they "pass" — "pass away" is apparently too vivid now — or "transition," which isn’t even a proper verb.

But when Fearnley-Whittingsall has a pig killed to make some bacon, blood sausage, and charcuterie, we hear about it in blunt terms. On occasion he eases off the throttle slightly, switching to "slaughter" from "kill," but this might just be to keep things interesting. Soon enough we are back to the k-word. One appreciates the candor, of course, and the unvarnished elaborations, which culminate in the author’s declaration that he "didn’t find it all that distressing" when he delivered his first pair of home-raised pigs to a local slaughterhouse and waited about 20 minutes until the animals were "done."

"I went home," he writes, "with a bag of innards, a bucket of blood, and a clear conscience." Jolly good!

Among the planet’s carnivores, we’re easily the most effective and, at the same time, the only ones subject to pangs of conscience about our food-related violence. Hence the supermarket culture of shrink-wrapping, which protects ordinary individuals from having to consider the brutality that results in their pork chops. Fearnley-Whittingsall quite rightly suggests that people who enjoy eating meat should raise and kill a food animal at least once. Still, there are those who would never have the heart to do this. Are these people lily-livered softies, or can we identify, in their reluctance, signs of an evolutionary shift, an awareness that animal consciousness is kin to our own?

It’s hardly unnatural for humans to kill and eat animals, but it’s more of a luxury now, and one of the bloodier ones. Of course, cultured meat, when it finally comes, will make clear consciences more widely available to flesh-eaters, and The River Cottage Cookbook might need a revision.