Book review: The Ethical Carnivore – to eat meat, butcher it yourself
In an often eye-opening book, author and farmer’s daughter Louise Gray advocates we kill your own food in preference to the slaughter of animals in abattoirs – seeing it as a way to reduce meat consumption
The Ethical Carnivore
by Louise Gray
If I ate only animals I killed myself, I would live on a rather uninspiring diet of clothes moths and the occasional mosquito. But then I haven’t learned to stalk and shoot and fish, unlike Louise Gray, an environmental reporter who followed the example of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and decided to eat only what she had personally murdered for a year.
In her very likeable and often eye-opening book, Gray, “a farmer’s daughter”, spends a surprising amount of time describing visits to various abattoirs, in order to depict exactly what happens when you don’t kill your own food. Dressing for her first visit, she reports wryly, “I wore a new blouse from Topshop with startled fawns on it.”
It turns out that even the highest humane standards in such places do not exactly make them pleasant environments, and Gray evokes them with a calm precision. “You always go backwards in an abattoir, from the packing plant, to the boning hall, to the killing hall, to the lairage. It is to avoid contamination.”
Outside the slaughterhouse, author and reader can both breathe more easily as she meets someone who is into collecting and cooking roadkill, and Gray herself kills a variety of wildlife, including a lobster, various fish and game birds, some rabbits, a sheep, a pig and a deer. It is bloody work, carefully described. And what Gray then makes of them in the kitchen does sound mouth-watering.
As usual when people talk at any length about food, however, a fair amount of rhetorical bad faith is also going on. Everyone, including the author, is keen to assert their tremendous “respect” for an animal once it is dead, even though this respect mysteriously didn’t stretch as far as deciding not to kill it when it was still alive.
Killing your own animals, Gray says, is “beyond intimate. It is primal”. Well, yes: so is caving another human being’s skull in with a rock, but that doesn’t mean we should all go around doing it. Most wince-inducing, Gray writes repeatedly of her “gratitude” to birds or mammals she has just slaughtered by firearm or knife (without stunning them first, as abattoirs do) – as though the beasts had generously volunteered to lay down their lives in order to grace her dinner plate.
Luckily the book has charm and style as well. “Vegan cheese destroys the soul,” Gray asserts quite persuasively at one point; while after a shooting party she reports, with an interesting mixture of emotions: “My hands smell of expensive soap and gunpowder.”
The accounts of hunting trips with her father contain some vivid and quite moving nature writing and she makes some good points about the blandness of industrialised meat. Scoffing her own pig, she reports: “It tastes of pig, it smells of pig, it is a pig … I feel like we have been tricked into eating more pork than we need to in modern life by making it taste like nothing.” If you want a book that wallows in its own sentimentality, moral superiority and superficiality of thinking, you’d better read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals instead. (But really, don’t bother.)
“I realise I have a message,” Gray announces at the end of the book. “It is this: you don’t have to kill animals yourself, but you should go to the effort to find out where they come from.” Fair enough. Doing so, she believes, will “naturally encourage” us to eat less meat. So what do you call this sort of diet? The word “flexitarian” sounds to me like a commitment to eat only animals that practised yoga while alive. Gray just calls it “the human way to eat”, but this does unfortunately imply that the great unwashed masses who like to scoff a dodgily sourced kebab after midnight are somehow less than human.
She ends hopefully with the conviction that we are going into a reduced-meat future, but the problem she doesn’t address is what philosophers call moral incontinence: the fact that, as flawed human beings, we can know what’s right without actually doing it.