Our attitudes to butchers and meat have changed in ways that our parents and our parents’ parents could not have imagined.
Firstly, there is the matter of the declining status of butchers. It is a worldwide phenomenon. In the UK in 1980 over one hundred thousand people were employed in privately-owned butcher-shops. By 2008 the number had fallen to about thirty-five thousand. In New Zealand, and elsewhere, negative growth in employment of butchers outstrips the negative growth in most other trades during the past couple of decades by at least a factor of ten. It is not just a recent trend. CSIRO research on meat retailing once claimed that numbers of butchers in Australia dropped 40 percent, from ten to six thousand, between the 1950s and 1980s, and said…
There are two main reasons for this decline; firstly, [butchers] will be replaced at the counter front by sales persons, who will be trained in consumer contact skills and not in meat preparation. Secondly, there may be a move to centralized packaging, employing capital intensive gas flushing techniques for primals and sliced and trayed meats. These trays will have extended shelf life without the dull presentation of vacuum packaging and be capable of being stored in the retail shop until used, thus relieving the necessity for shop butchers to break down carcasses.
Secondly, we can add to the simple fact of decline the observation that technology and supermarkets have had their effect on how we think about the places, sensations and people associated with meat. Yes, supermarkets have butchers we can sometimes glimpse working in a space whose design has changed; but gone, very gone, from many people’s lives are the smell of the butcher-shop, the bloodied aprons, the wood shavings on the tiled floor, the tools dangling from the leather belt. Yes, gone—and a good thing, too, I can hear some of you say. Very well. I understand that.
Third, our meat no longer looks like what it is. It comes, instead, skinned, weighed, seasoned and cooked, packaged in plastic trays, labeled, branded, transported, stacked. Often, it does not even have bones. Many people have come to react with revulsion to meat that has any bone in it, as if the bone reminded them they were about to eat an animal. (Jacques Derrida said that the very word ‘animal’ carried within it a presupposition of the cage and food.) A bone in a fish is an existential threat. Look—I’m not going to mention offal (the meat world’s unmentionables), or Masterchef (cooking turned into melodrama). The whole “protein” thing makes me very mad. I’m not going there.
Mark Zuckerberg said somewhere, because everyone is pretending that his aspirations and thoughts are now public, that he was going to try to eat only meat from animals he had killed himself. Suddenly, I have the thought in my head of one of the world’s richest men chasing and choking a chicken. Or, confronting a cow with its ultimate sunset clause. And, then, a series of other thoughts… Of course this idea that one should only eat what one is prepared to kill comes somewhere from the desire to live a healthier life and to live in a way that reduces the effects of animal cultivation and destruction on the environment, and hence on the planet. I am about to agree this seems like a very good idea. (Peter Singer has remarked that this answer to the problem of unnecessary violence only affects a tiny fraction of the slaughtered animals.)
Then, I wonder about the practicality of this resolution. Chickens, yes, I can imagine most people coping with the consequences of the resolution. There are problems with some of the other animals. Cows are, plainly, rather huge. You would have to share. Actually, you would have to get help to move the poor thing, especially when dead. There is the difficulty of learning the butchering techniques, safety issues, storage issues, and so on. Other animals, smaller ones, present difficulties of scavenging and hunting, not least that you need a lot of time.
Somehow, I don’t believe Mr Zuckerberg’s idea is as easy or as noble as it sounds. I think there are going to be a lot of compromises. Compromises that involve hunting, plucking, gutting, butchering. He only claimed he was going to try to do the killing himself, so perhaps this is all going to be achieved with a Taser and a team of assistants.
I wish him well in his efforts to save the planet and his soul.
Which takes me to my point: the disturbing and great film, «Le Sang des Bȇtes», by George Franju. Made in 1949, and now dubbed in English and available to be viewed on YouTube, it shows butchery of horses, cows, calves and sheep with poetic and dispassionate realism, emphasising the professionalism and expertise of the butchers. Working at the cusp of realism and surrealism, «Blood of the Beasts» is a kind of homage to butchers and, simultaneously, a commentary on the need to do ugly things to survive and perhaps even to fight just wars.
In the final minutes, as the blood of the beasts is being washed away from the streets around the abattoir, we hear one of the workers singing ‘La Mer’, by Charles Trenet, a song that would have been only recently released in France at the time Blood of the Beasts was made. (Was it the first time ‘La Mer’ had appeared on the soundtrack of a movie?)
Before you click on any link to view the film, I warn you: for most people «Blood of the Beasts» is now a much more shocking film than it was when it was made in 1949. Many people are not used to seeing animals killed, and would be wrong to think that modern movies and games had inured us to the sight of it.
[Unfortunately, the full movie is no longer available and none of the available excerpts give a good indication of the tenor of Blood of the Beasts. —SJW]
More information about Blood of the Beasts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_of_the_Beasts