BOOK REVIEW: THE ETHICAL CARNIVORE, BY LOUISE GRAY (2016)

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 13.00.54For two years, between July 2014 and July 2016, environmental journalist Louise Gray only ate animals she killed herself. She also visited farms, abattoirs, and fishing boats, and hung out with farmers, fishermen, hunters, gamekeepers, a slaughterman or two, as well as a Halal Monitoring Committe inspector, in an effort to better understand how it is that living, breathing creatures can become sandwiches, sauces, steaks, and stews. In other words, she became an ethical carnivore.

“Ethical carnivore” is a label I’ve long aspired to myself. Since 2014, I have kept to a mostly vegetarian diet, with meat as an occasional special treat. This is mostly for environmental reasons, but also because it makes me feel healthier, and because the thought of benefiting from another creature’s demise is troubling. I’ve also been wary of fish since being traumatised by the 2009 documentary End of the Line. But my rules are not set in stone. When I visit my parents in Italy, or my grandmother in the US, it is extremely hard to refuse tagliatelle with beef ragù, or polpettone, or pappardelle with boar meat sauce. In Italy, for me, many meat-based dishes are more than just an ex-animal: they are also potent vehicles for childhood memories, and a sense of belonging, to my family, and the culture in which I was brought up. So–I find it hard to fully commit to vegetarianism, and harder still to consider the next logical step, veganism. Stuck in a moral grey area, and frustrated with the non-existence of a set of commandments that I can consult whenever I’m in doubt, my head will periodically swarm with questions that I find difficult to answer.

For example. Would it be ok to eat an animal that was killed because it was a pest or an invasive species? what about animals who lived good, long lives, and who were relaxed or even unconscious at the time of death? hypothetically, is it better to eat an animal that was bred in Britain, where I live, or a vegan meal where half of the ingredients have a significant carbon footprint? and isn’t it good to support farmers, fishermen, and butchers? especially if they treat their animals well? assuming that meat-eating will never completely go away (though who knows), could it be that the most ethical thing might actually be to support those trying to make animal husbandry more humane, rather than forswearing meat entirely? or, alternatively, could it be that avoiding meat alone is not enough, and I should avoid all animal products?

A small part of me thinks that, when I’m considering these questions, I’m just trying to come up with loopholes that will make me feel better about eating meat. Overall, though, I believe these questions are worth asking. If you agree, then The Ethical Carnivore is the book for you. Not that it will immediately give you clear, simple answers. Gray, like me, finds that there can be more to meat than just a dead animal: in the chapters where she hunts for deer and rabbit and grouse, or fishes for salmon, she always points out what a beautiful experience it is to commune with the landscape, and bond with her fellow hunters and fishermen. And there’s a chapter where she helps a family kill and slaughter a pair of pigs at their farm, and the celebratory atmosphere she describes made me wish I’d been there. Not to mention the meals she serves to her friends whenever she’s killed something–her friends astonished by the unusual flavours, and thrilled by the story of the meal’s origins. The fact that all these activities revolve around a death makes them all the more poignant, makes the bonds stronger, the emotions more intense. At the same time, Gray clearly finds many of the deaths she inflicts or experiences profoundly unsettling, often reducing her to tears. At the very least, they make her feel something akin to mourning. This regardless of how “humane” the death may have been.

So–it’s complicated. And Gray does not presume to tell her readers what they should do. But she experiences things for us–she gives us her experience, so we can make more informed decisions about our food. She tells us what goes on in a few different kinds of abattoirs, a few different kinds of farms, a few different kinds of fishing boats. How the animals are treated, how they are killed. What halal means. What it’s like to kill a chicken, a deer, a fish, a pigeon, a pig, a sheep, a squirrel, a rabbit, a pheasant. What it’s like to forage for road kill. What it’s like to share these experiences with others, and what it’s like to eat the meat of an animal you killed yourself. The final chapter does contain a general summary of tips and advice (as well as a glimpse into the future, looking at the possibility of lab-grown meat, entomophagy, and exciting mad-scientist innovations in vegan cooking), but the book’s true value comes from everything that precedes this chapter.

The Ethical Carnivore has made me appreciate more where meat comes from, and it has strengthened my resolve to keep to a mostly vegetarian diet. In fact, it’s made me want to eat even less meat than I do at the moment, but also given me a clearer sense of what to seek out whenever I do want to eat it (and whenever I’m cooking with other animal products as well). I don’t want to tell my readers what to eat and what not to eat, and I don’t want to end this post with visions of environmental catastrophe, but I do think the world would be at least a smidgen better if more people read this book.

 

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