On November 19, The New York Times released an article by city critic Ariel Kaminer in which she describes choosing, killing and purchasing a Bourbon Red turkey. Titled “The Main Course Had an Unhappy Face,” the article tells the increasingly familiar story of a meat-eating urbanite killing a nonhuman animal for food for the first time (see Salon.com for another account). Subsequently, the meat eating urbanite concludes—as Kaminer does—that the industrial food system estranges people from the animals they eat and the processes that make them food, and slaughtering a nonhuman animal at least once is “a strong corrective” to this dislocation.
On the surface, her story is a thoughtful reflection on nonhuman animals and a critique of the system that transforms them into food and us into passive consumers. However, a deeper look reveals that this article and the experiment that generated it only affirms entrenched ideas about violence and about nonhuman animals, while concealing much of the actual meat-making process.
Kaminer begins by describing the female turkey she eventually kills as a “beautiful bird” with distinctive speckled feathers, “almond eyes,” and a sense of her own mortality. By acknowledging the individuality of the turkey, her language echoes that of people who call attention to the uniqueness of farmed creatures as evidence that they should live without cruelty nor be used for mass production and consumption.
In addition, she expresses fear over accidentally inflicting additional pain on the turkey and confesses that the experience of passing the knife over the unnamed bird’s throat was “upsetting.” Here again, her statements of sympathy stand in stark contrast to so-called New Carnivore movement in which “real men” (and manly women) do not just eat meat—they take pride and pleasure in slaughtering nonhuman animals for food. By saying she “felt crummy,” Kaminer supports examples like farmer-turned-vegan-activist Harold Brown whose story suggests that killing nonhuman animals becomes easier only as we repeat the action many times and suppress our empathy toward them.
Finally, her account shows how far removed she is—and by extension, we are—from the systems that bring food (especially meat) to our tables. Styrofoam packaging and sanitized final products disconnects us from reality and this is a problem. Yet, this is where much of her reflection ends, leaving me asking: can this really be all there is to say on a subject as complex as this?
To my vegan mind, there are several implicit messages within the article that deserve further examination and critique. First, Kaminer sees killing “the main course” as “a chance for once to understand what we are eating and where it came from.” Within this argument, however, is a disturbing logic, namely that domination and violence are valuable ways to better understand the nonhuman animal “Other” and reorient ourselves within an alienating system. Indeed, the article strongly suggests that the path to greater self-consciousness and awareness depends on annihilating a weaker being. In the context of her story, this message is unlikely to raise eyebrows because our human-centered culture has decided that certain nonhuman animals are acceptable sacrifices. It is, after all, just a turkey. Yet, we should not forget that Western society has subjugated other beings and accepted their suffering only to be proved disastrously wrong. I can imagine that during the era in which African and African-descended people were commonly classified as chattel, the story of a Northerner selecting and beating a female slave in the cotton-field as a way to better understand where her clothing comes from would probably be largely tolerated as well. After all, it would have been just a slave.
This analogy might seem extreme, but the logic underneath each scenario is the same. Today, many people treat nonhuman animals the way white Europeans and North Americans treated black and brown people centuries ago—as resources for the disposal of more intelligent, more social, more rational and altogether superior beings. It is because nonhuman animals are devalued and dominated and because most of the populace believes that is their rightful place that a well-known newspaper feels free to publish an article advocating violence against another living creature as a means to greater understanding.
The suggestion that violence is a worthwhile way to know who we eat and where they come from is even more troubling when one considers there are other less oppressive ways to accomplish this goal. For example, Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York allows visitors of all kinds to interact with nonhuman animals that experienced abuse and/or escaped slaughter. Guests meet turkeys, pigs, cows and other farmed animals, hear their rescue stories and see first-hand what their new lives are like. Nonhuman animals become agents in their stories as listeners discover how most meat gets to our supermarkets, not only through the words of sanctuary staff, but more importantly through the animals’ scars, their deformities—and their restored lives. In this way, visitors do not gain knowledge at the expense of a fellow animal or through violence. Instead, they see “the who” and “the how” behind what rests on their plates through nonviolent interactions and inter-species relationships.
Along with the logic of violence, Kaminer suggests that killing a nonhuman animal can lessen the gap that the industrial food system creates between her and her meat. Because she does not clarify whether she usually eats meat from industrial sources or from less cruel operations, it is difficult to infer whether this assumption is true. If she routinely eats meat in which suffering is minimized, then killing the turkey on the family farm as an Imam holds her hand does provide some insight into where her meat comes from. However, if she consumes factory-farmed fare as most Americans do, then her experience taking the heritage turkey’s life discloses very little about what making her meat entails.
In Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals, Carol J. Adams notes, “There are approximately fifty-four-thousand nonunionized North American meatpacking workers—almost all of whom are women with a high school education or less, of black, Hispanic, or French-speaking background.” (81). At the time of her writing, 95% of poultry workers were “black women who face carpal tunnel syndrome and other disorders caused by repetitive motion and stress” (82). In an industrialized meatpacking context, working conditions are filthy, injuries are ignored or poorly treated, and sexual harassment is a problem. The fact is that if factory farmed meat is Kaminer’s usual meal of choice, then her one-time slaughter experience revealed very little about where her meat came from or who made it possible. An afternoon at a nearby meat-packing factory would probably have been even more instructive.
Which brings me to my final point. In her conclusion, Kaminer writes, “I won’t be [killing my own meat] every time I need a chicken to roast.” Yet, she does not state whether she will continue purchasing nonhuman animal bodies from places like the one she visited. Her silence on this is glaring and it leaves me questioning what personally killing the Bourbon Red turkey has actually accomplished. If she is not going to continue the practice, will she change her consuming patterns in some other way? Or will it enable her to participate in the industrial system with a clearer conscience because she is more aware of the who and the where than fellow meat eaters, and has at least killed for her meal before?
The problem I have with stories of the curious urbanite killing a nonhuman animal for food is that the endings are often a let down. Instead of challenging our assumptions and practices, they reaffirm our society’s logic of violence, conceal where most meat comes from, ignore the people who suffer the most abuse from meat-making process and they do not reveal the true character of nonhuman animals that become meat. It is not even clear that the experience actually transforms old eating habits. If anything, these stories reinforce the false constructions of “human” and “animal,” consumer and “main course.” Must a beautiful bird’s life—and the lives of countless others like her—really end for this?