Who Cares if You Ate the Whole Pig?: Food with Intellectual Integrity

Jamie Oliver, environmentalist?

I’m intrigued, and not a little disturbed, with the common tendency to hide the ethics of killing behind the veil of environmentalism. What I mean is this: it’s both curious and tiresome to hear hunters or backyard animal farmers explain that slaughtering a sentient being is justifiable so long as every part of the carcass is used. This non-justification justification seems to win friends, influence people, and raise menu prices, but it wouldn’t stand a chance in court, much less an introduction to ethics class. Plus, it debases the otherwise sound environmental advice that we should, when we can, avoid waste.

The weakness of this justification to kill hasn’t caused the food movement an ounce of shame, much less self-reflection. It certainly doesn’t keep consumers from lauding a restaurant as “sustainable” if—as I noticed last week on the menu of a Harvard Square tavern—the chef serves up scrappy off-brand meals such as “hickory-smoked lamb’s belly toast,” “beef and tongue meatballs,” “oxtail pierogi,” “crispy pig’s head cake,” and “beef heart ravioli.” Have foodies been so easily hoodwinked, so impressed by exotica, that they truly believe eating the head of a pig, or the tongue of cow, or the stomach of a lamb invests their act with qualities worth celebrating?  How can Jamie Oliver, pictured above, claim to care as he does about food justice and smile with his cute face a foot away from the head of an animal smarter than his dog? (For the record, I’ve no idea if Oliver has a dog; I kind of hope not.)

We talk of “food with integrity” (well, okay, Chipotle does), but what about “food with intellectual integrity”? What about food with ethical integrity? What about food with common sense integrity?  No matter what section of an animal you consume, no matter how weirdly you render it, creativity in the kitchen with body parts does not absolve the act of killing an animal that–get this– feels no respect for you because you’re eating its brains and composting its skull. 

It’s intellectually dishonest to claim, as the author of Girl Hunter does, that “I used every part of the animal” and, as a result, treated “[it] with integrity from the field to the plate.” Just because you turned a suckling pig into everything from cracklings to ice cream, as a chef at Salt Café in Montpelier, Vermont recently did, does not mean that your high-minded claim that “no part of the animal went to waste” negates the misery perpetuated by your selfish butchery.  To think otherwise is to indulge in convenient denial while stoking the inner barbarian.

Perhaps the greatest irony of couching gluttony in environmental virtue is that the founding fathers of environmental thought argued eloquently against the practice of hunting down animals in the first place. For them, environmentalism was leaving wild animals in their natural place rather than cutting them down in their prime, dragging them home, and eating every ounce of their bodies. The explorer and naturalist John Muir deplored that “murder business” known as hunting, claiming that it turned “the decent gentleman” into “a howling, bloodthirsty, demented savage.” Thoreau himself explained that “no humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.”   

Muir and Thoreau were men, real men. They knew, far better than our culinary-enviros do today, that using every part of an animal is a task easily avoided if you respect the animal enough not to needlessly kill it. This opinion, moreover, doesn’t require tortured and illogical rationalizations. It just asks for a little intellectual integrity, decency, self-confidence, and common sense.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

7 Responses to Who Cares if You Ate the Whole Pig?: Food with Intellectual Integrity

  1. CQ says:

    Approve of your thoughts, from start to finish — from soup to nuts.

    So happy to be in John Muir’s sane company. He’s been a hero of mine ever since I tracked down all of his animal-related observations for CreatureQuotes.com.

    I find priceless the question Muir posed to mega-hunter Teddy Roosevelt when conservationist and then-sitting U.S. President were camping out in Yosemite National Park: “Mr. President, when are you going to get over this infantile need you have to kill animals?” (quoted by filmmaker Ken Burns in his PBS series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”)

    A cluster of other Muir gems:

    ~ “I have never yet happened upon a trace of evidence that seemed to show that any one animal was ever made for another as much as it was made for itself.” (Chapter 1: “Wild Wool” Steep Trails © 1918)

    ~ Now, it never seems to occur to these far-seeing teachers that Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them,
    not the creation of all for the happiness of one. Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit—the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. (A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf © 1916)

    ~ We all flow from one fountain—Soul. All are expressions of one love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all. (letter to Miss Catharine Merrill, from Yosemite Valley, June 9, 1872 in The Life and Letters of John Muir, Bade © 1924)

    ~ Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded. (message to the 1908 Governors Conference on Conservation)

    ~ None of our fellow mortals is safe who eats what we eat, who in any way interferes with our pleasures, or who may be used for work or food, clothing or ornament, or mere cruel, sportish amusement. … How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures are in our sympathies! How blind to the rights of all the rest of creation! With what dismal irreverence we speak of our fellow mortals!
    (The Story of My Boyhood and Youth © 1913)

    ~ Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way. (Mountain Thoughts, the author’s writings of 1867-1911, published as John of the Mountains, Linnie M. Wolfe (ed.) © 1938)

    Truly, Muir was a man, a real man. And still is, serving for all time and eternity as an inspiration to all other aspiring real men and real women.

    • Wonderful, thank you. And thank you, CQ, for all these quotes. There are thinkers among us, people who understand our place in the world/universe/order, and it gives me hope that that DNA will continue to be passed on, creating more thinkers — until finally they are the majority, instead of the “elitist” minority to be ridiculed & dismissed.

  2. Tim says:

    Beautifully said. If all the self-proclaimed “environmentalists, naturalists, sustainabilitists” and whatever else the false term of the year may be, truly want to live in harmony with our planet, try growing a garden. I know it’s a little more work compared to confining, exploiting, brutalizing and killing other species against their will because you think they taste good, but it’s well worth it, and most importantly, completely non-violent.

  3. deveryminou says:

    Yes, I embezzled money from my grandmother, but I made sure to suck every last penny from her accounts and I spent it ALL. Nothing went to waste! And I said a prayer of gratitude for that money before every single transaction.

    • CQ says:

      Thanks for the chuckle, deveryminou. Poor grandma. Poor pigs. Poor self-justifying souls who pretend they don’t know the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil.

  4. Carolle says:

    Thank you for writing this piece McWilliams. I have often wondered about this trend whenever I ate out and saw a pig on a platter pass me by. I will never understand why ordering an entire animal seems to be ok (exciting and fun). It’s rather tiring and disheartening. Thanks again for adding your thoughts and perspective to this on going discussion, I truly appreciate your work.

  5. Provoked says:

    I’m so thankful for this post… Not only because it debunks the whole-animal-eating fringe as hooey – But because it also led to deveryminou’s reply that is simply genius! Love it!

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