I’m watching – through the glories of the BBC’s new iPlayer – a show that seemed to completely escape me for its first series. It’s called ‘Kill It, Cook It, Eat It’ and unsuprisingly, does exactly what it says on the tin.
An audience, sitting in a studio custom-built on the side of an abattoir, watch through perspex walls as 10-week old veal calves brought in from a holding pen, are stunned, slaughtered, skinned, disemboweled and then brought through into the studio to be hacked up by a butcher. The various bits are all then enumerated and the meat then cooked and served to the audience.
In many ways it’s a sort of mind-bogglingly sensationalist piece of TV. In other ways, it’s brilliantly honest. Many people eat meat quite happily without the slightest compulsion about how it’s killed. Seeing close up and unedited how the throat is cut and 50% of the body’s blood pours out of the carteroid artery is very sobering.
I was once a vegetarian and four years ago started eating meat again. I think there is something equivocal in my thinking about it. As one of the vegetarians on the show said: even if you can’t change the whole meat industry by your single choice, you can live with calmer conscience.
In Buddhist terms there is also complex thinking around it. The Dalai Lama does eat meat for health reasons. The Karmapa recently asked all his followers to become vegetarian. The abbot of Samye Ling, Lama Yeshe, explained it thus: in Buddhist terms every sentient being has the possibility of becoming a Buddha – be it a blue whale or a gnat. Through reincarnation any animal can move through the levels of rebirth to arrive at Buddhahood. However, almost any form of food production causes the death of sentient beings. Farming a field of wheat leads to the death of thousands of insects and worms (which is why Theravadan monks aren’t allowed to garden) which in Buddhist terms is thousands of potential Buddhas. By this arithmetic, it is worse to kill 10 fish to feed 10 people, than to kill one calf to feed 10 people.
In the end what matters is the respect and loving-kindness paid to life around us. Death is anyway inevitable.
I’m not sure about the logic of all this. For example, if you don’t believe in reincarnation, the whole argument falls apart. Also, Buddhism explicitly categorises certain livelihoods like butchery as unskillful. But if you’re going to eat meat then you must be responsible for the actions of the people who prepare it for you.
This is where ‘Kill It Cook It Eat It’ is so powerful. By opening up people’s eyes to the business of slaughter and butchery it does a great honest service.
I find it doubly powerful because I come from a family of butchers. My great-grandfather built up a small empire of butchery shops in Portsmouth in between the wars. Two years ago I spent a summer interviewing my surviving great-uncles and aunts about their memories of growing up, tied up to the business. Uncle Kent in Ireland had an amazingly vivid accounts of growing up as a lad helping out in the slaughterhouse at the back of the shop on Hyde Park Road. Inflating the animals subcutaneously in order to cut the hide off more easily. Transporting the gallons of blood from the bloodpit up the island to be spread on the fields at Wittering as manure.
Ambivalence upon ambivalence.
“Join us again tomorrow night with baby lamb on the menu as we kill it, cook it, eat it.”