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From Animal to Edible

2 February 2009

Animal to Edible by Noilie Vialles is a slim red volume that I found amoung the cookbooks at Mcintyre & Moore, a marvelous used bookstore in Cambridge.

The book is an account of meat processing in the slaughterhouses, abattoirs in Adour, a southwestern region of France. The book is surprisingly mild for such a gruesome topic, focusing on the technical aspects of the slaughter, instead of the gory. The book is not ideological, certainly not vegetarian, but instead, strangely philosophical. Death causes a (wo)man to think.

From the very beginning she asks the question, “What is meat?” Meat is life. Meat is beef (“the butcher’s meat”, and the primary focus of her research). But is meat animal? Not today. Today, she argues, meat is more akin to a potato than the living cow it came from. Meat has become a vegetable. Our refusal to acknowledge meat’s origins is a “spiral of avoidance”. Avoidance of the violence inherent in the system, not merely the death of the slaughtered cow, but of humanity’s own animal mortality.

But how did it get there?, she asks. The answer, she finds, is that it is as much a function of society as the abattoir’s knife. We, the consumer, the eater, do not want to know where our meat came from. The slaughter moved gradually from inside the butcher shop at the center of town to the large slaughterhouses far outside the city where the sight, the noise, the smell of death is far from our kitchen tables. In the countryside you can see cows on the pasture and at the butchers you see fillet Mignon and ground chuck for sale, but what came in between is invisible. And it is that process from the pasture to the butcher’s window that Vialles follows.

She lays out the process of the slaugtherhouse: the stunning, the bleeding, the flaying, the evisceration, and the hygiene inspection in careful detail, punctuated with bits of history, snippets of interviews with the abattoirs, and her own philosophical musings.

©Noilie Vialles

©Noilie Vialles

This image caught my memory. Live animals are dirty, like excrement. It is in the slaughter hall, the space that “floats between two worlds” (37), the world of nature: dirty, base, living, and the world of vegetabalized meat: refrigerated, lifeless, clean. The slaughter hall is where the deanimalization takes place, but it is nowhere. The animals are killed by no one; the animal is stunned by one worker and bled by another, dilution of responsibility.

The work of the abattoirs is skilled labor, and closely regulated with strict humane and sanitary standards. However, there is less artistry and pride than there once was. Vialles wonders what the growing mechanization of the slaughter process shall bring. Will it take us even further away from the knowledge of meat as animal?

Does this mean we should not eat meat? Vialles would not say so. But we should not forget it was once a living, breathing creature, a creature who died for our dinner. We should consume it with the respect it deserves.


P.S. Sorry for the lack of juicy quotes. But I already lent the book out.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 February 2009 6:10 PM

    That reminds me, you might want to take a look at “Thinking in Pictures”, by Temple Grandin, if you haven’t already. Here’s a link to the first chapter online: The later chapters go into more detail on animals/slaughter.

  2. Megan permalink
    8 February 2009 4:28 PM

    It is true, though, that a very strict separation of “meat” and “animal” must exist (especially in large-scale operations). The animals ARE dirty: soil and excrement and shedding hair are all potential contaminants that they carry in with them.

    Think of the animal as a hollow tube of edible meat enveloped in contaminants: the hide, and the contents of the GI tract. Essentially, they are enveloped in shit, which must be carefully removed if the meat is to be uncontaminated. The separation of live animals/dead viscera and edible meat is a necessity. I am moved, though, by your notation of the symbolism.

    I am very interested in how, even among those of “higher consciousness”, the separation of beast and meat is carefully maintained. I can go to the farmers’ market and get cute little paper packages of locally-raised beef, while admiring the photos of frolicking calves. I can go to Whole Foods and buy cage-free eggs, while imagining how much happier these hens must be than those raised in battery cages. Are either of these “closer to the source” choices really bringing me nearer to the reality of calf–>beef or hen–>egg? Nowadays it is so easy to buy a clean conscience: for a 30% markup I can have my happy cow and (literally) eat it, too.

    I’m enjoying your blog. Thank you for sharing.

    • Herbert permalink*
      9 February 2009 3:47 PM

      I’d rather buy a clean conscience though for 2$/lb, than a dirty one for .70$/lb on sale. I was just reading Michael Pollan talking about hunting, eating a meal with no debt. But it’s not just the conscious that needs to be clear, it’s the mind. One of the interesting things about the French abbaitors is that their most frequent visitors (besides inspectors) are school children on tours. What would happen if we did that in this country?

      Thank you for reading!

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