Humans are really good at compartmentalizing.
Cognitive and behavioural scientists can probably come up with many reasons, but chief among them has to be a need to just get through the day - to keep ourselves fed, warm and safe is a bit of a project. And compared to our most ancient human ancestors we have rather more complex expectations than the bare minimums needed for survival.
If we thought through every decision in our lives rationally, fully weighing the pros and cons, we’d probably collapse into a heap of indecision We develop heuristics, simple but effective thinking shortcuts that allow us to make decisions without significant mental effort. Heuristics are great for the basic, repetitive, short-term decisions we make every day: what shoes to wear, whether we need to pack an umbrella, and what time to go to bed.
As any drive-though line up or checkout lane candy display reminds us, humans make an awful lot of our food decisions using heuristics too, but perhaps less effectively. The fact that we eat several times a day demands some decision-making shortcuts, but they not always in our best interests either for our health, the environment, or our personal ethics. Convenience, cost, and our primal instincts around taste and colour make up a larger than warranted share of our heuristics.
When we start examining our habits, how many of us are really comfortable with all of them? And for most people, food habits are particularly problematic - what ends up in our cart, in our mouth, and in our trash often doesn’t reflect our values. Cue the cognitive dissonance and the compartmentalizing.
Many people have particularly dissonant thinking when it comes to eating meat.
Most of us are pretty removed from the reality of where our food comes from. Notwithstanding the local farmers’ market and autumn trips to the apple orchard we don’t really get up close and personal with the origins of our food. Gardeners have a little more experience with the effort needed to bring a tomato from seed to fruit, but for most it’s a hobby (even a serious one) more than a matter of survival.
But rather unsurprisingly there are no chase-your-own-chicken or snare-your-own-rabbit farms. Hunting causes some controversy, even among meat-eaters. There is, quite clearly, a discomfort about the killing of animals for food, even if we do like to eat them.
Our supermarkets and food manufacturers know this. We’ll cut, trim, and grind our meat into almost any shape that doesn’t call to mind an actual animal. Roasts and chops don’t look like cows or pigs. Chicken breasts might as well be grown in a lab they bear so little resemblance to a bird. Hamburgers and hotdogs and sausages are meat-like more than meat such that we can hardly tell when they are slyly stuffed with filler. Add some breading, or crisping, sauces or fancifully unnatural shapes and it’s hard to recall where that nature had much to do at all. Skinless, boneless, featherless, and fur-less, our food is often defined as much by what isn’t there than by what is.
We will eat bones, sometimes. But there’s a certain ritual when we do, and for most it’s not a everyday thing. Ribs on the grill, a bone-in steak, or a proudly-stuffed turkey invoke a sense of ceremony that wouldn’t seem out of place to our ancestors who placed burnt offerings before the gods. On most days though we are content to gloss over the mortality on our plates.
There a story, fairly famous among chefs, about Thomas Keller and the rabbits. Keller, most known as the chef behind The French Laundry in California, decided long ago that he wanted to learn to kill and butcher rabbits. The rabbit purveyor was happy to demonstrate and then left him with eleven more to do. You can see where this is going. The first rabbit screamed, fought, and broke it’s own leg in the struggle. It was terrible.
But rather than deciding he would never eat meat again, Keller took a different approach. Because the slaughter was such an unpleasant process it was important that the meat be used. A cook who has no connection to the animal is going to have a more cavalier attitude towards waste. If you know what it is to kill and butcher you are going to be less likely to waste because you know, both intellectually and emotionally, the real cost.
Now, I’m not suggesting that only hunters and farmers ought to eat meat or that we all become vegan (though that is a possible approach). I would however suggest that eating meat on the bone, even if not every day, is a small way to be more mindful of what we eat, how we eat it, and the importance of not wasting it.
There are a world of things to eat when you embrace nose-to-tail eating, but there is a learning curve and an effort to make them palatable that not everyone has the time or inclination to master. But starting with one simple thing - eating from the bones - may just change how you approach your dinner.
Next time you’re at the store or the market consider the animal and pick up something on the bone.
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Yes! As a former vegetarian, this resonates! Nowadays, my children always ask what happened to the heads and the fins when I buy fillets... they much prefer to see the whole thing on the table!