Taste and murder

Par David Olivier Whittier

This text was initially published in issue #9 of Cahiers antispécistes (1994). This English translation, by Elisabeth Lyman (proofreading by Holly James) first appeared on the website Fighting Speciesism, and has been reviewed by the author.

Read time: 20 min.

Exquisite corpse

There is a game called “exquisite corpse”. It was the surrealists, I am told, who gave it this name; the object is to create random sequences of words, and the surrealists were fond of these sometimes striking, haphazard combinations.

The expression “exquisite corpse” itself was probably created during a round of this game and then chosen as its name. This sequence of words was undoubtedly the product of chance, but the fact that it was chosen was not; we can imagine that it struck the surrealists as the quintessential example of the combinations only chance dared to produce – something so strange, so completely absurd, so unimaginable that it could be encountered only by accident.

Perhaps these surrealists were seated at the dinner table as they raved over this game's ability to produce unlikely oddities and wondered whether, after all, “exquisite corpse” didn't remind them of something...

“Psychoanalysis tells us that strange things are often familiar things, things already seen, but what then is this familiar thing? For one thing, how rarely we see corpses! This chicken is excellent.”

“Yes, rarely, especially exquisite corpses!”

“And yet, that reminds me of something – I can't think what! – another wing please; say, we could use this, ‘exquisite corpse', as the name of the game.”

Innocents with bloody hands

The expression chosen as the epitome of these strange word combinations thus literally designates objects that are among the most ordinary in our day-to-day lives: the dead bodies of non-human animals which, in our culture, are the indispensable foundation of every type of cuisine. There is a kind of disconnect here: do people know what they're eating?

Pro-vegetarian literature often suggests that meat-eaters are victims too, and not the ones at fault. It implies that everything is orchestrated to keep consumers from realising what meat is, to mask its real nature, to eliminate the “negative connotations” of death and suffering. This, we are told, is why slaughterhouses were moved outside of cities and why meat is displayed in aseptic trays at supermarkets. Consumers are depicted as innocents who have been duped by capitalists, technocrats, McDonald's and the factory farm industry1.

The purpose of this way of presenting things seems to be to free consumers of guilt; for paradoxically enough, a feeling of guilt over an action can easily drive someone to repeat it. Every steak that a meat eater consumes reassures them and becomes a self-directed message: “It can't be wrong, since I'm doing it again.” If they were on the other hand to realise the seriousness of their actions, they would have to face their past and come to terms with it without being able to justify it.

Unfortunately, unless we condemn only a few specific aspects of meat consumption, such as the additional suffering inflicted at factory farms, the force-feeding of geese or ritual slaughter, and thereby implicitly justify the principle of killing others to eat them as long as they are not human, it is difficult to believe in consumers' innocence. It's hard to believe they eat meat because the government or the butchers' union hides the fact that meat is dead animals. Personally, when I used to eat meat, I already knew what it was, and I don't think I was the only one.

This “innocence” leads nearly everyone to contemplate, select, handle, cut up, bite into, chew and swallow pieces of animals killed for this purpose, and to make this practice the focus of day-to-day conversations about how exquisite various pieces of corpses taste. One may have doubts about such innocence.

The ordinary reality of how meat is advertised and marketed contradicts the hypothesis of innocence and points to one of intent. Advertising ensures we are reminded of the origin of meat, the living animal2, even if this is done with stylised representations. Butcher shops and delicatessens are decorated with drawings of laughing animals, and on tins of tuna, fish smile to entice shoppers. In France, people speak of “celebrating pigs” when eating them. A grocery chain designed a two-page, full-colour advert with the heading “8 days for pork lovers – a celebration of pigs” accompanied by a photo of a fully recognisable pig's head surrounded by packaged feet, tails, blood (black pudding) and so on. A flyer printed for the Christmas season showed people clinking glasses over a lobster and featured a play on words referring to the animal's suffering3. A wine brand displayed bottles of Bordeaux against a blood-red background alongside dead game hanging by their necks. In countless fish markets and restaurants, live sea creatures are presented in aquariums for customers to choose from. And although slaughterhouses have indeed been moved away from city centres (as many other industries have), this doesn't stop the butcher shop on my street from decorating the wall behind their counter with an enormous photo of the old slaughterhouse of Lyon, showing hundreds of cattle waiting to be killed. This helps customers in line at this counter not to forget what it is they have come for.

Murdering out of habit?

Some say that humans are so attached to eating meat because it's a habit and because they like the taste. But does this kind of explanation hold up?

The force of habit does exist, but it varies greatly. For habit to account for the perpetuation of meat-eating – it necessarily leaves out the question of its origins – we must explain how it can be powerful enough to overcome the reasons people may have for stopping. And such reasons do exist. Of course, many people are insensitive to the suffering of non-human animals; however, even activists in animal-protection organisations are generally meat-eaters too, and often quite openly. But also, meat comes at a high price to humans as a whole, since its production requires pillaging the developing world and harming the environment in various ways. Additionally, it has a high cost for the individual consumer, who pays more for it financially and also in terms of its impact on their health – it has been proven that the large amounts of meat most people eat contribute to the development of heart diseases and intestinal cancers. We would thus have to show that the habit is so strong that humans prefer to kill and cause suffering to non-humans, deprive fellow humans of food, damage their own environment, spend more money than necessary and put their own health or even lives at risk rather than abandon it. And this strange behaviour is not that of one person, or a few, but the majority: it is, in our society, what just about everyone does.

The taste of murder

Some will say that eating meat is a habit based on taste, which is a particularly powerful sense. But would being deprived of desserts (which usually hold great appeal) or cheese or eggs or green vegetables be experienced as a hardship as brutal as being deprived of meat? People who travel to different countries eat different food. If they encounter dishes they don't like in the lands they visit, they complain about it upon their return: “How awful the food is there!” But rarely do they call it a deprivation: they would have liked a different type of good food in place of the kind they normally eat at home, and are disappointed not because the food is different but because they think it is not good; they feel that what they usually eat could have been replaced by something else that tastes good. It is only when, in the country in question, they are not served meat, or are given insufficient amounts of it, that they say something was lacking: they feel from the outset that only meat can replace meat – that any meat, even with a new flavour, can replace the kind they normally eat. Those who think that the habit of taste is what makes people remain so attached to meat need to account for the fact that all types of meat, from calamari to leg of lamb to andouillette sausage, have a particular flavour in common, and the fact that this taste, more than any other, is attractive and powerful enough for being deprived of it to cause this strong feeling of lack.

Identifying a common flavour such as this and assessing its power could at first seem difficult, since as the adage goes, “there's no accounting for taste”. But then attributing meat-eating to a habit of taste would prove a dead end.

My thinking is that this explanation of meat-eating by taste is accurate but insufficient: for it actually is possible to account for taste. True, some basic gustatory preferences do exist outside of cultural influence; it has been found, for example, that infants in all countries prefer sweetness to bitterness. But everyone knows the sway culture holds in this regard. Adults learn to like the bitterness of coffee and the burn of hot pepper and whisky. The very perception of taste depends on a multitude of factors. What we call taste is traditionally described by physiologists as a combination of the sensory input from the tongue and nose. The sense of smell actually predominates, since the tongue can identify only sweet, salty, acidic and bitter tastes, no combination of which can recreate the rich variety of flavours we enjoy in a meal. When we have a cold, food seems tasteless although it is only our sense of smell that is impaired. The highly emotional nature of the sense of smell has been much discussed, and the same goes for the sense of taste broadly defined. If the taste of meat is attractive and powerful, its smell is largely responsible for this: to the tongue, meat is merely somewhat salty. And the sense of smell is closely linked to emotion.

Other factors, as I have mentioned, include sensations (burning), sound (the crunch of potato chips), texture and appearance. When we eat raspberry-flavoured pink yoghurt, we recognise the taste of the fruit. But if we sample it blindfolded, we're unable to tell whether it's raspberry or banana. A single scent can be perceived as pleasant or unpleasant, depending on its source – for instance, whether it's from cheese or sweaty feet. The emotion of tastes and smells cannot be disassociated from what we know of their origins.

When I was young and therefore worry-free (as I recall), my mother often served us spaghetti with tomato sauce. This is still my favourite dish. And the smell of tomato sauce always reminds me of spaghetti, and vice-versa. For me, spaghetti and tomato sauce basically have one and the same scent, although they may have no odorant substances in common. It is the emotional experience in which spaghetti and tomato sauce are together that determines how I perceive them, together or separately, and that means I have just one box in my head for both, a box labelled “taste of spaghetti with tomato sauce” and linked to the corresponding memories.

I think the specific gustatory appeal that meat holds – an appeal that is at least partly responsible for what humans do each second to a myriad of sentient beings in farms, slaughterhouses and fishing nets – means that meats of all kinds have something in common that appeals to us. Taste is said to be subjective, mysterious and inexplicable, but in this case it appears quite transparent. To determine what taste all meats have in common, we need to find out what, objectively speaking, they share. And this something, found in fried quail, sausage, sheep's brains and crab alike, the only objective common denominator of these substances, the unique characteristic they all share, is the fact that they're the dead bodies of beings that were previously alive and sentient, and that were killed in the name of our desire to eat them.

No one can deny that the life and death of an individual, whether human or animal, is a matter that deeply resonates in us. And society's willingness for this death to be dispensed at whim can leave no one indifferent. All meats have murder in common and they all evoke the same emotion and are all perceived as having fundamentally the same taste. There's only one box for the taste of meat, a box labelled “taste of murder”.

Exquisite murder

The greater the suffering inflicted on an animal, tradition tells us, the better her flesh will taste. This applies not only to cats and dogs in Korea, killed slowly by hanging, but also to the chickens who are often plucked alive at restaurants in France for the same purpose.

In a book on humanity's relationship to nature, English historian Keith Thomas describes animal slaughter in England in the 16th century:

In order to make their meat white, calves, and sometimes lambs, were stuck in the neck so that the blood would run out; then the wound was stopped and the animal allowed to linger on for another day.4

He also cites a common method for slaughtering pigs at about the same period:

“After he is brawned for your turn, thrust a knife into one of his flanks and let him run with it till he die; [or] gently bait him with muzzled dogs.”5

And, as a character in 19th-century English author Thomas Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure says, again about pigs:

“The meat must be well bled, and to do that he must die slow. . . . I was brought up to it, and I know. Every good butcher keeps un bleeding long. He ought to be eight or ten minutes dying, at least.”6

Everyone knows that foie gras is obtained by force-feeding birds until their livers are diseased and enlarged. Yet it isn't eaten only by thuggish bullies, but also (and especially) by people said to be refined and civilised. Here again, suffering confers value and prestige. Caviar, to cite another such example, is cut out of the bellies of sturgeon without anaesthesia.

Today, battery cages are a source of great suffering for farm animals. But they are no more than the methodical continuation of older traditions, as Thomas notes. For instance, in the 17th century, “Dorset lambs were specially reared for the Christmas tables of the nobility and gentry by being imprisoned in little dark cabins.” And if nowadays calves are systematically raised in tiny enclosures and severely mistreated (deprived of fibre and iron), it is to give their meat the pale colour that fetches a good price.

It is true that the opposite also exists; factory farms have now acquired a reputation for producing bland meat. But on this subject, we also find the very widespread – and unfortunately false – idea that animals raised in this way become so unnatural that they do not even suffer, that they are mere machines. Excessive torture is thought to make a victim numb. It is therefore the calf raised with his mother, the one who has something to lose when his life is taken, who will now give us flavourful meat.

Thus in this case again, suffering and good flavour of meat coincide. But I think we would be wasting our time here too if we looked to chemistry for an explanation of how suffering makes meat taste better. Torturing and killing are a bit the same thing. Suffering is not a chemical compound, but it still adds flavour and emotion. And if we like the flavour and emotion of meat, then the flavour and emotion of meat that has suffered – of meat that is even more “meat” – will be even better.

Why so much hate?

The description I've just given of meat-eaters' motivations would seem to portray them as bloodthirsty monsters. Can that be true? I myself ate meat for many years, and I don't think I was so different at that time, psychologically speaking, than I am now. Was I then, unlike now, attracted to murder, violence and torture?

This may not be the right question to ask. We are practically all attracted to murder, violence and torture. The reason for this is unclear, but it may have something to do with anxiety over our own death7. In any case, this tendency towards Schadenfreude does seem almost universal8. We find great enjoyment in watching a horror film, playing a war game or reading about the history of the Third Reich. Furthermore, the sense of domination acquired by oppressing others is not felt merely at an individual level when it comes to meat. Society as a whole does not yet seem to have learned to define itself in terms other than against others, and now that equality among humans has achieved recognition, in principle at least, these others can only be non-humans. By eating the meat placed on our tables, we reassure ourselves of our status as dominants, of our place among our fellows and within a society that has granted us this power to kill. Even the poorest homeless person can buy a tin of sardines and will receive a piece of Christmas turkey at the soup kitchen9.

The pleasure of killing and causing suffering in our imagination, the satisfaction we take from symbolic domination, are, as such, essentially the same as the pleasure we would take from actually doing these things. The difference, and it is a major one, is not in what the doer of the action feels, but in what the victim experiences. In the first case there is no victim and in the second there is. In the first case there is no reason to abstain, unless we find such things indelicate or harmful to our character, for example. In the second case, there is a very compelling reason – an ethical one – for abstaining: the victims' suffering.

Humans would appear to eat animals without realising that terrible things are actually happening to make this possible. Or rather, it isn't that the suffering and deaths of non-humans are not perceived as real – they would lose all value if this were the case. It is just that this suffering, these deaths, don't count ethically. When I ate meat, I didn't feel that I was any more bloodthirsty than a kid playing a war game – ethical consideration of animals just didn't occur to me. This is what American psychologist Don Barnes calls “conditioned ethical blindness”10: any ethical consideration of non-humans would have unpleasant implications for us – recognising the abomination of what we're doing and ceasing to do it, thus giving up the pleasures of what it offers and adopting an embarrassing social position. Such consideration is thus inhibited.

Unjust corpses

Apparently, asking humans to stop eating meat is a small request. Apparently, it is hardly asking for anything at all since, leaving aside any consideration for the animals' interests, it is practically in the humans' own interest to stop eating meat. People already widely accept the idea of changing one's diet for health reasons or for the developing world. Asking them to stop eating animals for the animals' sake, therefore, seems like asking at most that we take their interests into account just a little bit.

It would be a good start if, in getting people to care just a little bit about the interests of non-humans, we could inspire them to stop eating animals. Unfortunately, in reality, meat-eating is of great cultural importance to most humans. Asking them to stop eating meat is therefore asking a lot.

This is the trap that animal liberation activists seem locked into. Starting from the assumption that the interests of all individuals deserve equal consideration, we advocate for an end to the central speciesist practice that is the consumption of meat; but as this comes across as a weak demand based on weak or even purely personal arguments (health, sympathy for animals), the real message – animal equality – gets lost in the shuffle. We have great difficulty spreading our message with this argument, which is systematically perceived as weak.

In response to the weak message we convey despite ourselves with our pro-vegetarian activism – that animals' interests deserve a little bit of consideration – people find themselves, as soon as they imagine actually ceasing to eat meat – confronted by their strong albeit unformulated interest in continuing to eat it. Meat-eaters may even feel that they agree with us – they concur that if, as appearances suggest, it did cost so little to give up eating meat, then we should do it. They just feel that we are wrong in their own case: for in fact they really like meat; it would cost them a lot to stop eating it. So naively, they express their approval: “Good for you! Keep it up.” But vegetarianism is not for them.

The temptation to stress how easy and nice it is to be vegetarian, and how beneficial it is for our health, thus only locks us deeper into this trap. So should we take the opposite approach with our message and talk about how difficult it is to be vegetarian? I think so. Of course, it remains a good thing to explain, since many are still unaware, that living without eating meat is possible, and that no special effort is even required to be healthy – no complicated gymnastics are needed to “replace” so-called “animal protein”11. But we should also show people that we realise how important meat is to them. We need to show them that we know our request isn't small, that we know we're asking them to give up a practice that's central to their relationship to society, to their friends and family, to themselves and to their own death. We're asking them to be brave; we must show them that we understand this. We're asking this of them because even though the corpses they consume are exquisite, the consequences of this consumption are horrible. And because even though this practice brings pleasure and reassurance, renouncing it is the only just choice.


1. A flyer designed by a British nonprofit shows the public side-by-side “what they do to animals” (battery raising, etc.), and “what they do to you” (hormone-laden meat, etc.). Apart from this “they”, who, the flyer seems to suggest, should probably be shot, everyone is an innocent victim.

2. A famous French advert shows a cow running alongside a rugby player with the slogan “Quel punch, le bœuf” (which translates roughly to “What punch beef packs”), encouraging the public to eat beef if they, too, want to experience this vitality. The connection between the meat and the living being is clear from both the visual and the language – in French, bœuf is also a word for “ox”.

3.À Noël, c’est toujours les mêmes qui trinquent!” (“At Christmas, the same ones always clink glasses/pay the price”).

4. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500–1800, London: Allen Lane, 1983.

5. Ibid.

6. Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, New York: Modern Library, 1967. First published in 1895.

7. If murder holds such appeal, it may be because killing is a victory over death – albeit a limited one, as are all victories over death: by killing, we command death, we are its masters. We choose its time and, in the case of a farm animal, we even decide that it will happen, for without our desire to murder, she would never have been born. By rubbing shoulders with death, we gain a sense of having tamed it, of having it under our control. We feel that eating well and living well means consuming meat, celebrating and putting death out of our minds and on our tables. It’s also a celebration of the being who was killed and now occupies the place of honour since her flesh, once consumed, will become a lifeforce again. Vegetarians, on the other hand, are seen as sad creatures who passively await death and will endure it without having ever inflicted it.

8. Murder doesn’t just attract – it also repels. Many people find meat disgusting. But this doesn’t contradict my statements: here too, the taste attributed to meat is linked to the act that produces it. Overall, it’s clear that an attraction to this taste is what more often than not prevails.

9. On this topic, I recommend Nick Fiddes, Meat: A Natural Symbol, London: Routledge, 1991.

10. Donald J. Barnes, “A Matter of Change” in Peter Singer (ed.), In Defense of Animals, New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985, pp. 157-167.

11. As for any child, consulting a paediatrician about the nutrition of a vegan child is recommended.