05 July 2010

The Truth About Your Meat: It Used to be Alive.

That beautifully buttered, seasoned, boneless, skinless filet of salmon you eat was once a slithery, scaly fish with googly eyes swimming in the ocean. So then, why is it so gross to buy a whole fish from the market to bring home to cook? Why was I tempted by the perfectly pink square slab of boned and skinned salmon, even though it was five times more expensive? Why did the girl at the check-out register cringe and squeal in disgust at the sight of the fish?

Because we are so far removed from our food, we forget that our meat comes from live, moving animals with legs, fins, eyes, and mouths. How many of us would kill an animal for food, if we had to? Would we be able to look the cute, furry lamb in the eye, knowing that hours later he or she will end up on our plate in broiled cubes with mint and feta?  Would you be able to pluck the feathers off the chicken before putting it in the oven?

These situations don't even require us to kill the animal - they simply requires us to come one step closer to the animal's state of being alive.  A fried chicken leg has become something we eat out of a box, not the part used by the chicken to walk around the farm (that is, if it's lucky enough to be a free-roamer). Sometimes, it's not even referred to as a leg, but as a drumstick. We call meat steaks and filets, not muscle and flesh. We eat beef, not cows. Pork, not pigs.  Poultry, not chicken.  Seafood, not fish.  Yet, that's what it is.  We are eating cooked, dead animals.

So, I resisted the temptation to buy the boned and skinned fish. And even though the whole fish had its tail and head cut off, and it had already been gutted, it still looked like a fish - not the kind you eat on a plate, but the kind that wiggles around in the water with pulsating gills and glub-glub mouths.  It looked frightening, unappetizing, and monstrous.  I decided to be brave and get more intimate with my fish.

At first, I didn't want to use my fingers to rip open the plastic wrap on the Styrofoam tray.  I held one end of the tray with a paper towel and tried to remove the wrapping with a fork.  When that method quickly proved inefficient and clumsy, I was forced to use my fingers.  I tried not to to be bothered by the feeling of the slippery scales against my skin.  And after a few minutes, I discovered the scales weren't as slimy as I had thought them to be.  It was cold and clammy, but not slimy - and surprisingly smooth.  Then I had to put the fish in the sink to rinse it.

Although I was comfortable touching it here and there, I couldn't bring myself to grab it firmly with my hands.  I awkwardly slid it off the tray into a colander on the sink. I was able to rinse one side of the fish without touching it. But flipping it over to its other side - well, I was just going to have to go in there grab it with two hands.  So I did.  No choice.  You can't spear a fish with a regular eating fork, and you can't use salad tongs to grab it.

After covering it in olive oil and stuff it with herbs, then wrapping it tightly in foil, I was becoming less and less squeamish about the fish.  I had to keep reminding myself it was just like the salmon filets I purchased at the store, except one or two steps of preparation back in time - closer to its state of being alive.  Otherwise, there was no difference.  It's a great exercise, if you ever have the opportunity to choose a whole fish over the fileted fish.  And if you find you can't do it - well, then, you decide - should you really be eating it? (For the record, this was some of the best fish I've ever had. Cooked on the grill. Highly recommend it. It's inexpensive, feeds many, and will impress your friends.)

Now what did Mr. Sal do to deserve your disgust for 
his looks, especially if you're going to enjoy his flesh?
(Photo courtesy of Denise Chan, Flickr  Creative Commons)


  1. Interesting take on the subject and with a good description of the process. However, you answered the question from my standpoint--convenience and expediency of time. If it were a matter of my survival and my lifestyle I'm sure I would be killing and preparing animals. But if I can buy a prepared filet of animal product that is already cleaned and it's just a matter of seasoning it and throwing it in the oven or on the grill, then that is the preferable option for me.

    I guess the most I deal with something close to whole meat products is the Thanksgiving turkey I prepare every year. Otherwise--chicken? It's the boneless breast filets for me. I hate dealing with bones. Peel and eat shrimp or crab legs you have to crack? Too messy. I'm just a lazy eater I guess.

    But I see your point and it makes sense. Those salmon fillets can get pretty expensive. Maybe I'll have to check one of those whole fish someday and try it. However, I don't think I'm ready for a whole cow yet.

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  2. Two things:

    1)I have caught a fish and actually fileted it without having to gut it or chop off its head, using a technique a more experienced fisherman taught me. I know how to gut a fish, but having seen it done I think it'll take a starvation scenario for me to accomplish it.

    2)Georges Franju's 1949 documentary about the Paris slaughterhouses, The Blood of the Beasts, addresses the whole issue of not knowing where our food comes from. It's not anti-meat, although some people might see it that way--it's merely an absolutely unflinching look at the industry of preparing animals to become our food, including killing them.

  3. Thanks so much to Arlee and Joseph for their comments. I appreciate that you both have taken the time to read my post and reply with insightful comments, making me think a little bit more deeply about the issue.

    If this post just causes us all to think more on where our food comes from, then I think I've succeeded. I don't feel there is an absolute right or wrong to all of this, and I don't intend to judge anyone. Just probing us all to question our actions!