|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.
[Numerical links are to the author's footnotes, use your back button to return to the same point in the text. Text links are to relevant items on the IVU website, all open in new windows]
CHAPTER THREE: MEAT AND BLOOD
The food categories of dominant culture (1) have a structured pattern. This pattern emerged out of the study of vegetarian food categories, when it became apparent that these involved direct parallels with or specific transformations of, an ideological structure discernible in wider culture. To examine the meaning of abstinence from meat, we must look more generally at ideas concerning the eating of meat, for it is only in the context of the structured relationship between food categories that the full meaning of vegetarianism reveals itself. The pattern of food I am going to discuss here is selective; I have not tried to give a complete account of the patterning of food, for the dimensions are many, and further complicated by the cross influences of particular historical, class and regional factors; I have concentrated instead on one major dimension, that of animality.
Deeply embedded in dominant culture is the idea of animal food as containing certain qualities, a particular power centering around the qualities of sexuality, strength, aggression, passion – around what culture has designated man's animal nature. All eating, but especially that involving meat eating, or its avoidance, is concerned with the paradox of the relation of man to nature. Eating provides a crucial arena for this, since it involves a direct taking in of the animal and the incorporation of it. We are what we eat. (Eating can also concern itself with other issues, for example, social identity or family solidarity, but I am not intending to examine these here).
Animals bear a special and complex role in our relationship with nature. They are potent symbols. They are both in us, our enduring biological heritage, and beyond us, as an extension of human society, as a parallel society, and as a contrasted realm. (2) Much recent work in anthropology has been concerned with the ways in which animals are used to say things about man and society. (3) When we turn to the question of eating, we find that animals have a special significance here. Animal food is the most frequent focus of food taboos. Thus Simoons in his Eat Not This Flesh, (4) in which he charts by geographical incidence the major food taboos (pig, chicken, horse, dog, etc.) makes the point that food avoidances nearly always pertain to animal food, in particular, to flesh foods. Lionel Blue in his popular book on religion and food makes a similar point that vegetarian food is the only safe food to serve at an inter-religious meal. (5) Angyal in his study of disgust and related aversions found a similar focus around animal products: 'I find that no plant product was reported as disgusting, with the exception of certain slimy substances which greatly resemble certain animal wastes'. (6) Similarly nearly every item in the catalogue of repulsive ingredients in Macbeth's witches' brew is animal; little of such feeling can be made from vegetable substances. This aspect is present wore generally in the unease that can adhere to unknown animal, as opposed to vegetable, food. (7) In particular people dislike the 'odd' bits - blood vessels, eyes, feet - things that are distinguishable parts of the animal. In the same way the rejected parts of animal food provoke revulsion, while those of vegetable food - hard skin, cores, etc. – do not; they are quite neutral.
The vegetarians point to this underlying unease in dominant culture, which they interpret as the natural man speaking in all of us. Thus they argue, meat has to be cooked, to hide its taste and obscure its nature: cooking disguises 'the reek of raw flesh and sauces help to smother the sheer animality of the ingredients'. (8) They argue - persuasively - for an unease and even guilt over meat-eating evident in myths and in the systematic evasions concerning the nature of and origins of meat in dominant culture. (9) And yet, despite these echoes of uncertainty, meat is the most highly regarded form of food. Before we can turn to this aspect, we must look at one of the central factors in the meaning of meat, and that is blood.
Blood has a long tradition of symbolic significance. During the early modern period, dominated by alchemic ideas, it was the paramount humour; while health lay in the balance of the four, blood held a special position, comprehending the other three. Blood was central in the elaborate development of ideas of macrocosm and microcosm and in conceptions that stressed the unity of the body and the cosmos. This tradition - though in fragmented form – was carried into popular culture, and forms part of the background to the imagery of blood today.
One of the central conceptions concerning blood is of it as the seat of the soul. Blood carries life; as it ebbs away in bleeding so we die. (10) Blood evokes strong feelings; people faint at the sight of it. Spilt blood defiles; it cries to heaven for vengeance; it is only atoned for by a second spilling of blood. Blood cannot be washed from a guilty hand. Blood can stand as the symbol of wrong having been done, of the fracturing of harmony, of discordance; and the rain of blood represents the times out of joint.
There is something in the experience of blood coursing through the veins that makes it a potent symbol of the very self. Thus blood is conceived as the link in family inheritance. We accept unquestioningly the biologically incorrect equation of blood and kinship. Shared blood is conceived as producing a mystical union; blood covenants make an alliance into an indissoluble bond. Blood is also believed to carry inherited qualities - noble blood, tainted blood etc. - and particular character traits. (11)
Blood is the seat of the passions; hot blooded is angry and impulsive. Blood boils. The blood of the young and vigorous is thought to be hot, thick and red, in comparison with the thin, watery blood of old age. Cold blood is rational, cruel, lacking in proper emotions or passions. Blood also carries a sexual emphasis. The blood in meat and in man is associated with strength, lust and lustyness. (Though the sexuality meat relates to is not eroticism; meat is never an aphrodisiac).
The meaning of blood has three major focuses: as the living essence; as the special character of the individual, the species or group; and as the passions. It also has the capacity to unite in essence. Various forms of ritual ingestion draw on these meanings. (12) This background of the meaning of blood contributes to the perception of meat in both dominant and vegetarian culture. Thus meat has traditionally been thought necessary for life and especially for strength, and men in particular are believed to need it. Through the direct, though nutritionally incorrect, equation of muscle with muscle, meat is thought specially suitable for bodybuilding and power. Dewhurst the butchers, keen to reinforce this idea, have recently sponsored sport and given free meat-tokens to athletes. Vegetarian food is felt in the dominant view to be lacking in this quality: 'I don't think it's potent', remarked one man during a community experiment in the substitution of textured soya protein for meat, 'There's blood in meat and there's none in this stuff', In a similar style, anti-vegetarian prejudice presents vegetarians as pale faced and slightly feeble; and the condemnation of men is much heavier than of women, and vegetarian men are thought to lack the 'ruddy' good health and 'red blooded' virile approach of the meat-eater.
I suggest that dominant culture contains an hierarchy of foods. At the top, we have red meat; lower in status, (13) are the bloodless meats - chicken, fish - and below these we have the animal products - cheese and eggs. Though cheese and eggs are sufficiently high in the hierarchy to support a meal being formed around them, they are confined to low-status events - the omelette or cheese flan of light lunch or supper. Below these, we have the vegetables, regarded as insufficient and merely ancillary in the dominant scheme. If we look at the top of the scale, we see the highest in status also approaches nearest the taboo. This is a familiar concept in anthropology, where that which is most highly prized, most sacred, can by virtue of its power be the most defiling. Eating animals involves ingesting animal nature; blood as we have seen has a particular association with the living essence of the animal, and this is the source of a certain ambivalence, for dominant culture prizes the characteristics of red bloodedness, but in a qualified way. Enough but not too much is the essence of its attitude towards such power.
That which is not eaten reiterates the significance of the hierarchy. Thus we do not eat raw meat, (14) tearing at raw flesh with one's teeth is an image of horror suitable for monsters and semi-humans. It is an image of the bestial, as indeed in the narrow sense it is properly so, for animals do capture, tear at and devour their prey, sometimes half alive; whereas man demands the animal be dead before it is 'meat' and that it be cooked. Thus by this transforming process are the raw facts of nature turned into the acceptable ones of culture. By cooking, as Lévi-Strauss has emphasised, man sets himself apart from the beasts.
We do not, by and large eat uncastrated beasts. The meat from boars and bulls has traditionally been regarded as tainted, though recent tests have shown it to be economic and wholesome. (15) (In the past there is evidence that bull's meat was eaten, though only after the animal had been baited. Baiting bulls was in the seventeenth century regarded as a necessary part of making their flesh edible, and even the early puritan campaigners for animal welfare allowed the necessity of baiting. The 'heat and motion' was believed to 'attenuate the blood', reduce its 'hardness' and make it possible to digest (16) though even then, it was best restricted to strong stomachs. Muffett links the reasons for the baiting of bulls with the treatment also of cocks: 'Perhaps also by this cause old Cocks are coursed with little wands from one another, or forced to fight with their betters before they are killed'. (17) John Ray links this baiting of bulls with the hunting of deer, explaining how seventeenth-century Romans put their beasts 'in a great heat and chase, for the same reason I suppose that we hunt deer and bait bulls in England'. (18) Baiting and the chase can perhaps be regarded as a substitute castrations, with the focus lying on the qualities of the blood; though here it is also part of the highly developed categorisation of food according to the humours. The role of the chase as a parallel to baiting offers an explanation of the major exception to the castration rule, that of hunted animals like deer). Uncastrated beasts, I suggest, are considered too powerful, contain too much of the ambivalent power.
Thirdly, we avoid carnivorous animals, though this is not nutritionally dictated, other cultures do not; I suggest that these are like a double dose, too much of a-good thing. (19)
The ultimate in such categories of the inedible is, of course, man himself. Recent work has suggested that there is a fascination with the idea of cannibalism and an eagerness to discover it that contains elements of projection, and cannibalism can be interpreted as primal offence on a parallel with incest. The connection between meat-eating and cannibalism is frequently made within the vegetarian tradition: Shaw referred to meat-eating as 'cannibalism, with its heroic. dish omitted', (20)
Vegetarian ideas also display evidence of this hierarchy. (21) It is a common-place in the process of becoming a vegetarian that you give up first the red meat, then the white and the fish, until if you become a vegan you restrict yourself to the category furthest away from the top. During the 1880's, the Vegetarian Society institutionalised this by introducing grades of membership: all members eschewing red meat, though some still eating fish etc. 'Vegetarian' is sometimes used loosely in America in this way to mean someone who does not eat red meat, and one 'vegetarian' cookery book includes a picture of a fish on its jacket. (The pattern of food abstinence within the monastic and catholic tradition also follows this hierarchy of foods.)
The most powerful focus in vegetarianism is always around red meat, and in particular around the blood in meat – that is where the revulsion is centred. 'Blood is perhaps the most objectionable form of nutriment; flesh being principally composed of blood it is next to it in its gross, stimulating and exciting qualities , (23) Meat is regarded. as producing certain effects on temperament; 'I get aggressive if I have meat' , Keith Michell told Seed magazine (24). Meat 'excites the lower prehuman aspect of mind, normally quiescent but easily aroused, accounting for . . . the horrors and bestialities of existence.’ (25) It is thought to stimulate the passions, especially the sexual passions.
The second variable in the hierarchy is cooking. Throughout the dominant scheme, cooking increases the status of food, and we will find, in both the dominant and the vegetarian schemes, that there are muted parallels between ideas concerning meat and concerning cooking. Meat, at the top, 'has' to be cooked. Where part of a cooked dish, cheese is deemed to be a more adequate central feature to a meal, than if left uncooked. The use of raw vegetables in the dominant scheme is rare, compared with the vegetarian usage; cooked vegetables denote more of a 'proper' meal. In the social language of meals, a cold meal has less status than a hot one. Behind this lies the role of cooking as a cultural transformer. Cooked meals bear a heavier element of the social in them. Uncooked foods are relatively unstructured eating, they have a snack-like quality to them.
The method of cooking also has some relevance. There is a contrast between roasting, as opposed to boiling, steaming and poaching. Roasting, of all cooking methods, has the highest status. Why? It is certainly the most prodigal form of cooking, involving the greatest shrinkage and loss; boiling by contrast conserver. But roasting also demands the best cuts, so is this expense the simple source of its status? One can reverse the equation and argue that the 'best' cuts are those best suited to roasting, not all cultures put the emphasis that we do on dear muscle meat. (26) I suggest, accepting Lévi-Strauss's point that roasted meat has a quality of being semi-cooked, that roasting is prized as bringing one near – but not too near - to rawness. Grilling has some of the qualities of roasting but not its full status, for roasting also involves relatively large pieces of the animal, and it is this nearness to animality that underlies the crowning status that we give to roasted joints. Steaming and boiling by contrast have traditional associations with invalids, the delicate and children. (27) As such they are part of the 'low' diet with its emphasis on the bland, the white and the non-stimulating. (I do not want to push this question of cooking style beyond what it can sensibly bear. Though I have mentioned one aspect of Lévi-Strauss's cooking scheme, I have been unable to draw on it in any major sense. (28) Nor have I attempted to suggest a fully developed structure according to cooking style. There are other connotations that complicate the pattern; (29) not to mention an important element of lack of significance.)
The vegetarians reverse this hierarchy and assert the value of rawness. They avoid the very category - meat - that has to be cooked. Certain vegetarians confine themselves to food that can be eaten raw; (30) and the majority certainly put heavy emphasis on food in that state. Explanations in the twentieth century have largely been in terms of the nutritional advantage of retaining all the vitamins and minerals lost in cooking, and in providing roughage; but rawness is linked to naturalness, in that no cultural mediation is involved. Raw food comes to us directly in the category of food, we pluck it from the trees. It is our 'natural' food in that it is how we must once have eaten before the coming of culture and cooking. Some extreme versions go on to regard cooking as making food into 'dead poisonous and unnatural pathogenic substances'. (31) Cooking as we shall see has an affinity with rottenness, and this has relevance also to the question of meat. Some of the other ideas about the effects of cooking mirror, in muted form, those concerning treat. The sexual patterning relevant to meat and discussed in the next paragraph, has its parallels in the contrast of raw and cooked food. Among vegetarian ideas there is some evidence for an association between raw food and the siding of continence. (32) There may be connections via the parallel imagery of heating, inflaming. Anna Kingsford and others have also made a link with spirituality; during one of her visions, she was told to abandon the 'heresy of Promethius', and that this action would lead to a further clarification of her spiritual sight. (33)
The patterning also has a sexual dimension. Meat, especially red meat, has masculine connotations, whereas chicken and fish are by contrast female. (34) I am talking here at the level of cultural stereotypes there is no taboo or shame involved in women eating red meat or men fish, and they do so happily. The symbolism is only at the level of associations, though these may influence eating patterns to some degree. (35) Hot/cold, cooked/raw are also related, for salads are more associated with women and men are thought to demand hot food. This is also extended into colour, as distinct from the connection with blood; thus red wine and men, white and women. There is also the contrast between light and heavy food; light meals are associated with women via refinement and delicacy, heavy with men via strength and power.
Thus we have a series of oppositions:
in which vegetarian food falls upon the 'female'. Part of the explanation of this male/female symbolism however is less in terms of an opposition, than of degree; women eat down the hierarchy because they are felt to need less of its qualities or to be les associated with them. (36)
How then should we interpret the relationship of vegetarian and dominant ideas? Vegetarianism intensifies certain elements found in the dominant scheme, and it can be interpreted as eating down the hierarchy, and there are, as we shall see, features in the vegetarian tradition that fit such an interpretation. But the relationship is not that simple, for vegetarianism also upsets the hierarchy and reverses its valuation. Vegetarianism is also involved in more subtle re-interpretations, for the meaning of meat is unfocussed; thus it is possible to draw on the dominant idea of meat, but to interpret the particular qualities it is held to stand for. Thus its strength and 'power' can also come to mean violence, aggression, cruelty and insensitivity. We shall return to this issue in part III.