The other day while eating chicken for lunch I recalled the horrified response of a colleague to a platter of pigeons served for lunch at a meeting in Java. “Arghh I’m not eating that – look at the heads! Look at the beaks!” Indeed, the entire little birds, complete with heads, beaks, eyes and feet, were laid out in rows like casualties.
I regret to say that my response was somewhat dismissive of my colleague’s dismay: “They kill the whole animal in order for us to eat them you know – not just the legs and wings”. It is easy in western cultures for those of us who eat meat to be completely shielded from and unaware of the processes by which neatly trimmed pieces of meat come to be on supermarket shelves in little plastic trays – or served on platters baked. We can fail to connect filets with real, living, breathing, creatures – whole creatures. It can all be a bit sanitised and distant. We can be alienated from our own actions.
Some cultures are more diligent than others in ensuring that when an animal is killed for food, the whole animal is used in some way and that nothing goes to waste. In Hong Kong, where I lived for a time, it was quite normal for the whole pigeon to be presented – and for every bit to be eaten. It was a shared cultural pattern and didn’t catch anyone by surprise, except foreigners.
This is more than frugality or a result of scarcity. It is about respect for life. It is about using rather than abusing the things of creation, about being in right relationship, taking only what we need. Catholic teaching, and the ethical systems of a number of other religions (not all), hold that we are entitled to eat other creatures, but that we are certainly not justified in slaying them cruelly or disposing of them wastefully.
I feel that if I am going to eat a bird, I should know that I am eating a bird, and I should make a conscious choice about it. I should be mindful that a living thing has been killed to make this meal.
Perhaps I should have reacted more gently towards my colleague in his discomfort, welcoming it as a sign of awareness of what he was doing (he was a meat eater after all)? When we see the heads of little pigeons looking at us from a platter, there is no dodging the question.