The first animal I ever killed practically flew out of the sea.
I must have been 12 or so, standing on the little rust-stained boat dock that jutted from my family’s townhome. The fishing wasn’t great in this human-made marina, but no fishing spot was closer, which made it easy to look past the lack of catches.
On this day, however, redemption arrived with a wiggle of my cheap K-Mart rod. I rushed to hook it, and after a few furious pumps of the reel, I could already see its silhouette — dull silver shining through murky green. Then, as it reached the surface, it flopped hard and landed on the edge of the dock.
I heard a happy yelp. “It’s a papio!” yelled my neighbor, Mark. “Now you just gotta dispatch the thing. You know how?”
The fish lay on the dock, its gills flapping for water. I picked up my mother’s small rolling pin, squared up the fish’s forehead and christened it with a killing thwack. My parents were working, but I was old enough to know to gut the fish before throwing it in a pan. Dressed in butter and lemon, that modest little papio was the most memorable and delicious fish I could ever recall eating. And it opened the door for a fascination with how, and why, the creatures we consume end up on the table.
Lucky for me, growing up in Hawaii offered some opportunities to witness the killing of an animal for food in intimate fashion. Hunts for feral boar, a much-maligned invasive species, meant the opportunity to stand 10 feet from a man shooting a pig in the head. Feral chickens, meanwhile, required an inversion and a quick slitting of the jugular vein. Seeing both incidents made my gut churn with uncertainty. They also made me commit — to the guilt of the kill, to the joy of animal protein, to never shying from this reality of my sustenance. I didn’t grow up hunting, myself, but given that I craved meat, it only seemed fair.
By many accounts, Americans are increasingly interested in the question of not just where their meat comes from, but whether it’s slaughtered “humanely” (a loaded query itself). This is heartening news, given how hard we’ve worked as a culture to purposely blind ourselves to what happens before a pork roast lands on the table. Through a combination of economic, technological and social factors, we’ve become detached from what meat and dairy actually is. A 1993 USDA study found that a fifth of American adults don’t realize that hamburgers are made from ground cow. We haven’t made much progress since, and the lack of enthusiasm is obvious; a 2017 report notes nearly half of American adults also don’t bother to seek out information about where their food comes from.
In my world, you see it in people who readily eat meat and fish but turn squeamish at the thought, sound and sight of an animal dying for their benefit. The grotesque reaction can be triggered by something as simple as a fish that arrives at the table with tail and head attached, or having to bite into chicken that’s on the bone. The late, great Anthony Bourdain often railed against this prototypical American diner, pointing to “plastic-wrapped chicken breasts on styrofoam,” stacked in racks in the cold neutrality of a supermarket meat section, as the greatest evidence (or maybe instrument?) of our disconnect to the animal. “Understand, when you eat meat, that something did die. You have an obligation to value it — not just the sirloin but also all those wonderful tough little bits,” Bourdain wrote.
Obvious, maybe, but important nonetheless given that, as food writer Michael Pollan has pointed out, factory farming (and the cruel conditions that come with it) is bigger than ever before in human history, growing fat alongside our insatiable appetite for meat. It’s not a surprise we’d work to avoid thinking of sick, broken animals when we reach for a pack of on-sale chicken tenders. There has to be value in owning that decision. The influential chef Magnus Nilsson ponders it in his Faviken cookbook, noting that if you can’t always directly kill what you consume, the least you can do is be able to witness it somehow. “Sometimes, when I look at the way people treat meat inefficiently … I think there should be some kind of an equivalent to a driver’s license for meat-eaters,” Nilsson writes.
Naturally, the act of hunting for sustenance remains the clearest prism through which we can understand the ethics of eating animals. Even with the advent of rifles and scopes, there is purity in stalking just one wild animal at a time, taking care to line up a perfect shot that will kill instantly. It’s less ecologically damaging, certainly, but there’s also a spirituality to it; in a blog titled “Every Deer Deserves Our Respect,” hunter Daniel Schmidt asserts the importance of not just celebrating a kill, but “standing in quiet deliberation” and “pondering our own existence” while examining the animal.
When’s the last time you stood in quiet deliberation over a ribeye from the market?
You see this respect clearly in native communities from North America’s Cree Indians, who have a long history of elaborate harvesting rituals, to the Maori of New Zealand, who celebrate a kill with humble words directed toward the animal. To confront that eating meat is literally murder isn’t a radical vegan tagline — it’s what we’ve had to do until modern conveniences erased the visage of an animal until we can barely remember what we’re eating anymore.
Maybe, given that the spread of factory farming, unsafe conditions in slaughterhouses (for animals and human workers) and increasing climate change is a direct result of our appetite, getting grossed out by meat is exactly what we need. I try to maintain a few meatless days each week — a habit that’s trending in America — not because of my waistline but because of the realization that I should eat less meat, period. I try to eat more offal (the innards) and other “gristly bits” as an acknowledgment that doing so is the only truly sustainable way to consume, given the amount of blood, bones and guts that we outright trash. Yes, it helps to have grown up with Korean food culture and a father who dared me to try weird things. But the point remains, and it’s a shame that most meat eaters can’t stand the thought of trying off cuts, let alone the taste.
I can’t imagine being vegan, in large part because my love affair with tasting diverse food cultures means accepting animal protein. But it’s becoming clearer that we need to reform our understanding of what place meat has in our daily diets, if only so we can take the harms of animal protein more seriously, even if we haven’t killed a fish or anything else, for that matter.
And how, exactly, can you start? I like to look to Temple Grandin, an esteemed expert on animal science, who once recommended that people working in slaughterhouses find moments of silence to reflect. “I believe that the place where an animal dies is a sacred one. There is a need to bring ritual … as a means to shape people’s behavior,” she wrote. After all, she added, “It would help prevent people from becoming numbed, callous or cruel.”