There is a pig in my fridge. Pig skin looks a whole lot like people skin, so there is what appears to be a human nipple at the front of the fridge, surrounded by brown juice.
No matter what innocuous thing I’m reaching for: Greek yogurt, strawberries, a sprig of thyme… there is a very human-looking piece of food staring up at me.
Not so long ago we had a pig head with eyeballs in the fridge. I had seen such images displayed defiantly on the cover of charcuterie cookbooks, so I was more or less inured to it, as it watched me in my frequent return trips to the cheese bin. The nipple though, because it is vaguely, almost satirically, sexual and much more subtle, feels like a dare from the pig. “You can eat me,” it says, “but we both have nipples.”
This nipple gave me pause because I suddenly identified with my food. It is the latest in a string of discomfiting meat situations I’ve encountered lately.
The other night, after watching my chef boyfriend deftly unfurl the curled talons of a headless chicken, slice it up, and then add ginger sauce, I had a nightmare that I was at a chicken slaughterhouse watching chickens get their necks broken by a brutish man wielding a clamp like a giant clothespin made of metal. One by one their necks broke, in an unceremonious and mechanical fashion. In the nightmare, as in real life, I was maintaining an open mind and a curiosity to learn where our meat comes from, but also I was unsettled.
I confessed to Sam after opening the fridge on the pig nipple, “I’m all about eating meat, but sometimes, I have to say, I wonder if vegetarians are right. What if animals know and feel more than we think they do?”
Sam, a well-regarded chef in the Philly area who is known for his flavor combinations and his simple dishes that bring out the best in his meticulously selected fresh ingredients, has eloquently held court on his meat-eating philosophies in the past. He has spoken about well-run family farms and raising animals in optimal conditions and about slaughtering them humanely (a kind of oxymoron, but also a very real concept). Last year we watched Food Inc. together and talked about it and through him I have spent more time on farms than I was destined to otherwise. But the night I encountered the nipple and professed my confusion about the morality of meat-eating, he just said, “Well, that pig wouldn’t have been born if people weren’t going to eat it.”
And that idea flooded me with a familiar sense of power. The pig and I both had nipples, but mine were attached to me and his were suspended in brown juice, brining. And that is a key difference. As a human, I get to give animals life and then take it away.
Where is the morality in that? Well, maybe I’m just a mean human and should count myself among the lucky to be eating and not getting eaten?
I know vegans, vegetarians, and pescetarians come in all shapes, colors, and sizes and have all manner of environmental, spiritual, healthful, mindful reasons for eating as they do. The sentient or non-sentient nature of animals is perhaps not even a top concern for many of these thoughtful eaters, but the things that show up in my fridge these days (now that I live with a chef who values fresh ingredients) are so much closer to alive than they look by the time they reach Key Foods, that they prompt me to consider their life, their death, and my role in it.
After briefly considering how the brining pig, human-looking among the fridge condiments, the bag of okra, and the newly purchased milk, had been born for me to eat him…
I had some bacon. Sam cooked it and it was delicious.
After all those conversations with the pig in my fridge, I ate him.
I did not feel like a murderer and I did not feel virtuous either. I felt full. I felt lucky to be eating and not getting eaten.