Visual art by Chloe Kim.
There was a time, that when I could no longer draw pleasure from the repetition of daily life, I turned to food for a sense of satisfaction. For most, food was a necessity. I begged to differ. It had long since intrigued me as to why culinary arts courses were not included in schools and universities, when visual arts and music were. Perhaps what separated the culinary arts is the fundamentality of food. Food is the most basic prerequisite for survival, unlike music or art, both of which provoke thought yet do little for starving children. Ironically, the importance of food to our survival appears to have lowered our opinion of culinary culture. The word “food” too often brings proletarian connotations, conjuring up images of ravenous youth mindlessly devouring plates of their daily bread, whereas “music” or “art” seem to be reserved for the elite; those who have the luxury to explore spirituality, away from the monotony of everyday life.
There was a time when every meal brought a surprise, and I would walk away from the dinner table relishing aftertastes of pleasure. Amidst the humdrum of day to day family life, I changed things up by introducing new items of food to our dining repertoire. I could not understand why people would make claims such as “I don’t like tomatoes” or “I don’t eat cheese”. What do you mean by “I don’t like tomatoes”? Tomatoes and mozzarella topped with Pesto sauce in an Italian Caprese, or Chinese Ji Dan Chao Xi Hong Shi (Fried tomato and eggs)? May I also point out that there are infinite varieties of cheese. Do you not like blue cheese, cheddar cheese, cream cheese or goat cheese? Every type of raw produce meant infinite possibilities for creative expression. Every dish became a product of creativity, a testament to human will power to utilize, explore and create. To generalize these products of creativity was a crime, for sure. For me, a gourmet dish was a work of art, a masterpiece half complete. The other half, of course, was eating it.
I saw dishes as latent emotions, waiting to be released at the tongue. As spicy fish danced provocatively on my taste buds, and dark chocolate lulled my numbing tongue, I could not help but become affected by the empathetic nature of dining. Each tasting became a sensual experience of another world, an opening trapdoor to escape into that other realm of the imagination, defined by tastes and colors. Colors, splashes of colors. There’s nothing quite like the euphoria I gained from seeing a dish for the first time, and being shocked into awareness by its brilliantly imperfect array of bold colors.
Now I see it differently. I cannot enjoy Coq Au Vin without the deafening realization that my pleasure must be derived from the death of another being. The deep, colorful hues and rich aromas of the dish no longer entice me with their aesthetic appeal; rather, I find myself insensitive to its artistry. I am preoccupied with images of chicken, struggling to escape the grasp of a man’s hand that brandishes the fatal butcher’s knife as if it is an insignificant toy. Or worse-they could be silently awaiting their preordained executions, acknowledging that their sole purpose in life was to become part of culinary “art”. The knife strikes timely-as it should, for the chicken’s life is subservient to the needs of humans. Then the next chicken is brought up for slaughter. The ensuing bloodbath may simply be erased by a blood-stained mop. Yet not even the knowledge that nutrition is the basis of my survival can erase the daunting images of blood and death. It only cements the irony that one’s life must be derived from the death of another’s.
Perhaps I opt for vegetarianism, and abstain from consuming mammals altogether. Vegetables don’t protest, they don’t flutter their wings like chickens, so I should eat them instead-I can hear the argument formulating already.
There are mushrooms on my plate, supposedly to “enhance the flavor of the chicken”. Suddenly I am flooded with visions of mushrooms, scores upon scores of them, rooted robustly into the firm earth. Their watchful existence brings a sense of peace, providing me with some of nature’s rare moments of tranquility. Then the peace is disturbed-as it always is-by humans plucking up the mushrooms, children tugging away at their roots. What they leave behind is a scarred field, with the pits serving as remnants of abducted lives. Some see vegetarianism as a compromise; I see murder as murder.
What frightens me is the notion that the necessity of food is irrelevant, the possibility that even if we as humans did not need to eat, we would still continue to do so. This is a thought that pesters me day and night, for I am forced to recognize the plausibility of said argument. The mere concept of high-end restaurants, luxury food marketing and the existence of so-called food critics demonstrate that food is no longer restricted to serving our most basic needs, but has also become a source of satisfaction and often a symbol of prestige. This is an observation that I once welcomed with joy, since it meant the elevation of the status of food from a commodity to a luxury good, comparable to that of art or music. I had championed cuisine as a stimulus of emotions and creativity, ardently defending my beliefs in the name of art and pleasure.
The origin of my transformation is an episode of the reality TV series Masterchef USA, in which a Hindu woman is forced to kill a crab in order to advance in the cooking competition. The contestant-who had never killed an animal in her life-was presented with a dilemma; she would either kill the crab, neglecting her religious beliefs, or save the crab, which would bring her emotional satisfaction but result in her elimination. It was with tears that she finally flung the wriggling crab into the boiling pot of water. Upon tasting the completed dish, Judge Gordon Ramsey praised the dish for its unique flavor and seasoning, and then proceeded to comment “I am sure this crab would have been happy to give its life for this dish.” The reasoning behind his justification of killing the crab is fallible, to say the least. The crab would have been happy to give its life for what, a transient taste of pleasure on our tongues? Does the honor of the crab’s death rest on the flavors of its corpse, now? The assumption that any living being would be willing to sacrifice its own life in exchange for another’s creativity is bizarre logic that I cannot comprehend, and it is this bizarre logic that led me to question the morality of cuisine.
I now see chefs as dead animal processors, pondering over how to best present a piece of corpse. My appreciation of culinary dishes is tainted by blood, and my once purely aesthetic satisfaction is marred by the awareness that I am chewing carcasses of the deceased. It does not matter that I do not physically partake in killings; by eating their products I have become complicit in the murderer’s crime. Every meal is now a vicarious experience of another murder. As if the world did not have enough murders already! I can sense the gradual deterioration of my sensitivity to death, numbed by the repeated acknowledgements of plant and animal slaughter.
I feel compelled to view the murdering of animals through the grander perspective of life and death. Nature dictates that certain living organisms feed off other living organisms in order to survive. On the life-death continuum, the killing of a couple of chickens and crabs appear as insignificant events bound to occur sooner or later. Yet it is when the production of food surpasses our most elemental requirements for survival, when I try to view dishes through a less animalistic perspective, that I am bombarded by these recurring portrayals of gore and violence.
The only conclusion I can draw from my experiences is that creativity comes with sacrifice. These animals-aren’t they victims of our ingenuity? This phenomenon of sacrificial innovation occurs imperceptibly everywhere in our daily lives. Chemical products may only be deemed “safe to use” for humans if they have undergone rigorous testing on lab rats. Even humans are sacrificed; the advancement of technology is often based upon the previous products’ adverse effects on humans. More tragically, the potency of military technology must be determined from weapon tests in war. The irony of us imposing deaths on others is that we ourselves are also victims of the omnipotent death. Perhaps we derive gratification from imposing death on others, but one day, it will be imposed upon us, as if mocking our attempts at recreating it. And aren’t our lives solely dedicated to serving the grand scheme of human society, just as the chicken’s life is dedicated to serving us? The question of whether it matters to the chicken if its corpse was cooked beautifully or thrown away is as pertinent as whether we are affected by societal developments after our deaths. My meals no longer stand as a testament to creativity, but as a testament to the cruelty of this world, a testament to death. And that is why, when I see the familiar hamburger I had once grown to love, I have no choice but to shudder in fear.