I wrote a thesis a few months ago. It is around 18 pages, and cites a half-dozen works – not exactly the most rigorously written and researched thesis in the history of theses, but it met the requirements and served as a culmination of my year at UNISG studying Food Culture and Communications with an emphasis on Media, Representations and High Quality Food. In developing a concept for this thesis I wanted to cover a lot of ground. I wanted to consider the theme of the degree – specifically the representations part – and I wanted to make a larger point. This didn’t need to be groundbreaking research of some kind, but more about looking at something in a way I probably wouldn’t have looked at it prior to that year. Throughout the year, we debated endlessly about things like authenticity, meaning, truth, performance, complexity and any number of other esoteric concepts that one generally doesn’t think about applying to discussions of food. But we had managed to, and it was that tool, that ability to engage in a new kind of debate that considered concepts and not just facts that I wanted to use. More times than I would like these conversations devolved into endless whirlpools of what ifs and why nots without reaching conclusion, but even without resolution we, or at least I, frequently managed a shift in perspective.
These shifts in perspective are what led me to build the framework for my thesis – a paradigm of theatricality to be used in examining different examples of making food. Due to certain events to be described, examples of slaughter would come to form the contextual basis of my exploration of theatricality, and with this paradigm, I could remove the questions of morality or humanity that typically accompany discussions of slaughter. Not that these ideas should be exempt from all such discussions, but after watching Brazilian chef Alex Atala kill a chicken in front of a crowd of 600 people at the MAD Symposium after ostensibly offering the chicken’s life to the audience Roman emperor style, I wanted to explore a different angle.
Basically, what happened in Copenhagen weirded me out. And I wanted to understand why. I wanted to understand why everyone was chanting, why I started chanting, and why I recoiled from chanting even though the slaughter had not yet happened. I didn’t shut up because of the emotion or confusion or simply as a reaction to seeing an animal die in front of me for the first time. I stopped chanting because I didn’t understand why I was chanting in the first place.
Two months later I witnessed my next instance of animal slaughter. This time, I was not in a tent, not on a stage, but on the former Turnbridge plantation near the South Carolina/Georgia state line. I was at Cook it Raw, the quasi-annual gathering of chefs who head to a different destination each year, to eat, cook, explore, collaborate, and hopefully, inspire, and we needed a goat for Saturday.
Part of what I wanted to answer, and why I chose to watch the goat, was to answer the question of why others had reacted as they did in Copenhagen. Why this group of food professionals – be it chefs, cooks, farmers, writers, academics, etc – was so easily whipped up into a bloodthirsty frenzy over an event that many of them have likely witnessed or performed many times before? My first thought was simply “that’s how it’s done”. That it is somehow cool and progressive to get excited about a slaughter. That it takes strength to confront a process whose end result we consume on a weekly basis, and when you gather together a group of people who share that strength there is a natural bond and a power that arises and manifests as enthusiasm.
In South Carolina there was a gun; in Copenhagen, a hand and a knife. In Copenhagen there were hundreds of viewers; in South Carolina, five. A list distinguishing the details of the two events would take pages to elaborate, but it was the commonality that struck me. The crowd – or the audience, the witnesses, the actors, or the whatever term you please – at each event was made up of professionals. Though the exact makeup differed, with some overlap, in each case these were people whose lives are dedicated in some way to understanding and working with food. So why had they screamed for the chicken’s head in Copenhagen, and stood in solemn silence in South Carolina?
I’m sure there is more than one answer to this question – and I am more than sure that a psychologist would have a field day with it – but a valid contender is the idea of theatricality. The idea that an atmosphere of theater can be created in a non-theater situation and therefore alter the behavior of the audience as if they are watching drama, not reality. That the music, lighting, setting, countenance, and actions leading up to Atala taking the stage meant that the audience was transformed from interested food nerds to theatergoers expecting fiction and entertainment. And that the natural setting in South Carolina led to a more real, though no less natural response. I’m not going into the details of that conclusion here – I did write nearly 20 pages on it already (email me if you want to read?), but suffice to say that it is at least a defensible response to the question of reaction.
Yet, I still don’t know why I reacted how I did. Why I was somehow at least partially exempt from the transformative power of theater that Atala demonstrated that day – intentionally or not. Maybe it was a nagging sense of immorality and humanity, those grander questions that always accompany slaughter and the action itself. I know others surely felt that same nagging sense that day – though the cheering was loud, it was by no means universal. I do have many other questions about what happened in Copenhagen, but most of those focus on rightness and responsibility and put Atala at the center. But in my thesis that’s not what I was trying to do. To not consider slaughter on its moral grounds, but to instead set aside all other questions and look at it for what it is – a step in the process of making dinner, and to think about what happens when it is taken out of that context and imbued with functionally unnecessary theatricality.
But that’s not what I’m writing about today. Today I’m talking about the part I left out of the thesis. The part that had no role in a theoretical argument. The part where I got angry, and the part where I cried.
In Copenhagen, I got angry. I got mad at myself for screaming for death (or were we screaming for dinner?), for thinking it was somehow okay because everyone else was doing it, for thinking that as part of my belief that confronting slaughter is an important – though not universally necessary – part of understanding our food systems, I should join in the cheering, that I needed to join in. The problem, I soon realized, is that we were behaving as if we were participating in some kind of ritual – a ritual of slaughter or sacrifice that might very well require such enthusiasm. But we were not. We were at a presentation, a conference, a discussion on, or rather confirmation that, death is an inevitable, essential part of the food system. That fact is neither good nor bad, it simply is.
At Turnbridge, I cried. I didn’t think I was going to. I’m never quite sure when I’m going to cry at something. Disney movies are a virtual lock, but sometimes the more true, the more personal situations leave me somber but tearless. I’m not exactly sure where this fell on the spectrum. I didn’t know the goat, had first seen it not long before. He seemed a charming fellow, relatively sedate by the time he reached us, but still bearing all the scruffy cuddliness that comes standard with young goats. I didn’t see him out of his cage – he remained in it from his arrival at Turnbridge until after he finally succumbed to the multiple gunshots and arterial bleeding that his death would require. I’m not sure if it was the power of what I witnessed – the power of watching a life taken – or the unexpected length and struggle – but I could no more avert my eyes than I could keep them dry.
There is no “right” way to react in any situation – individual reactions consider personality, background, cultural identity, and, of course, the particularities of the situation at hand. Though I chose to abstain, the crowd in Copenhagen was not wrong in cheering – they were simply reacting to the action very differently than I reacted. Was it irresponsible? Perhaps. Did Atala consider the grander implications of the frame he chose for his actions? Unlikely. Did he in fact negate his stated point of death being an integral part of the food chain by instead divesting the chicken of its identity as food source and creating a false, hollow ritual surrounding its slaughter? Absolutely – but the reaction of the crowd helped him get there.
The next time I see an animal slaughtered on its way to becoming a meal I might shed a few tears, I might stand there in silence, and who knows, if it is right for me in the situation, I might even cheer.