Jan 16, 2008
New York Times
http://www.nytimes. com/2008/ 01/16/dining/ 16anim.html?
LAST Friday, in front of 4 million television viewers and a studio
audience, the chef Jamie Oliver killed a chicken. Having recently
obtained a United Kingdom slaughterman' s license, Mr. Oliver staged
a "gala dinner," in fact a kind of avian snuff film, to awaken
British consumers to the high costs of cheap chicken.
"A chicken is a living thing, an animal with a life cycle, and we
shouldn't expect it will cost less than a pint of beer in a pub," he
said Monday in an interview.
"It only costs a bit more to give a chicken a natural life and a
reasonably pleasant death," he told the champagne-sipping audience
before he stunned the chicken, cut an artery inside its throat, and
let it bleed to death, all in accordance with British standards for
Mr. Oliver said that he wanted people to confront the reality that
eating any kind of meat involves killing an animal, even if it is
done with a minimum of pain.
How far will chefs go to display their empathy and respect for the
animals they cook? All the way, it seems, to the barnyard and the
Leading chefs like Mr. Oliver, Dan Barber and David Burke seem to be
wallowing in -- and advertising -- a new intimacy with the animals
cook. Not long ago, chefs got credit simply for knowing the breed of
the pigs or chickens they served. Pork from Berkshire pigs was the
must-have meat status symbol, and chefs engaged in nose-to-tail
competition to use the most parts of the animal. Now, it seems,
intimacy with the animals during their life -- and preferably, their
death -- is required.
Many chefs believe absolutely that meat from happy, healthy animals
tastes better. But it's not all about what's on the plate: they also
believe that if they're going to turn a pig into a plate of pork
chops, they should be able to look it in the eye, taking
responsibility for both the treatment it receives in life and the
manner of its death. "The question is, how and why should we care
about an animal when we are going to bloody eat it?" Mr. Oliver asked
Some agricultural ethicists believe that if animals could lead
comfortable lives and die completely free of fear and pain, raising
and killing them would not pose an ethical problem; a few believe in
an unwritten "domestic contract" between humans and our domesticated
species that includes killing. Others maintain that killing animals
is inherently unethical because it cuts off their opportunities
for "future good experiences, " according to Dr. Richard Haynes, the
editor of the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics.
Chefs feel they are in a prime spot to grapple with the issues. "It's
our responsibility and our privilege to educate our customers," said
Charlie McManus, the chef-owner of Primo Grill in Tacoma, Wash., who
has visited his meat supplier, Cheryl the Pig Lady, in the nearby
Puyallup River valley. "A lot of them don't want to hear it, but
that's just sticking your head in the sand."
Following the broadcast, Mr. Oliver was both praised and attacked by
animal rights groups for the killing that took place on stage. "It's
nothing that doesn't happen millions of a times a day" he
said. "There was no need to make it any more dramatic than it is."
Mr. Oliver and his compatriot Hugh Fearnley-Whittingst all, a chef,
farmer and butcher known for his intimacy with food sources, made
last week's broadcast the culmination of a media campaign called
Chicken Out. In a similar stunt, also televised last week, Mr.
Fearnley-Whittingst all set up his own miniature factory farm for
chickens. He raised free-range chickens next door, making comparisons
as the chickens grew, were killed and eaten. Like Hillary Clinton,
his eyes welled up on television last week -- in his case, while
killing unwanted birds in the factory unit.
In Mr. Oliver's show, "Jamie's Fowl Dinners," he served up many
shocking moments: he suffocated a clutch of male chicks according to
standard egg industry procedure, in a chamber of carbon dioxide;
stuffed birds into the crowded, filthy "battery" cages that house 95
percent of the country's chickens, and showed a computer-altered baby
picture of himself, grossly engorged to represent the rapid growth of
a baby chick on a factory farm.
The most shocking of all may be his revelation that price wars have
squeezed the profit margin of the modern poultry farmer to about 6
cents a bird. Mr. Oliver's message to supermarket shoppers is clear:
the only reason for the miserable lives lived by most chickens is
your insistence on cheap food. After the broadcast, as reported in
the British press, supermarkets across the United Kingdom quickly
sold out of free-range eggs and chickens.
"People in the U.K. really do care about animals, but we are also
used to an incredibly low food cost," said Fuchsia Dunlop, a British
writer who has lived in China and written extensively about that
country's food culture. "This program will have an effect because
there is new momentum toward the idea that we should at least see how
the food gets to us, and then we can make up our own minds."
Ms. Dunlop said that intimacy with live animals and killing is taken
for granted in Chinese kitchens and food markets. "There isn't a
sense there that you're killing an animal, it's simply that you are
preparing an ingredient for the table" she said. "No one thinks
anything of skinning frogs and rabbits while they're still alive."
A very few American chefs, including John Besh of August in New
Orleans and Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York, have managed to
raise animals for their own tables and oversee their slaughter. For
most chefs, this level of intimacy with animals is unimaginable.
"For years, all I saw in kitchens was Cryovac steaks, chops, never
anything to remind you that this was once an animal," said Mr.
But more chefs are trying to bridge that gap. Tamara Murphy, the chef
at Brasa in Seattle, took delivery of 11 freshly killed piglets last
Friday, destined for dishes of pork belly with braised greens and
paprika-rubbed roasted chops. "I don't name them," said Ms. Murphy,
who wrote a weekly blog in 2006, chronicling the short lives of some
of the piglets earmarked for her restaurant from Whistling Train
Farm. "They are being raised for food, and there is a respectful
distance I need to keep" she said. Ms. Murphy visited the piglets
weekly, starting the day after their birth, and accompanied them to
the slaughterhouse before serving them in a dinner that was called a
Celebration of the Life of a Pig.
"The hardest part of the slaughter was the betrayal," she said. "The
pigs get in the trailer because they trust you, they get out of the
trailer because they trust you, they go into the pen because they
The chef David Burke, already the proud owner of Prime 207L, a bull
who lives and breeds at Creekstone Farms in Kentucky, "bought" three
piglets last spring via a new subscription program at La Quercia, a
producer of cured meats in Norwalk, Iowa. He received a snapshot of
one of the pigs and gave them all names, Applesauce, BlackJack and
Big Al. They were slaughtered in early December, and they are being
gradually transformed into guanciale, pancetta, lardo and finally
prosciutto, to be sold at Mr. Burke's three restaurants as "our own"
pork. (Other subscribers to the program include Mario Batali, Michael
Symon and Laurent Tourondel, but ultimately, La Quercia's owner, Herb
Eckhouse, said, it was not practical for each chef to receive the
actual parts from "his" pig. This year the meat is simply being
"The chefs trust me and I trust the farmer, and those piglets had as
good a life as any I've seen," Mr. Eckhouse said. "For the most part,
we in the meat industry live in a world of half-truths,
like `natural,' `family farmed,' and `humanely raised,' and the only
thing we can really trust is what we see."
Must we all now come face to face with the animals we cook? "I think
it's a pathetic fallacy," said Marc Meyer, the chef and an owner of
Five Points, Cookshop and Provence in New York, who posts the names
of farmers on the menus and walls of his restaurants. "It doesn't do
anything for the animal, and you can tell everything you need to know
by the meat, once you know what to look for."