Hold the Mayo

May 5, 2013

If you have checked the date of today’s entry, you know that it’s past time to fire up the charcoal. Presumably you’ve already got the cabrito soaking in marinade, and you’ve put the Pacifico or the Negra Modello on ice. You’ve just taken a quick break to check out the Thornapple blog before heading out to the back yard (or the back forty, if you’re from Tejas) to start the party. I’ve already referenced one of the greatest food songs in this blog twice already, so I’m loathe to follow that path again. But now here in 2013 when it actually is Cinco de Mayo on blog day, I’m kind of at a loss as to what I should do. Perhaps, as one of my commentators suggested last fall, “Ha llegado el momento para que usted pueda escribir acerca de tequila.”

On the other hand, perhaps like the Jamestown settlers that were in the news this week, you are fresh out of both cabrito and tequila. Perhaps you saw Doug Owlsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution posing with the macquette of a 14 year old girl named “Jane”. The name appeared on the manifest of an ill fated supply ship that happened to arrive at Jamestown just as the colony was beginning it’s “starving time” over the winter of 1609 and 1610. Not to suggest that being out of cabrito and tequila would be in any ethically relevant way similar to the situation of the household where Jane’s abraded remains were discovered, but what do you do with a week when the lead story on food ethics has to do with cannibalism?

I guess you could point out that this is not generally recommended by any of the major philosophical traditions. On the other hand, one could take the other route and follow Cora Diamond’s observation from the classic 1978 paper “Eating Meat and Eating People,” that there are not really any compelling reasons not to eat people as long as they are already dead (as would appear from the evidence currently extant to have been the case for the unfortunate Jane). Diamond was not really aiming to endorse the ethics of cannibalism so much as she was making the point that our beliefs about what is and is not food do not rest solidly on an ethical basis in the first place. Still and all, if you are inclined to be rationalistic about things, and if you were in the middle of the starving time or, for that matter, inclined to reflect on it, noticing the irrationality that runs through our food practices might be a reason for digging up and utilizing a generally frowned upon and unarguably unaesthetic source of nutrients. Diamond writes that there might be some tasty bits there, but I take this claim to be hyperbole.

If you are disposed  to amuse yourself by reading philosophy rather than eating cabrito this May 5th, I’ll report that Diamond’s paper is available all over the internet from various people who taken it upon themselves to download the PDF from J-STOR and put it on some random website. You can GOOGLE it or you can get it legally by signing up for J-STOR’s “Register and Read” program at this link. There are ethical issues here, too, but unless you are into eating paper copies of philosophy articles—also not recommended, mainly because of the ink—I don’t see much of a connection to the main themes of the Thornapple Blog. As for myself, I’m going to treat this as a tangent and get right on back to cannibalism.

Not to be squeamish, but I truly don’t see much humor in the fate of Jane, not to mention the other Jamestown colonists, so I’ll take a 90-degree turn to synthetic meat. This is a meat-like stuff that’s ginned up from tissue culture. Tissue culture has nothing to do with Kleenex and everything to do with Petri dishes, which, in the case of synthetic meat, are scaled up to the vat size so that we can have meat-like stuff (maybe we’ll call it “processed meat food”) to eat. It’s not here yet, but hang on. I’m curious. I’d genuinely like to know what my two regular readers think about this idea. The general consensus among philosophers is that “Hey, this is GREAT! No more animals!” But what about real people?

As for myself, I think it’s kind of creepy. Afterall, there’s no limit to the kind of animal tissue you can start with. Maybe the Smithsonian can regenerate some stem cells from Jane’s DNA and there can be little dishes next to the macquette where you can experience what the starving time survivors did. After all, who’s the worse for it?

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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2 thoughts on “Hold the Mayo

  1. yes, I’ve wondered about the synthestic meat… one of the reasons I’m vegetarian is the ethics of eating animals. So the synthetic meat would, ostensibly, remove that barrier.
    However, another reason I’m vegetarian (and I believe the reason I’ve stayed so) is that I don’t like the taste of meat. After two decades of abstinence from consuming flesh (and yes, this includes cannibalism) I don’t think solving the ethical issue of killing animals to eat would actually get me to try the synthestic stuff…

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