Made fish for dinner, even though it isn’t Friday – wild-caught ocean perch, to be precise. In the middle of dribbling lemon juice on the filets, I suddenly remembered that in The once and Future King, when Merlyn changes the Wart into a fish, it’s a perch he opts to be.
(Incidentally, if you have not read this novel, you should; I can’t help but say “read it!”even though I know people in general tend to get recalcitrant, mulish and resistant when urged feverishly to read this or that book. I blame my own ardent recommendations for the fact that my brother didn’t get around to The Lord of the Rings for years and years. I’d annoyed him too much with the very sound of it. Sorry, Jonathan.).
I couldn’t help think of the perch, after that, as an old friend I was about to wantonly devour. It’s the same way I get about wild geese – I think hunting them would be a delightful, and I’d enjoy cooking them, but unfortunately the wild geese in T.H. White’s novel are just too splendid for me to go blasting at with a shotgun. Too much literature could make a vegetarian of one, for sure. The book Bambi would probably have a similar, if less poignant, effect, were I to read it again. As for the movie – Disney has no relation to life; its princesses aren’t princesses and its men aren’t men and its deer are nothing more than cute little inedible stuffed animals.
I respect vegetarians when they are consistent, ethical. I was a vegetarian for one year – out of sheer cussedness, since I lived on a cattle ranch and was dying for attention, and thought that wasting away in a green and yellow melancholy would somehow make people like me. Definitely not ethical. Also not consistent, since I would occasionally sneak off to a corner, like a wounded feral dog, and gnaw surreptitiously on a swiped bit of burger.
There’s a brand of sentimentality, though, that doesn’t really care what happens to animals (or people, for that matter) so long as one doesn’t have to see it. The meat you buy at Wal-Mart, or Kroger, or Whole Foods, is cleanly (or not. who knows? but you didn’t see it, so it didn’t happen) packaged, devoid of any resemblance to any animal on Disney, impersonal. It’s hard to think of that juicy tenderloin as having once been a part of a living, mooing, shitting cow. Incidentally, when I see those same cows out in the field, it is hard for me to imagine wanting to take a bite out of them. Such is the astonishing metamorphosis of the culinary art.
We don’t see what goes on in the meat industry, so it doesn’t bother us. Meanwhile hunters – who want to go for a clean quick kill, and who bring home meat that has lived happy and free and natural – are vilified. Why can’t Disney make a movie about cute little fluffy animals being herded into a huge factory farm, for a change? There could be a fast-talking chicken, a wise old cow, a timid bunny rabbit, and then a rogue dog, with a hip-hop attitude, that helps them escape. The villain would be a Corporation, though, and that’s hard to make into a believable cartoon.
It’s interesting to contemplate our age’s sensitivity to violence in conjunction with the fact that a) we amuse ourselves with fake violence every day and b) we regularly condone acts of violence so long as they are far away, or invisible, or for a good cause. The sensitive post-modern American would never stand for the sort of brutal executions that went on in those happy golden years of yore…the drawing and quartering, the rack, the guillotine. Children used to be taken to public hangings, I suppose to show them the “wages of crime,” or maybe because it was construed as a family event, as a film might be today. Wholesome civic virtues and family values.
On one hand, this bespeaks a heightened moral sensibility. Finally, it has dawned on us (most of us) that pain is bad, and that inflicting pain is wrong. But on the other hand it is so often self-referential. “I don’t want to see that.” Like so many other phenomena, its a mixed bag. We get a little better, we get a little worse, history marches on. I think at least in many respects though, we are learning to see more clearly. It’s what we don’t see, that’s at issue.
I’ve tried to make a rule for myself that if I’m not willing to kill it, I shouldn’t eat it. This is not easy – I get all metaphysically het up about the solemnity of taking life. If it is really wrong, though, to whack a bunny on the head, skin it, gut it, hack it up, eat it…should I ask someone else to do this wrong thing for me? If I’m just being queasy about it, I want to get over the queasiness, on the Apocalypse Principle (if some sort of grand cataclysm happens, I want to be able to take care of myself and my family).
Now, I am by no means recommending that everyone do this. Not everyone is cut out for cutting animals up, just as not everyone is cut out for building houses or performing surgery or managing money or teaching small children. It may be that it is not good for too many people to grow accustomed to getting over that visceral instinct against killing. And while yes, the majority of hunters I know are respectful and cautious, there are always the few who seem bent on outraging humane sensibilities – exulting over the fallen animal like Achilles vaunting over Hektor, but with a lot less glamor and resplendence.
I am trying to sort things out for myself – what’s objective, what isn’t. Objectively speaking, I can catch and kill a fish. I enjoy the catching, but not the killing. I don’t like seeing light going out of a living eye. However, until I arrive at a clear moral reason NOT to eat fish (and I am going to avoid doing that, because I like fish!) that momentary qualm is part of the bargain.
Entering into the cycle of life is heady and astonishing but not easy on the sentiments. It gives one pause. “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm” and thus “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.” There is a meditation upon mortality, on the spread banquet-table (or in a Happy Meal).
This leaves a long list of animals I am going to have to kill someday, if I am to justify (to myself) continuing to eat them. Which means that I have a sort of Hemingway-esque career spread out before me…except for without, I trust, the mad drinking and the multiple divorces. Either that, or I shall have to become a sorrowful vegetarian…
…quite unlike Chesterton’s “Happy Vegetarian”:
You will find me drinking rum,
Like a sailor in a slum,
You will find me drinking beer like a Bavarian
You will find me drinking gin
In the lowest kind of inn
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.
So I cleared the inn of wine,
And I tried to climb the sign,
And I tried to hail the constable as “Marion.”
But he said I couldn’t speak,
And he bowled me to the Beak
Because I was a Happy Vegetarian.
I am silent in the Club,
I am silent in the pub.,
I am silent on a bally peak in Darien;
For I stuff away for life
Shoving peas in with a knife,
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.
No more the milk of cows
Shall pollute my private house
Than the milk of the wild mares of the Barbarian
I will stick to port and sherry,
For they are so very, very,
So very, very, very, Vegetarian.
Incidentally, the perch turned out well, and was quite simple to make. As with many of my recipes, this was a knock-off of something I saw online, which gave me a notion of what to do with the fish, even though I had hardly any of the ingredients in the original recipe.
5 Perch filets
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 small onion, chopped
1 pint stewed tomatoes
1/4 c white wine
1 tbsp capers
several Greek olives, chopped
pinch oregano, salt and pepper to taste.
Let the filets sit on a plate, sprinkled with lemon juice. Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron or all-clad skillet, saute the onion for about five minutes, add the garlic, saute 1 minute more, add the tomatoes, cook until liquid is almost reduced, add the wine, reduce further. Add capers, olives, salt and pepper. Place the fish skin-side down in the skillet and spoon tomato mixture over the tops. Bake in oven at 400 degrees for ten minutes.