The paleo diet crowd appeal to intellectuals, with their nutrition science, their evo-bio and, of course, that aura of contrarianism and masculinity that appeal to the ego as well as the brain. The foodies, meanwhile, try to poeticise eating itself: babbling about the flesh of songbirds and the testicles of goats in terms that bards used to reserve for Queens and Goddesses. For less refined hipsters, there is meat porn: that strange genre of television that offers its viewers large helpings of carnivorous greed along with the faintest sprinkling of irony. Its heroes are people who consume meat in huge amounts while attributing orgasmic qualities to its smell and taste.
Its leading practitioners on the Internet are the men behind Epic Mealtime – a series in which people create and eat meals of such outlandish proportions as a bird inside a bird inside a bird inside a pig. To my shame, I once found its audacity entertaining but this paled even before I remembered that meat comes from sentient creatures rather than vending machines on legs. There are, after all, only so many animals one can put inside other animals. What has kept the show alive is the attitude of its hosts: a comically overblown demeanor of brash aggression.
There is nothing aggressive about Adam Richman. The host of Man v. Food just emanates warmth, and infects the viewer with good cheer. Like his grunting cousins in Epic Mealtime, though, his gimmick is to munch his way through burgers the size of blimps and steaks the size of submarines; all while talking as if it is a challenge that affirms his manly credentials.
All this contributes to the fetishising of meat products in popular culture. We have not merely observed ice creams and cocktails made from bacon but coffins, alarm clocks and brassieres constructed from it. The inventor of this garment called herself a “bacontarian” in Bacon Today. Yes, she did. And, yes, that is a real publication. Three weeks out from International Bacon Day, meanwhile, people are already planning their festivities. It is not enough to convert one to Islam, but even disregarding the ethical implications it is enough to inspire one to sympathise with Scruton.
What is behind this? I may not partake of pigs but I will not pretend that their flesh does not taste appetising. Have you ever consumed a BLT, though, that inspired you to moan, exhale and spew admiring adjectives as if William Wodehouse, in a field, on LSD? Sex must have been a huge disappointment for these guys.
No, it goes beyond taste. I think people enjoy indulging their bumptious, macho impulses, and displaying them to others, and it is a convenient outlet for these feeling as one need not go through the hardships of other activities with manly implications: working out; playing sports; defending a person or principle. Moreover, it offers a means through which to show off masculine behaviour while staying within the boundaries of political correctness. One can eat a burger and feel primal and macho while avoiding the often unpopular patriarchal, competitive and violent features of male archetypes.
This is ironic because unlike many rhetorical and attitudinal offences that arouse the ire of liberal moralists, avid carnivorism does actual harm. The mountains of meat that are conquered with such enthusiasm are stripped from animals as intelligent as the cats and dogs that run about the viewer’s feet; animals that spent their lives crammed into boxes, fed on grains and drugs, before being herded into abattoirs to have their throats slit.
Most if not all forms of carnivorism depend upon the exploitation of the pain of other beings, and while this may not be a self-evident case for abstention it inspires us, at the least, to begin stumbling towards ethical positions. What these trends promote is obtuseness: a self-conscious zest that can only be sustained through ignorance of the pain that it is built upon. I am sorry to hold as well-meaning a programme as Man v. Food up as being some kind of malignant force but, hell, sometimes being moral is no fun. I think gladiatorial bouts could have been thrilling if one didn’t care that slaves were fighting desperately for their lives.