For our dinner last night, my husband cooked a Moroccan-style chicken dish, the meat tender and gleaming with spices, and topped with thin slices of lemon and green olives. He served me a leg and wing. I love this dish, and normally I would dig right in. But I’d been reading Barbara J. King’s new book, “Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat,” and I hesitated. Whose leg was this? Whose wing? In previous centuries, even as recently as the early 20th, I probably could have told you because I would have raised the chicken myself. But like most Americans, I don’t have a farm, and I don’t grow my own food. Meat comes bundled in packages, and the fleshy lumps don’t conjure up a creature that once possessed a mind, emotions and a personality. Did that make it easier for me to eat the chicken? Or would I have more enjoyed biting into a leg of a chicken I knew? Perhaps I couldn’t have done it at all.
King makes you think about such matters because the lives of animals matter to her. She is not a vegan, she asserts right at the beginning. She’s eaten plenty of animals. But years ago, after dining on slabs of grilled game meat, including zebra and antelope, at the Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya, she had an epiphany. At the time, she was a graduate student in anthropology studying monkeys. When she could, she stole away to simply watch the other animals graze and move across the plains. She loved them. And then at the restaurant, she found herself devouring some of the very same species she so admired. She’d gone from being “Barbara the avid observer of animals” to “Barbara the voracious eater of animals.” And while she didn’t change her meat-eating habits overnight, that epiphany — and her work of watching animals — began to undermine her taste for barbecue. These days, she limits her meat meals to fish, and she suggests that all of us try to reduce the amount of meat we eat because the industrial farming of animals harms the environment — and because those lumps of packaged flesh were once sentient beings. Individuals with personalities.
King takes us chapter by chapter on a cook’s tour of animals we humans eat, from insects to octopus to chickens, fish, goats, pigs, cows, chimpanzees and dogs, exploring the latest scientific discoveries about their intelligence and sentience – building a case for them as beings that deserve more out of life than a trip down our gullets.
She starts with insects, explaining that people actually do prepare such things as katydid-and-grilled-cheese sandwiches and grasshopper-stuffed tacos. They eat them, too. To write authoritatively about eating insects, which is properly called entomophagy and is becoming more popular, she sampled cookies with crickets baked inside. As long as she didn’t dwell on what the cookies contained, she liked them. They were “slightly nutty, maybe, with a granular texture.” She also ate the tacos, which were more of a challenge because the insect body parts were so visible.
King doesn’t try to persuade us to switch from chicken legs to those of grasshoppers. Instead, she tacks in a different direction, asking if insects are intelligent. They are, judging by studies of social wasps and fruit flies. The former recognize the faces of their hive-mates, and the latter can gather information before making a decision – much as we do when choosing a new car. They also have personalities. King notes that the idea that insects have personalities is so well-accepted these days that a recent science news story stated matter-of-factly: “The experiences of youth can change the adult personalities of crickets.”
What is personality? It’s the way, King informs us, that “an individual feels, thinks, and acts in the world.” Usually it’s thought of in terms of introversion vs. extroversion, and agreeableness vs. aggression. Crickets, like those baked in the cookies, have varying levels of boldness and aggression, depending on whether they grew up in quiet or noisy environments. We learn that octopuses, too, are not simple cookie-cutter animals. Some can be shy, prone to hiding in corners, like one named Emily Dickinson who lived at the Seattle Aquarium. Another, called Leisure Suit Larry, was brashly forward, much too ready to reach out and touch the humans. Octopuses also do clever, intelligent things, laying and guarding their eggs as chickens do; camouflaging the color, shape and texture of their bodies in an instant to match their surroundings; and engaging in eye contact with humans. King is excellent at summarizing all that’s been discovered about animals like octopuses, soft-bodied invertebrates that seem so different from us. But she shows otherwise, declaring them at last to be “conscious, thinking, strategizing” creatures that “evaluate what’s going on around them.” And here, her book takes another swerve, this time making us admit that we rarely pay attention to octopuses’ talents or personalities, and instead most often think of them as ingredients for a “succulent meal.”
King is not a scold, but she is good at stirring up guilt – and making us question if we truly want to eat that fennel-and-garlic-scented chicken leg that once belonged to a good-natured, lovable and smart bird. She serves up jaw-dropping statistics (every year, about 50 billion chickens are killed globally, and some 8 billion of these are slaughtered in the United States for us to eat) and painful-to-read descriptions of killing methods – but leavens this darkness with humor and tales of animals acting as individuals, expressing the full gamut of emotions we humans often wrongly claim solely for ourselves. Her method and passion are effective, and I ended the book agreeing that we can – and should – help these creatures and our environment by choosing to eat fewer of them or none at all.
Nevertheless, Dear Reader, I confess: I ate the chicken.
Morell is the author of “Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel.”