(Published in the Business Standard,
November 7, 2009)

The UK restaurant critic A A Gill is as well known for his acerbic outrageousness as for his (formidable) knowledge of food, but even he couldn’t have predicted the storm he would create with what will go down in history as the “baboon confession”. In his Sunday Times review of The Luxe, Gill served up an unforgettable opening line: “I shot a baboon in Africa, last Wednesday, just after lunch.”
Outrage followed, with readers flaying Gill for his vivid description of how he blew the creature’s lungs out, and for his confession that he did it to “get a sense of what it would be like to kill someone, a stranger”. Unusually for Gill, though, he may have committed a minor error. He writes: “There is no mitigation. Baboon isn’t good to eat, unless you’re a leopard.”

Some months before Gill blew his baboon away, though, a group of South African farmers were lobbying for permission to open the world’s first licensed baboon abattoir. Animal rights groups have successfully blocked the plans for the abattoir — baboons are uncomfortably close to humans in terms of their facial expressions, and most of us have a visceral discomfort when it comes to killing any of the ape family. The understanding that apes, monkeys and baboons can feel pain and fear is inescapable, given their closeness as a species to humanity itself.

The farmers had specific plans for marketing baboon meat —tinned according to old bush recipes, and in the form of salami. Given that Friar Labat records an 18th century recipe made with donkey meat, wild boar meat and the meat of the domestic pig blended together, baboon salami isn’t that much of a stretch.

In the same week of Gill’s baboon confession, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer touched off an ongoing debate with his book, Eating Animals. Foer doesn’t mention baboons, specifically, but he does ask an age-old question: why do we draw the line at eating dogs? Given that Gill spends much of his life as a food critic eating dead animals, is it really that reprehensible that he would then go out and shoot one? Would his baboon-killing have been more justifiable if he had subsequently cooked and eaten the primate?

Foer’s book shows much of the zeal of the newly-converted vegetarian, but he does offer new ways of looking at the increasingly vexed question of whether we can morally justify eating meat. (Full disclosure: I’m a lapsed vegetarian, who lost the taste-versus-ethics argument some years ago.) Foer has a cunning addition to the usual arsenal of reasons to go vegetarian: his research into factory-farmed meat, which accounts for most of the meat eaten in the US, demonstrates a strong and convincing link between bad holding and slaughter practices and the spread of numerous human diseases. To summarise his arguments: eating meat can’t be justified morally, and if the ethics of eating meat doesn’t bother you, consider the fact that it might make you sick.

Foer addresses cultural discomfort brilliantly: few cultures can afford to take a long, hard look at what’s on their plate, and why, whether that’s organic vegetables or pesticide-laden fruits, meat or tofu substitutes. The difference between the tables of the rich and the poor, between abundance and scarcity, the many food taboos balanced against the sensual pleasures of the palate, the cruelty of killing versus the widespread acceptability of animal slaughter — to look closely at your plate is an act of moral courage that is beyond most of us.

I think that’s also what’s missing from Eating Animals: the understanding that for most of us leading already-rushed lives, making increasingly complex decisions about everything from water conservation to child-rearing, we would prefer not to examine what goes into our bodies too closely. Between Gill’s gunslinger act and Foer’s compassionate but persistent inquiry, they might force us to look again at why we eat meat — and to accept that there’s a deep inconsistency between deploring the killing of a baboon while we order another portion of butter chicken or fish fry.