Let’s meat!

Charlotte De Backer with a history of meat consumption, and how a simple choice to eat or not eat meat can complicate our social lives

Breakfast with your mum, lunch with your colleagues, an after-work drink with friends or a late-night dinner with your partner: our days are filled with social occasions that revolve around food and drink. Moments of sheer happiness, bonding, and sharing food. Or not…

Food is sociality, yet it is also isolation. Sharing food can connect us – Woolley and Fishbach showed how similar consumption can promote trust and cooperation – but the foods we do and don’t eat can also create painful rifts between us. There is a close connection between food and identity: we are what we eat, as the 18th century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin taught us. Food sociologist Claude Fischler added that if it is really the case that we are what we eat, then we are similar when we eat similar foods, and we are different when we eat different foods. Food is not just fuel to the body, but also an important and often overlooked system of communication (Barthes, 1997), and it always has been.

Meat and morality
Throughout human history, food has shaped the way we think, act and socialise with others. Meat in particular has played an important role in this process. The introduction of meat to the human diet has been linked to the expansion of the human brain and increased sociality (see Milton, 1999). This is, in part, due to the acquisition and distribution of meat in ancestral human groups (Stanford & Bunn, 2001). In comparison to plants, animals are far more challenging to rely on as a food source, as one must locate the target, possess sufficient skills to successfully hunt, and then process the meat for immediate consumption before it spoils. In ancestral times, high levels of individual strength, skills, and knowledge, but also group level coordination were required to access meat (Kaplan et al., 2000). When meat acquisition was successful, it often resulted in large packages of energy-dense food that in the absence of modern technologies could not be stored for long periods of time. The result was the sharing of food in strategic ways.

Throughout major parts of human evolutionary history, the consumption of meat, more than any other food type, was characterised by sharing with related family members and with non-kin group members, based on rules of reciprocity (Jaeggi & Gurven, 2013): I will share with you, if you return the favour; the basis of cooperation and bonding. And that’s not all; ‘meat made us moral’ (Mameli, 2013). Since meat acquisition and distribution requires cooperation, it also requires trust in others to cooperate, and feelings of anger towards those who do not contribute or share. Energy-dense meat packages introduced dilemmas of fairness and cheating behaviour in the daily life of our ancestors. As a consequence, a regulating system of morality evolved to ensure group members would contribute to the acquisition of meat, and the fair sharing of meat among different group members.

The creation of a divide
The introduction of meat into the human diet may have thus enabled us to think about treating others fairly. This becomes rather paradoxical if one shifts their view such that the ‘others’ become animals. If it is true that the introduction of meat in the human diet has shaped our morality (i.e. our sense to treat others fairly), then it was the introduction of meat into the human diet that enabled vegetarians and vegans today to consider it unethical to eat animals. The ethical desire to not harm animals is in fact the core motive that sets vegans and vegetarians apart from those who do eat meat (De Backer & Hudders, 2014). And in this sense, the introduction of meat into the human diet has shaped our sociality in fascinating and contrasting ways: it first connected us and enabled a sense of morality, which translated to differences in food choices, and in the end created a divide between those who do and do not eat meat.

Today this divide between those who do and do not eat meat seems bigger than ever. Some meat eaters avoid vegetarians to not be confronted with criticism about their own meat eating diet choices (Rothgerber, 2014). Some vegetarians avoid contact with meat eaters. Some vegans even decide not to be intimately involved with meat eaters; this so called ‘vegansexuality’ has sparked considerable debate from both sides (Potts & Parry, 2010). When vegans and meat eaters do get romantically involved, some worry ‘that [their] husband will one day leave [them] for a meat-eater, for someone familiar who doesn’t sniff him suspiciously for signs of alimentary infidelity’ (Kothari, 1999). Becoming vegan in a family of meat eaters can be very challenging, leading to serious conflicts and even family disruptions (Hirschler, 2011), and many vegans report negative reactions from friends and family (Twine, 2014). Many vegans actively seek out new friendships with likeminded people (Twine, 2014), and in today’s society online forums are a welcome place to seek what most of us inherently need to be happy: social contact (Chuter, 2018).

Bring out your pots and pans
Few people like to be alone, and few people like to eat alone. Eating alone is not part of our human history (Fox, 2014). When we do eat alone, we often seek out distraction; in front of window, or a device that lends social companionship, such as an online forum with likeminded people. Yet this cannot replace real-life commensality. Commensality or conviviality, defined as ‘the act of eating together’ is good for us, in terms of both physical and mental wellbeing (Phull et al., 2015). And the act of sharing food socialises individuals into ‘competent and appropriate members of a society’ (Ochs & Shohet, 2006). Subtle unspoken elements of mealtimes matter in this socialisation process, and get lost when sharing a meal with a likeminded friend online. These ‘digital dinners’ enable us to eat together, but not to share food.

Eating from the same pots/foods is genuinely ‘sharing food’, and different from ‘eating together’, where everyone has their own plate/meal, at the same table, or even in different places but connected through technology (Grevet et al., 2012). As compared to eating together, sharing food has a greater potential to socialise individuals morally, because it primes people to think about fairness (De Backer et al., 2015). When sharing food, and depending on cultures and occasions, certain people will be served first, second, and so on, while others will be last. In most cultures it is also inappropriate to take the foods of others, and greediness in general is not appreciated (Ochs & Shohet, 2006).

In today’s society we have a range of energy-dense packs that can be used to prime fairness, equality and sociality by means of food. We do not need to kill an animal to enable the social benefits of food sharing – plant-based meals can be a perfect alternative. Moreover, buffets where we share a multitude of pots and dishes are the perfect occasion to allow everyone to join in and share a meal; some pots will be shared, others passed on. Those who do and don’t eat meat (or any other food type) can share food in buffet style meals, so bring out your pots and pans: for breakfast, lunch, dinner and every snack in between. Our days are filled with opportunities to share food and connect.

In a 2019 book about the impact of vegetarian diet choices which I co-edited, ‘To eat or not to eat meat’, we collected stories from vegetarians and vegans worldwide that illustrate how food fuels our body as much as it fuels our social life. The choice to eat meat or not can have unforeseen and uncomfortable social consequences. These can be overcome, but require effort from us all. We need to understand and respect others’ food choices, as much as we need to bring back food knowledge and food sharing to the menu. We should all be able to join in and eat together.

- Charlotte De Backer is an Associate Professor at the University of Antwerp.
[email protected]

Illustration: Ana Rosa Louis


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