Ew! Are you squeamish? Are you grossed out by meat, by fish, by eggs, by scales and suckers and shells and bones? We live in fastidious times. Now we pick, we prod, we send dietary requirements by return of post. ‘Super excited to see you guys! Btw I’m vegan, non-gluten, non-soy, no-nuts. Sorry to be a pain!’
Last year, Sainsbury’s launched chicken pieces in ‘no touch’ pouches for millennials who won’t handle raw meat unless it’s sans teeth, eyes, taste, everything. And at Somerville College, Oxford, students were served octopus terrine at a matriculation dinner, and a fresher complained that they had been ‘surprised’ by the dish. The college conceded that cephalopod ‘was not quite right for everyone’ and that the kitchens should in future serve something ‘everyone is comfortable with’.
In April, the Ukrainian cook and cultural historian Olia Hercules posted a picture of an ox heart on Instagram. She wrote about double standards — our willingness to eat neat tubes of cooked sausage, while shuddering at raw hearts — and about the need to eat more offal, to throw nothing away that could be eaten. She said it was almost impossible in this country to buy cow’s udder or blood. A few days later she posted a photo of pigs’ ears and trotters from Pipers, an all-grass family farm in Devon.
When I saw the photos my first thought was: beautiful. Chardin, Rembrandt, still-life lives! My second thought was: brave. Because I knew as soon as I saw the pictures, red in tooth and claw, that someone would shop the photographer. Someone did. Instagram covered the images with a banner: ‘This photo contains sensitive content which some people may find offensive or disturbing.’ This is the same Instagram that fails to censor images of young girls cutting their arms, whose parent company Facebook hosts jihadi beheading videos and footage of the Christchurch mosque attack long after calls to take them down. When it comes to three little piggies, however, Instagram’s all over it.
Hercules, true to her name, came up fighting. She wondered at a food culture so ‘detached from reality’ that social media users need trigger warnings for trotters. Hercules is an omnivore married to a vegetarian. I worry, though, that such marriages and friendships are becoming rarer. For sure as free-range eggs is eggs, the question of what you are prepared to put on your plate is becoming one of who you are willing to sit with at the table.
Politics is viciously tribal. We consume our news in silos, bubbles and echo chambers. When the MP Laura Pidcock claimed she could never be friends with a Tory she justified it by saying: ‘I feel disgusted at the way they’re running this country, it’s visceral.’ Note: disgusted. Note: visceral. The language of dietary disgust works well in politics. Brexiteer (ew!), Ukipper (yuk!), Trump voter (squeal!). The favoured insults are meaty: gammon over here, red-neck over there. Voters who vote the wrong way are condemned as past their sell-by date. You can buy T-shirts that say ‘I’d never kiss a Tory’ and ‘I only kiss vegans’. According to Drawing Down The Moon, a matchmaking agency, whether members voted Leave or Remain has become the ‘number one deal-breaker’.
The debate about leaving the EU has become fixated on whether or not we are going to eat cheap chlorinated chickens from horrid Trump’s icky America. Jordan Peterson is reviled as much for his all-beef diet as for his books. Broadcasters asked to interview Arron Banks and Steve Bannon wrinkle their noses and turn over their subjects with long tongs. Contrary voices are uninvited to lectures and university beanfeasts: unsavoury, unpalatable, indigestible.
An admission now: I have some skin in this game. I am a former anorexic who has spent 15 years learning not just to eat, but to eat widely, with pleasure and in company. The worst of anorexia isn’t the cold or the hunger, but the terrible loneliness. The more rules you make for yourself, the narrower the acceptable foods, the harder it is to make friends, to meet up, to share. How do you break bread when you’re terrified of a crumb of carb? I know too well how disgust over certain sorts of food can tip into disgust at those who eat them. It has been distressing to see my own former tendency — a distaste for eaters of meat, cream and cheese — elevated to a higher virtue: my table, my gut, my conscience is cleaner than yours.
Better surely to break bread, to reach across the table, to be challenged by unfamiliar tastes, ideas and opinions than to cleave to a rigid diet of food and thought. Try a tentacle, snog a Tory — you might like it.