I discovered Murder in the Kitchen in English 101. It is a chapter of a book by Alan W, Watts entitled, Does it Matter? (1970). Murder is a philosophy of cooking. How to design and use a kitchen. How to cook so that the chicken hasn’t been murdered for your mistakes.
MURDER IN THE KITCHEN
By Alan W. Watts 1970
A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool: the shape alone is stable, for the substance is a stream of energy going in at one end and out at the other. We are particular and temporarily identifiable wiggles in a stream that enters us in the form of light, heat, and pate de foie gras. It goes out as gas, excrement – and also as semen, babies, talk, politics, commerce, war, poetry and music. And philosophy.
A philosopher, which is what I am supposed to be, is a sort of intellectual yokel who gapes and stares at what sensible people take for granted, a person who cannot get rid of the feeling that the barest facts of everyday life are unbelievably odd. As Aristotle put it, the beginning of
philosophy is wonder. I am simply amazed to find myself living on a ball of rock that swings around an immense spherical fire. I am more amazed that I am a maze-a complex wiggliness, an arabesque of tubes, filaments, cells, fibers, and films that are various kinds of palpitation in this stream of liquid energy. But what really gets me is that almost all the substance of this maze, aside from water, was once other living bodies, the bodies of animals and plants – and that I had to obtain it by murder. We are other creatures rearranged, for biological existence continues only through the mutual slaughter and ingestion of its various species. I exist solely
through membership in this perfectly weird arrangement of beings that flourish by chewing each other up. Obviously being chewed up is painful, and I myself do not want to be chewed up. Thus, the whole scheme bothers my conscience. If the morticians don’t get me first, will my being eaten
up by germs and worms be fair compensation for the countless cows, sheep, birds and fish that I have consumed during my lifetime? I wonder: is this entire biological arrangement of mutual mayhem an insane and diabolical contraction that moves faster and faster to a dead end? I
have seen plants infested with greenfly, one day swarming with plump and succulent little bodies and the next – gray dust on stalks. Life seems to be a system that eats itself to death, and in which victory equals defeat.
Man can easily go the way of the greenfly, for as he becomes expert in technology, he is seen to be more predatory than locusts or piranha fish. He is devouring, destroying and fouling the whole surface of the planet: minerals, forests, suburbs and sewage, rust and smog. Meanwhile,
the total conquest of his natural enemies from tigers to bacteria allows his own race to swarm itself out of space; and, through fear of his own rapacious kind, he wastes a huge proportion of his wealth in the manufacture of weapons, ever more deadly and ever more obsolete as
technical skill increases. Many prehistoric animals became extinct because of overdeveloped weaponry – the saber-toothed tiger through the unmanageability of its immense shearing teeth and the titanothere through the unsupportable weight of its colossal nose horn.
One can, perhaps, accept the idea that as the individual dies, so must the species. Thereafter, the energy of the universe will appear in new patterns and guises, and dance to different rhythms. The show will always go on, but must the going on be so intense an agony? Must the price of life always be soft sensitive flesh and nerve squirming under the crunch of sharp teeth? If so, then as Camus said, the only serious philosophical problem is whether or not to commit suicide.
Again, therefore the philosopher wonders: Short of suicide is there any way out of this vicious circle of mutual killing, which, in any case, seems to be suicide in the long run? Is there any way of avoiding, mitigating or generally cooling this system of murder and agony which is required
for the existence of even the most saintly human being?
Vegetarianism, for example is no solution. Years ago, the Indian botanist Sir Jagadis Bose measured the pain reactions of plants to cutting and pulling. To say that plants done really know that they are in pain is only to say they can’t put it into words. When I pointed this out to a strictly
vegetarian Buddhist, the famous Reginald H. Blyth who wrote Zen in English Literature, he said “Yes, I know that. But when we kill vegetables, they don’t scream so loud.” In other words, he was just being easy on his own feelings. Buddhist and Hindu monks have carried the attitude of ahimsa, or harmlessness, to the extreme of keeping their eyes on the ground when walking – not to avoid the temptations of lovely women, but to avoid trampling on beetles, snails or worms that might lie in the path. Yet this is at root an evasion, a ritual gesture of reverence for life which in no way alters the fact that we live by killing.
Searching my own conscience as to how I should respond to this predicament, I find three answers.
The first is to admit that deciding to live is deciding to kill, and to make no bones about it. For if I have really made up my mind to kill, I can do it expertly. Consider the agony of being halfway decapitated by a reluctant executioner. Death must be as swift as possible and the hand that holds the rife or wields the knife must be sure. (Incidentally you wouldn’t want your surgeon to be so sorry and concerned for you that his hand trembled when he opened up your abdomen.)
The second is that every form of life killed for food must be husbanded and cherished on the principle of “I love you so much I could eat you,” from which it should follow that “I eat you so much I love you.” This principle has been most seriously neglected by hunters in the past, and
by industrial farmers and fishermen today. To cite only two examples, modern techniques of whaling are in danger of abolishing whales, and industrial poultry farming is flooding the market with non-chickens and pseudo-eggs. The wretched birds are raised in wire cell-blocks, fed on
chemicals, are never allowed to scratch around in the sun, and taste just like that. Whatever is unlovable on the plate was unloved in the kitchen and on the farm.
The third has been expressed by Lin Yutang as follows: “If a chicken has been killed, and it is not cooked properly, that chicken has died in vain.” The very least I can do for a creature that has died for me is to honor it, not with an empty ritual, but by cooking it to perfection and relishing it to the full. Any animal that becomes me should enjoy itself as me.
The proper love of animals and plants, and of other materials on which our life depends, is nurtured in the kitchen. Yet one look at the average American or British kitchen shows that it is not a place of love. Stuck off in a constricted corner of the house, it looks like a bathroom or surgery – white, cold and dowdy, though sometimes glossy and militantly clean. Such kitchens are, like toilets, mere conveniences, where food is dutifully rendered chewable and assimilable because it is good for you. And everything that comes from such kitchens tastes as though it were good for you – scrubbed with soap, wiped off with rubbing alcohol and thoroughly
disinfected in boiling water. This is a rule of almost mathematical exactitude; colorless kitchen = tasteless food.
These abominable kitchens are not the result of poverty. They reflect the fact that the richest and most powerful civilization on earth is so preoccupied with saving time and making money that it has neither taste for life nor capacity for pleasure. The commonly accepted notion that
Americans are materialists is pure bunk. A materialist is one who loves material, a person devoted to the enjoyment of the physical and immediate present. By this definition, most Americans are abstractionists. They hate material and convert it as swiftly as possible into mountains of junk and clouds of poisonous gas. As a people, our ideal is to have a uture, and so long as this is so we shall never have a present. But only those who have a present, and who can relate to it materially and immediately, have any use for making plans for the future, for when their plans mature, they will enjoy the results. Others, with their eyes fixed on the tomorrow
that never comes, will bolt down all times present – forever – along with a vitamin-enriched Styrofoam called “bread”.
Much may be learned about a civilization from its staple foods, which in our case, is supposed to be bread. Real bread is a solid and crusty substance with an aroma evoking visions of farm kitchens, flour mills, sacks of wheat, and rolling waving fields of grain, gold and gentle in the
lazy heat of a late summer afternoon.