Magazine article The Spectator

Ethical Eating

Magazine article The Spectator

Ethical Eating

Article excerpt

Since I wrote in The Spectator a fortnight ago about the 'Say no to foie gras' campaign, my email has been flooded with protests. Animal-rights groups have claimed that I am wet, limp, cravenly judicious; I should have said that force-fed geese are a symbol of the evil Man everywhere does to animals. Partisans of foie gras accuse me of being a 'vego-fascist'; more interestingly, several of my Sybarite correspondents have observed that the European legislation banning force-feeding is really a kind of class warfare waged against a delicacy enjoyed mostly by the well-to-do. And my friend Paul Levy, Britain's most knowledgeable foodie, says I've got the facts wrong: artisan producers do not abuse their birds; in caring human hands both geese and ducks voluntarily submit to the gavage (massage of food down the gullet) since they are programmed to overeat before the migratory season.

One thing these clamouring correspondents seem to share lies in that word 'artisanal'. It seems to all a badge of honour, artisanal food suggesting the ethical as well as the tasty. In the ancient world, the artisans' honour had little to do with gentleness or kindness; Hesiod and Virgil imagined the farmer to be a noble figure because, like a warrior, he struggled with the elements;

had Hesiod access to an email chat room he would surely have dismissed all this worry about cruelty to animals, since it is animals who are cruel to us.

The idea that artisans of the field and farmyard are locked in struggle against Nature passed down in time, even into the writings of medieval monks tending to plants and animals in monasteries; but slowly the rural artisan's honour began to modulate from questions of struggle to sheer skill; thus, by the 18th century, Diderot's Encyclopedia 'discovers' the deductive intelligence, curiosity about facts and self-discipline required to farm well (perhaps only a habitué of the Paris salons could claim this as a discovery).

The Enlightened artisan appeared to the philosophers more largely as a thinker than as a combattant against raw nature.

The kindly artisan is a figure who emerged in the industrial era, celebrated by the followers of Ruskin and Morris: they imagined him, for instance, illuminated by the glow of a wood-burning stove, a bookbinder bent over his bench pointing out a detail in the leather to his respectful apprentice; they contrasted such a scene with factories where giant industrial presses spewed out thousands of books an hour, the factory workers sagging from fatigue, angry, drawn into themselves . …

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