Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

The Sacred (Italian?) Face on your Plate

April 16, 2010

Fried rabbit with fennel; grilled pigeon and grilled lamb; crostini neri made with chicken livers; pork liver dishes; gnocchi laced with local beef; pasta with boar sauce; a variety of foods garnished with animal testicles. The list of described delicacies goes on and on, as it inevitably does in a book about Tuscany. This short-list is borrowed from Frances Mayesís Every Day in Tuscany (2010).

Hereís the thing. Iím a sucker for any good writing about Tuscany, as I am for visits to that region. Few and far between in my life, these trips are soul-enhancing. When Iím in Italy, especially in the walled city of Lucca and its environs, I feel just that more alive, just that bit more in tune with nature and art. The cypress trees, the gorgeous hill towns, the birds and small mammals, the incomparable art and historyóand of course the food, because even a simple tomato and mozzarella sandwich can be stunning-- arouse my senses.

But letís face it, in Italy (as in books about Italy) the parade of animals served up at breakfast, lunch, and dinner can be mind-numbing. Itís not that I partake much of the parade myself: In Italy as here at home, my family and I eat mostly vegetarian pasta and pizza, and other non-meat dishes, with (for two of the three of us) the occasional chicken thrown in. I am not a strict vegetarian, though Iím getting awfully close nowadays.

And itís not that I aim to single out Italy, either. I just stumble over the paradox: How is it that I feel deeply connected to sacred nature in Italy, where animals are celebrated in the culture primarily by becoming a grilled lunch or a pasta-topping dinner delight?

Is it because animal-harvesting in Italy is small-scale and sustainable, carried out by the families depicted by Mayes in her Tuscany books and thus disconnected from the huge factory farms we know in the U.S.?

Certainly, some families raise and kill their own animals. Mayes notes her own squeamishness as a neighbor demonstrates ďthe best way to hack a rabbit into pieces or stalk a duck and twist off the head.Ē And organic farming, judging from statistics available online, is on the increase in Italy. Factory farming is no stranger to the country, though. According to the organization Four Paws UK, for instance, Italy is the worldís second-biggest rabbit meat supplier (after China), with 10,000 commercial farms often housing rabbits in terrible conditions.

Naturally there is no one-dimensional response to animals in Italy. Itís the land of St. Francis after all, with a long tradition of kindness and care to animals. And in a good percentage of the art we travelers flock to Italy to adore, animals are represented as religious symbols, and venerated. Mayes tells the story of the French saint Roch (St. Rocco in Italian) who, in myth, walked across France to cure victims of the plague. When he contracted the disease himself, he went into the forest to die; he survived because a dog fed him bread. Roch became the Patron Saint of Dogs.

For us humans, wherever we live, itís a multi-layered subject: animals in our art, animals in our spiritual lives, animals on our plates. I wonder: How does it help animals when we dwell on all this complexity, when after all, an animal eaten for our pleasure is an animal dead and gone, with a high probability of having suffered in its life and its death?

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.