The Politics of Meat Consumption

Natalidita Ningthoukhongjam *

A meat shop at Moreh, Manipur-Burma border town
A meat shop at Moreh, Manipur-Burma border town in December 2012 :: Pix - Danial Chabungbam/Deepak Oinam

"If God did not intend for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?"
John Cleese

I eat meat earnestly and I tend not to hide the fact because it's food, not an illegal fetish. But I've been advised not to bring it up in polite conversations, to restrain from unintentionally shocking people (mostly of the older generation, although not restricted to) with my dietary preferences. Yes, that faux pas has already been committed often during my lifetime.

It's a little hard for me to pretend I don't relish meat, when it has been a natural part of my diet for as long as I can remember; harder still to comprehend why those who don't share my taste assume a holier-than-thou stance when confronted with the question: do you like red meat? They don't just say no. They make the same face that I do when someone wants to know if I like kicking dogs. Surely, there's a difference?

It appears there isn't. There are types of meat I'm obviously not supposed to enjoy.

Fish isn't one of them. Let me make that clear. The Meitei community will not survive without fish, both culturally and gastronomically, so fish consumption isn't exactly something to be looked down on. In fact, avoiding fish is considered anomalous to one's ethnic identity. Eating chicken and eggs has been blessed with some amount of social acceptability, if you haven't, say, crossed your fifties in age count.

Sea food and fresh water food other than fish are okay as long as you stick to shrimps, prawns, and to a lesser extent, crabs and scallops. And, that's basically where the line is drawn. Pork, beef, mutton, duck meat, eel, dog meat, squid, etc. are shifted to a problematic space, and it is that space I'm interested in looking at, not least because it is a subject that personally and deeply affects me.

I haven't tasted cat or dog meat in my life, nor do I intend to. I tried to brave rabbit and pigeon meat in separate incidents, and found it hard to swallow even the gravy. The idea of smelling deep-fried frogs is repulsive to me, and I suppose those who do not eat beef would react similarly at the smell of beef stew. These are matters of personal taste, not to be included into the problematic space, for the same reason vegetarianism isn't.

The problematic space is characterised by the various stigmas associated with the consumption of meat that isn't fish (which I shall eliminate from my definition of meat for the purpose of this article), stigmas that operate on multiple levels. For one thing, religion plays a big role in abstinence from meat consumption: beef serves as the primary example here, although a lot of people may give up even chicken and pork as they grow older.

Secondly, and subsequently, this may lead to the practice of cooking meat in an area of the house other than the kitchen to respect the abstinence of family members; meat, in this case, is taken to be impure food, not to be allowed into the kitchen, a room that carries sacred significance in our culture. Third, meat consumption is generally considered a masculine activity.

This isn't to imply that the female population of the Meitei community is expressly prohibited from having meat, or that there aren't men who take the vegetarian route. What are visible are certain restrictions and attitude that testify to the masculine nature of meat consumption. In my personal experience, I've been accused of being "unfeminine" for liking pork and beef.

If not such accusations, then amusement. If not amusement, then still a topic to be commented on. When it comes to men, though, the outlook shifts; they are expected to eat meat. Even when they experiment with dog meat, which hasn't yet fallen into the spectrum of universally devoured food, we dismiss it off as an example of how boys will always be boys.

The act of consumption alone is not where the gender bias plays out; it extends to the process of procuring meat. Not many women will be seen entering butcher-shops; not a single butcher-shop is run by females. There's also the issue of age limit. After a certain point of time in their life, women are expected to give up meat, or consume it in secret.

It should be mentioned that there are groups of people within the Meitei community who openly indulge in meat; for whom it is tradition to add a nicely done pork curry in ceremonies which for most of us are completely vegetarian affairs. It should also be mentioned that this trend is commonly perceived as less civilised. Yet who is to decide what is civilised and what isn't?

What indeed defines Meitei purity? Meat consumption was outlawed in the eighteenth century by King Pamheiba, a religious fanatic who imposed Hinduism on his subjects it was a perfectly appropriate food until then. At least history records the fact that we as a race didn't always feel it was shameful to fill our stomach with roast pork.

To shake off any socio-cultural ideology is not an easy task for many reasons, and two of them are at work here: status quo is often more comfortable than radical change, and ideologies exist anyway due to failure to see them for the disposable constructs they actually are. Meat consumption is twice bound by religious edicts and patriarchal values. Why it is such a big deal for many of us is therefore not going to be an easy question to ask, let alone answer.

However, if you, like me, shudder at the idea of feeling guilt where there should be none, you're more than welcome to jump ships. We've got pork cooked with mustard leaves in our pans, and believe me, you don't want to miss that.

* Natalidita Ningthoukhongjam wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao as part of "The Methodical Magpie"
This article was posted on April 28, 2013

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