Food preparation is a death ritual. A prawn, peeled and headless, rests naked on your palm. With a paring knife, you make an incision along its back. The prawn splits to reveal a thread of faecal matter. Your bare hands, which have just beheaded and stripped the prawn of its only armour, must now clean this creature’s faeces under running water. Only then is the prawn ready to be cooked and consumed without incident to a human being.
What about fruit, vegetables and meat? They are no different. You undress them. You wash their bodies. You make sure they are cleaned and portioned. You cook them with just the right amount of heat and time. But hardly anyone today who is involved in the preparation of food would contemplate it as a ritual for the dead (let alone people who do not cook at all).
Joseph Campbell observed that ancient cultures felt the need to assuage the guilt associated with killing animals for food. The beast was perceived by such cultures to have willingly given its life for the continued survival of the people, and the people accordingly thank the beast with an elaborate ritual of dance and oral tradition. It should therefore be of no surprise that such cultures often worshipped gods who took the forms of animals. The animal, while hunted, was not a victim.
On the other hand, when one is at dinner with a Christian family, for example, it is not the animal whose life has been taken that is thanked, but God. That animal is also literally soulless.
Food preparation is also as much a cosmetic procedure as it is a death ritual. A woman gets ready to go out. She washes her face with a cleanser. She conceals the imperfections on her face with a skin-coloured cream. She defines her eyebrows with a pencil. Her eyes look more awake with eyeliner, her lips an unnatural pink.
The fish undergoes an operation not too different. The fish has its scales — also its only armour from this cruel world — scraped off. An incision is drawn across its belly. Human hands dig into its belly to remove the guts. The tail and fins are trimmed with scissors. In many kitchens, the fish is also filleted, so the diner is not confronted by the unbecoming face of a dead animal. Only then is the fish finally ready to be steamed, fried or grilled. Likewise, the woman with her bright face is now ready for a night out.
Is this an uncomfortable analogy? The difference is that the fish is dead. The difference is that, since the fish is dead, the cook as its undertaker also does the make-up. The difference is that the fish undergoes this cosmetic operation not for its self worth but out of consideration for the diner, who is likely paying to consume it. The difference is that the woman presents her face to herself and the rest of the world as her greatest asset, while in most cases the face of a fish never ends up on a restaurant plate.