The Way of No Flesh

the vegetarian

The copyright page of Kan Hang’s stunning Man Booker International prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian, is about the only thing within the covers that reads like a recipe. The book’s genealogy lists its constituent parts like ingredients:

The coherent and, presumably, stable novel text, Ch’aesikjuuia, published in 2007 grew out of “three separate novelettes” published earlier. The English translation, in turn, appeared in two separate versions—the original, published “in Great Britain, by Portobello Books”, and the “somewhat different” version published in the American paperback edition, to which I will refer throughout the rest of this post.

I pause on such arcana to highlight the degree to which the novel does not address either conventional foodways or alternative dietary choices as the organizing principle in its narrative arc. Instead, this novel provides a multi-perspective depiction of the physical toll of mental illness on its sufferers and those closest to them.

Because cooking and eating are the most mundane of tasks shared by people who cohabit and share a space, a sudden alteration in a person’s habits or preferences in either or both areas, such as the choice to become vegetarian, interrupts the rhythms that govern intimate life. The husband, brother-in-law, and sister of our titular character, Yeong-hye, all question their own assumptions about what constitutes normal consumption and how we use food to gauge our health upon being told of her refusal to eat meat. Mr. Cheong, the unsympathetic husband, observes:

As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. (22)

Though others are more concerned with Yeong-hye’s well-being, nobody questions this assumption that variations from a meat-centric diet are only acceptable as medicinal adjustments to one’s everyday routines.

Rice is by far the most discussed food item within the novel; it is mentioned ten different times across the three sections. Beef and fruit come a close second, each with nine references. The third most-mentioned food item is also a tie between pork and soup, each of which appears eight different times. All told, 48 different food items are mentioned throughout the text. What is the proper reaction to reading about delectable dishes when the eponymous character finds the same disgusting?

The references to food items throughout the novel become problematic especially as Yeong-hye’s crisis worsens. Since food items mentioned span across all alimentary preferences, appealing to vegans and meat-eaters alike, the role of food as sustenance in this novel is to highlight what separates the reader and Yeong-hye’s nightmarish delusions. The reader’s appetite can be aroused, which according to the logic of the narrative means the reader has a healthy hold on everyday life. Yeong-hye’s abstinence separates her reality from ours, and though we have access to the images that haunt her, that situational irony only renders the reader more powerless to stop her inevitable decline.

The significance of the title, then, is that Yeong-hye’s abstinence from consuming animal flesh is the primary way through which others detect there is something wrong. . Several scenes could trigger readers who have struggled with eating disorders and/or suicidal tendencies, so this novel is not for everyone. However, despite its disturbing narrative arc, The Vegetarian’s superb achievement is Kang’s deeply humane portrayal of Yeong-hye’s efforts to heal herself, even if her attempt to find salvation through behavior modification is ultimately misguided. This novel stayed with me long after I turned the last page.

Works cited:

Kang, Han. The Vegetarian. Trans. Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015.

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Godly Gastronomy: Religious Eating Traditions and Ecumenical Secularism in Public Life Writing

Any analysis of the political work that first person life narratives about food perform in the context of American national belonging should begin with an admission of personal agendas and biases, so here are mine: I speak from the perspective of a literary food studies scholar, Latina, practicing Catholic who enjoys eating paczki on Fat Tuesdays, who’s published on the subject of Jonathan Safran Foer’s New American Haggadah, and who regularly teaches all three of the essays I’ll discuss today to students at a Midwestern university. I also subscribe to the New York Times. These self-disclosures follow the genre of persona building at work in most food-writing aimed at general audiences and, as Emily Lind Johnston observes in “Agrarian Dreams,”

All life writing has the potential to serve as a model for audiences: As long as an audience has faith in the authenticity of the autobiographical performance, the protagonist’s journey is represented as achievable and often as desirable. In the United States, autobiographical narratives are understood as models for acting out individuals’ relationships to American ideals as performances of citizenship and politics. (19)

I argue that the three personal essays published in the New York Times opinion pages and Sunday Magazine between 2009 and 2012—Paul Clemens’ “Lean Tuesday,” Hesham Hassaballa’s “The Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan,” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Why a Haggadah?”—constitute a new type of public writing about both food and religion whose aim is not conversion to the faith but, rather a defense of the proposition that increased public awareness of the history and context of religious cultural traditions enriches the larger fabric of national polity. Speaking as insiders, though not all identify as believers, Clemens, Hassaballa, and Foer give witness to the sociopolitical benefits of observing religiously inspired culinary traditions, whether in public (standing in line at the bakery to purchase paczki the Tuesday before the start of Lent or refraining from daytime meals during Ramadan) or within the intimate realm of the home (where the ritual observance of the Passover meal is mediated through a performative reading of the family’s haggadah). By publishing their first person writing in the de-facto national newspaper of record, The New York Times, these three men address themselves to an audience of their fellow Americans, both insiders and outsiders to Judaism, Islam, or just unfamiliar with paczki, a sweet Polish filled pastry that marks the regional and ethnic observance of a day of excess in anticipation of the religious observance of Lent. These personal narratives suggest that secularism is not a freedom from religious ideas but a space that allows for, and prospers from, a difference through practice.

All of these writers use the secular public platform of the opinion pages to advocate for a more robust operational definition of diversity within a multiethnic American society. The appeal to spiritual foodways contextualizes religious traditions as predominantly nutritive expressions of national citizenship, and in calling for meaningful diversity, I note the emergence of what amounts to a secular ecumenism, or call for unity across difference. Clemens’ celebration of the communal consumption of paczki in Detroit is a simulacrum that inverts the logic of the sacramental meal at the heart of Catholic liturgy. Hassaballa’s and Foer’s accounts inform readers about, and invite them inside, the private observances of the Ramadan fast and the Passover meal in order to combat perceptions that these celebrations constitute a stubborn oppositional otherness that challenges the norm.

In an article analyzing the free-speech controversy surrounding the docmentary HalalTV on Swedish public television, Mia Lovheim and Marta Axler observe: “Media has become an increasingly important arena for public engagement with religion in modern society, which has been demonstrated in studies within international research on media, religion and culture.” In an American context, such debates often take place in the comments section of online news articles and then spill over onto Twitter. By discussing food in their life narratives, Clemens, Foer, and Hassaballa pique their readers’ interests and whet their appetites more effectively than mere political diatribes might have. Any response is delayed, published in the letters to the editor. The newspaper opinion pages constitute a monologue wherein writers may share elements of their life stories as context for, or illustrations of, their political agendas. Isabel Alonso Belmonte argues that readers “are situated at the core of the communicative situation created by the newspaper opinion page and learn from both editorials and op-eds to form their own opinion about the issue being discussed.” The loop is not closed—it’s hard to tell what effect, if any, these narratives have.

Foer and Hassaballa diagnose the general ignorance surrounding Judaism and Islam as the root of problems such as apathy and racism, but aim their critique at different segments of the American population. Foer directs his remarks inward, towards other contemporary Jews:

Our grandparents were immigrants to America, but natives to Judaism. We are the opposite: fluent in “American Idol,” but unschooled in Jewish heroes. And so we act like immigrants around Judaism: cautious, rejecting, self-conscious, and feigning (or achieving) indifference. In the foreign country of our faith, our need for a good guidebook is urgent. (“Why a Haggadah?”)

As in his earlier vegetarian manifesto, Eating Animals, Foer here triangulates his personal choices through a thoughtful engagement with the legacy of his grandparents’ generation and draws wisdom for his own. The impulse he both diagnoses and challenges among his peers is that of unquestioning or automatic assimilation to flavorless American secularism. His essay argues that a well-informed Jewish cultural identity is both a complement and an antidote to religious chauvinism.

Hassaballa’s self-appointed task is quite the opposite; his goal is to use the language of food to de-exoticize two aspects of the Islamic faith which most Americans regard with a mixture of fear and dread: jihad and sharia law. Thus, he distinguishes the devout observance of Ramadan from the distortion of zealot extremists by emphasizing how the conflict inherent in the concept of holy war is an internal struggle to achieve personal discipline and overcome base physical impulses such as hunger: “Struggling a little to fast for the sake of God is the essence of jihad, not violence and murder, as some radical Muslims believe” (“Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan”).  Though this passage centered on the spiritual value of fasting as a demonstration of religious piety, he concludes with a more civic minded appeal:

Throughout this month, Americans will see Shariah law, which some want to ban, being practiced by the throngs of Muslims in the United States who are waiting until after sunset to eat, drink and be (very) merry. There is no threat at all in this. By making American Muslims better neighbors, better friends, better coworkers, and better people, the fast of Ramadan is only a good thing, for both the United States and the world.  (“Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan”)

Thus, Hassaballa’s and Foer’s political goal is the same: to empower American Muslims and American Jews to more fully claim and understand the distinctive’ culinary traditions associated with their religions so that they can contribute more robustly to the American project. By being more knowledgeable about their specific heritage and histories, the fellow insiders among their readers strengthen the cultural fabric that holds the nation rather than simply deriving their identity from generic markers of patriotism. I read these as anti-conversion narratives because their focus is internally driven and the goal is sociopolitical rather than spiritual. In practicing religious and cultural practices without impediment or bias, or learning about how others observe their own traditions, we can all realize the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

Clemens’ essay, in contrast, is an unapologetic defense of culinary appropriation on a regional scale. What distinguishes “Lean Tuesday” from other paeans to secular culinary catholicism like green beer at St. Patrick’s Day and the king cake at Mardi Gras, is Clemens’ insistence that the communal partaking of the celebratory treat in anticipation of Lent constitutes an act of faith in Detroit’s ability to survive the dispiriting deprivations of the economic downturn of 2008.  Within the narrative, this takes place by a shifting of perspective from one narrow in-group to a broader overlapping community:

The austerity of Lent would begin the next day, Ash Wednesday, and continue for 40 days until Easter, during which span we Catholics would be required to give something up.

This Fat Tuesday was a reprieve from all that. The church calendar and our checkbooks agreed that it was time, starting tomorrow, to give something up, to get by on less. For today, though, we would pretend that we were flush, that the lean times hadn’t started yet and that they would last just 40 days. (“Lean Tuesday”)

Whereas Clemens signals his belonging to the faith community through the use of first-person plural, he performs his citizenship as a fellow Detroitian through an act of cultural translation. Clemens recalls explaining to a concerned Asian American motorist wondering about the commotion.

I thought to explain some of this but opted to keep it simple, by employing a word no one can pronounce: “There’s no problem,” I said. “It’s paczki day!” Just another day of religious significance that has been secularized beyond recognition, thank heaven. (“Lean Tuesday”)

By renaming the day after the delectable confection, rather than noting its religious significance, Clemens highlights the restorative aspects of comensality even if distributed across multiple tables across the city.

I regard the persuasive rhetorical communicative acts taking place in these opinion pages and featured personal narratives as the most basic form of grassroots political action. By appealing to their fellow Americans’ minds through their stomachs, Clemens, Hassaballah, and Foer suggest that a willingness to eat together may be the strongest basis upon which to build a dynamic citizenry.

Works cited:

Belmonte, Isabel Alonso. “Toward a genre-based characterization of the problem–solution textual pattern in English newspaper editorials and op-eds.” Text & Talk-An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language, Discourse & Communication Studies 29.4 (2009): 393-414.

Clemens, Paul. “Lean Tuesday.” New York Times Sunday Magazine 25 March 2009.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. “Why a Haggadah?” New York Times 31 March 2012.

Hassaballa, Hesham A. “The Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan.” New York Times 1 August 2011.

Johnston, Emily Lind. “Agrarian dreams and neoliberal futures in life writing of the alternative food movement.” Food and Foodways 24.1-2 (2016): 9-29.

Lövheim, Mia, and Marta Axner. “Halal-TV: Negotiating the place of religion in Swedish public discourse.” Nordic Journal of Religion and Society 24.1 (2011): 57-74.

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Food Writing for Betty Fussell

On Wednesday, June 14th I participated in the Writing Workshop “Migrating Media: Byting Words” led by Betty Fussell. This was part of the annual food studies conference of ASFS andAFHVS. This year’s meeting is taking place at Occidental College in Pasadena. The conference hashtag is #oxyfood17

I thought I’d post my work for the workshop on the blog as yet another example of literary food studies. My goal is to document what I did in the 3 hour class. Prompts are highlighted in bold and my writing is featured below each. I’ve decided not to edit further, in order to preserve the spontaneity of the in-class writing that resulted from such wonderful engagement with a scholar whose work I admire.

Prompt 1: How do you know the Rocher is real? Write 5 sentences, one per sense, describing the experience.

The first indication I have that the candy is chocolate is its brown color. Then, I bring it up to my nose where I detect sweet, chocolatey aroma combined with hazelnuts. As I hold the candy, the warmth of my fingers makes it begin to melt. I bring it to my mouth and as I bite the candy, the warmth of my fingers makes it begin to melt. I bring it to my mouth and as I bite the candy my teeth crunch down to the smooth and creamy center, which my tongue holds on to until it dissolves into the memory of chocolate. I hear the different crunching noises produced as my teeth cut through the hazelnut bits and notice the silence as my tongue takes over and flutters across the creamy center.

Prompt 2: Turn the description into a blog post

How better to indulge a midsummer nostalgia for Christmas than to bite into a crunchy, nutty Ferrero Rocher candy? When others are licking their fingers sticky with fried chicken grease or melted ice cream, it’s easy to invoke chillier days just by crunching on something most of us only eat in December. Peppermint has become much too commonplace; and no one will ever admit to chowing on fruit cake. But, just one bite of this upgraded Nutella is sure to make us dream of White Christmases to come. Better get started on my list!

Prompt 3: Turn the blog post into a tweet

ASFS Tweet

Prompt 4 Email your mother and tell her not to eat chocolate:

Hola, Mami  (in real life, mom, don’t read this!)

I know you are trying to eat more carefully now that you’ve been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. I worry, too, not just because I know how big a sweet tooth you have, but also because your dad’s hypoglycemia and our Latino heritage puts our family at a higher risk of developing the disease and its many complications.

So, what if you just eliminate chocolate? The kind made in the US is mostly sugar, anyway. There’s no real reason to have this one indulgence.

Save up the calories and have Swiss chocolate just once a year. Make up our own special holiday, and eat good chocolate then. Afterwards, abstain the rest of the year. I promise you won’t even miss the Hershey’s.



Prompt 5: Magazine essay piece: California’s migrating cultures / food

California Eatin’ on the Run

Though the traffic routinely alternates between a crawl and a mad dash til the next stop light, food in California is always on the go. You can find drive-throughs everywhere, but how nice is it to sit at a park watching your kids play and have the ice cream hand-truck walk by and sell you a paleta or a shaved ice to slake your thirst? On every corner, you’ll see Los Angelenos carrying their smoothies, or green juices, or lattes as they text and talk to their peers. Food moves in California–both around you and across the globe.

Just like celebrities, respected cuisines with staid reputations get facelifts and seem imbued with new youthfulness and relevance. Just see what Alice Waters did for Provencal cuisine, or how Wolfgang Puck made a new name for his accented takes on regional cuisines by boxing them up and installing vending machine type outlets at the airports–talk about food that goes places!

California’s the home of the Korean taco truck, something which could only have come about after the riots, once Korean Americans felt themselves at home enough again to put their stamp on local delicacies. And, what about the new prominence that kimchi’s gained in breakfast food plates alongside omelettes, where once such pairings would have been verboten?

The donut shop is yet another seemingly stationary business model that’s been up-ended by Angeleno ingenuity. Lucky Peach did a feature on the Lucha-Donut Man of East Los Angeles. And, while we’re speaking of pastries, did you know that Japanese American bakers made the confections we’ve come to call “Chinese fortune cookies” in their bakeries in California until Executive Order 9066 forced them to sell their business in a hurry to their Chinese neighbors when the United States let fear rule its policy making and rounded up those newly minted “foreign agents” or “enemy combatants” to an internal exile.  Yes, Jennifer 8. Lee’s compelling genealogy of this kitschy take-out dessert unearths its forced transmission across cultures. Fortune cookies are their own kind of culinary refugees.

Everything old is new again in the Golden State, even if only because new people are always arriving with stars in their eyes and a rumble in their tummies. Yes, the food moves, and we catch up to it, if only during rush hour.


This was a lot of fun and I learned a lot about how to write spontaneously, while not listening to my internalized critic. I can’t help but edit while I go, but it’s also nice to have clearly defined tasks to perform within a time-limit. The whole thing felt like a very fun game.

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Monstrous Hunger

Angel A Rivera’s La rabia útil de los muertos (una novella de zombis), adds an original dimension to the tried and true formula of the un-dead hungering after human brains. In this slim novel, Rivera proposes the timely notion that our own consumption of fast food is in itself monstrous and thus we should not be surprised why our flesh, chock full of preservatives and chemicals, is so appetizing to these post-apocalyptic fiends.abstract-barbecue-barbeque-bbq-161519

It is hard to innovate within the genre of zombie fiction, but the ways in which Rivera imagines humans stumbling upon mechanisms to both domesticate and co-exist with the mindless un-dead are fundamentally related to his critique of the Standard American Diet. In its embrace of domesticating, or even enslaving, these neutralized but stil supernumerary creatures, La rabia útil de los muertos most closely approximates the symbiosis imagined by Shaun of the Dead.

It’s depiction of the decimation that a virus such as the one unleashed in partner university labs in both Puerto Rico and in Connecticut is remarkably effective.  Rivera provides sufficient details about his secondary characters that their deaths are not only frightening to read about, but also stir the emotions. . Not since the Syfy show Helix has the geographical isolation of the island of Puerto Rico been imagined as both an ideal laboratory space and an inescapable death trap; the same dynamic holds true in this narrative.

To analyze the connection between the novel and the fast food industry in more detail than I have done here would be to engage in major spoilers, and I will not stoop to do that. I will only say that it did make me think twice about how to feed my family when I’m pressed for time.

The novel is only available in its original Spanish. I highly recommend it for zombie-lovers who are either fluent in Spanish or who want to practice their language skills. Be prepared to look up Puerto Rican slang. It’s well plotted, the action is nicely paced, and there are a few surprises I won’t even mention that will make this a rewarding read.


Rivera, Angel A. La rabia útil de los muertos (una novella de zombis). San Juan, Puerto Rico: Disonante, 2016. 152 pp.

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Call for Papers: “Literary Repasts and the Fiction of Migration” ASFS conference, Occidental College June 14-17, 2017

This panel proposes to add literary studies as an active contributor to the exciting and productive interdisciplinary food studies conversations that are the hallmarks of the yearly meetings of the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) and Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS).

This year’s conference will be held at Occidental College from June 14-17 in Los Angeles, California.

The panel welcomes abstract submissions from scholars, grad students, or undergraduates analyzing any manner of literary representations of repasts and/or foodways, especially those focusing on the conference theme of “Migrating Food Cultures: Engaging Pacific Perspectives on Food and Agriculture.” The goal of this panel is to engage memoir, popular fiction, and literature as legitimate sources of knowledge about foodways, migration, and their interconnection.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Food memoirs by authors from the Pacific Rim countries
  • Novels about food, chefs, cooks, waiters
  • Fiction discussing the overlap between immigration and foodways
  • Restaurant fiction dealing with employment of immigrants
  • Poetry by or about migrants and their foodways
  • Flash fiction or short stories on any of these topics


Abstracts no longer than 250 words should be e-mailed to by January 15, 2017.  Submissions should also include:

  • submitter’s name,
  • organizational affiliation, and
  • status (e.g., undergraduate, graduate student, postdoc, faculty, independent scholar)


The panel will receive notifications of acceptance by AFHVS/ASFS by Wednesday, March 15, 2017. Attendees must be members of AFHVS or ASFS at the time of the conference.

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Watching the dame blanche melt

Herman Koch’s novel, The Dinner, ably translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, is set primarily in a fine dining establishment where two brothers and their wives discuss the aftermath of their respective sons’ complicity in a reckless act of violence. Much has been made of how the different courses of the evening’s meal frame the action in the present and serve to contain the increasingly frequent and more in-depth flashbacks that fill in the context for the frequent silences during the meal.  However I would like to suggest here that it is the dessert ordered by Serge Lohman, one of the four central candidates, the dame blanche, that most clearly encapsulates the action that drives the plot during the course of the evening.  

The much maligned dame blanche makes its appearance late in the novel, in the dessert course.  However, it serves as an evocative symbol for much that occurs. The readers’ first exposure to it comes courtesy of the obsequious manager’s description:

‘The blackberries are from our own garden,’ said the manager. ‘The parfait is made from homemade chocolate, and these are shaved almonds, mixed with grated walnuts.’ (217)

This detailed narrative deconstruction of the dessert into its constituent parts is simultaneously an accurate representations of how restaurants try to increase the overall value of their meal offerings, but it also  a perverse commentary on nativism.  Neither the fruit nor the chocolate are imported, and their local origins rein scribe the importance of the domicile even though the dessert itself is being consumed at a commercial establishment away from home. This speaks to the not-so latent xenophobia that runs through the plot as a recurring motif, describing not just the Dutch, but extended to the French as well in our narrator’s estimation.

Whereas his affluent and influential brother, Serge, a successful politician with national ambitions considers dessert just the natural end of a meal, Paul distances himself from such rigid and conventional notions, not only claiming to disdain sweets in general but, then, going so far as to take the dessert’s plainness as a personal affront: 

My brother always chose the mos ordinary desserts on the menu. Vanilla ice cream, crepes with syrup, an that was about it. I sometimes thought it had to do with his blood sugar level, the same blood sugar level that left him high and dry in the middle of nowhere at the most in opportune moments. But it also had to do with his lack of imagination (218)

For his part, Paul claims no special culinary sophistication himself; his air of superiority regarding his brother has to do with the fact that Serge eats very fast, barely tasting it, whereas he himself consumes his food at a more moderate pace. Throughout the dinner, Paul keeps eyeing the uneaten dessert ass it melts and becomes less appetizing; he equates its gradual loss of integrity with his brother’s moral failure as a husband, since Serge’s wife, Babette, defiantly refuses to eat what her husband ordered for her.  Paul reads the ice cream for signs of the deterioration of their marriage, being utterly convinced that he is the only Lohman destined to know and enjoy “happiness.”

Therein lies the final aspect of the dame blanche‘s symbolic role within the narrative.  Dessert by its very luxurious and indulgent nature is itself the promise of happiness and delight at the end of a grown-up meal. In fact, the blandness that so offends Paul is absolutely the common denominator of all childlike treats: vanilla ice cream with chocolate shavings. What could be more simple than that? However, the name of the treat suggests an association with the women at the table, not with the men. It’s intended recipient, Babbette, rejects it.  However its appellation describes her aptly, at least in her role as mother. Babbette and Serge have two biological children, a boy and a girl, and an adopted son from Burkina Faso. Paul constantly makes snide remarks about their transracial adoption, calling the family’s motives into question by suggesting it was all politically motivated. To Beau, her son, then Babbette is indeed a “dame blanche” or a white lady.  

Paul’s wife, Claire, can also be encompassed within the meaning of the confection since clarity is often associated with whiteness. For Paul, and for their son, Claire is a sweet but commanding presence within the household. Unlike Babbette, however, who cries all the way through dinner in the same way that the uneaten ice cream slowly weeps as the evening wears on, Claire is so cold she will not melt.  When faced with adversity, she remains clear-headed and calm and thus emerges as the novel’s most surprising monster.

The Dinner is a delicious read, though it will definitely not suit all tastes. One must have a strong stomach to get through to the end, and the conclusion is satisfying, though bracing.

Herman Koch.  The Dinner. Trans. Sam Garrett.  Hogarth: New York, 2013.

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Graphic Art and the Slaughterhouse

Even before the wide-spread adoption of “ag-gag” laws banning the filming of animal cruelty in farms without the owner’s consent, British-born artist Sue Coe has used her considerable drawing and illustrating skills to capture deeply moving scenes of the indignities to which many an animal is subjected to on its journey to our collective dinner plates. By sharing her scathing criticism of factory farming and inhumane slaughterhouse practices through the medium of illustrated books and graphic (non-fiction novels), Coe and her narrative collaborators succeed in evoking childhood as a time of innocence where cuddly, anthropomorphic animals loomed large in our collective imagination.

The contrast she elicits between our adult experience which is jaded to the pain of our non-human companions and the innocence of childhood as a time of deeply engrained empathy with our animal spirit guides is not new. William Blake himself enshrined this tension in his brilliant illuminated collection, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. And, it is directly with Blake that Coe’s images demand comparison, though I fear the text that accompanies them pales in comparison with the Romantic bard’s verse.

Whereas Blake’s visual imagery complements and magnifies the achievements of his texts, Coe achieves a coherent visual narrative that almost dispenses with the need for annotation or explanation in its ability to convey a swift and visceral condemnation of the wanton cruelty and disregard built into an industry increasingly mechanized and unfeeling: the modern food system, with its factory farming and assembly line slaughter.

As an introduction to those unfamiliar with Coe’s work, I would like to suggest the following pairing. The magic of the images is such that its composition fascinates even as its content repels. It appeals to both adults and children, a fact I discovered when my 9 year old son sat mesmerized trying to make sense of the spectacle before him rather than fleeing in terror.

Dead Meat Sue Coe


The first of these is, Dead Meat (1996), which I would describe as a graphic (non-fiction) novel. The reason I assign this genre to it because it chronicles the sights she saw when she toured slaughterhouses and witnessed various species as they waited to be dispatched to the hereafter. Because she had with her only a sketchbook, rather than a camera, her presence was not deemed as dangerous or damaging to the company’s reputation. Thus, we the readers benefit from seeing the results of what factory owners, through their lack of art or visual cultural capital, dismissed as childish or insubstantial.

The framing essay by Alexander Cockburn provides some helpful context to readers unfamiliar with Coe’s biography or her previous work. But it is through the artist’s powerful images, and the direct and unaffected prose through which she chronicles her interviews with workers on the killing floor, owners, and farmers that readers realize the mounting drama of a deeply dysfunctional food system that continues to supply our protein staples without much intervention to correct the wrongs upon which this work sheds light.

The second volume I would like to recommend, Sheep of Fools, moves outside of the American context of her earlier work and instead showcases how the global food system facilitates an even greater, because lesser known, universe of pain and suffering by introducing the concept of oceanic travel as an intermediate step between the farm, the feeding lot, and the slaughterhouse.

Sheep of Fools

This time, the volume is much slimmer, but its visual impact remains undiluted. The book addresses the traffic in live sheep from Australia to the Middle East for slaughter according to the principles of halal butchering. What’s most impressive in this volume is how little shame it actually casts upon the religious principles which brought about this inhumane industry. Coe is at pains to contextualize this objectionable butchering practices among others that characterized the England of old as well as certain elements of the industrialized food system. Yet the title of the volume, with its obvious pun, draws attention to this uniquely cruel form of gaining access to fresh meat.

The least successful aspect of this volume is its slavish dedication to verse as its chosen medium of textual communication. Song cycles don’t usually take place on the page and for good reason. The musical accompaniment can elevate merely mundane observations to the reign of the sublime. That kind of lifting is missing here and sorely needed.

While the fiery red palette and the somewhat childish faces of the humans who are depicted in this picture book fiercely convey Coe’s condemnation of these practices, the various songs and poems that accompany them hit a false note. They fall flat and alienate the viewer from the visual drama on the page. But, this is indeed a volume worth checking out for the pictures. After all, not everything that can be said on this topic needs to be limited to mere words.

Works Cited

Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. in Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.

Coe, Sue. Dead Meat New York: Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1996.

Coe, Sue and Judith Brody. Sheep of Fools: A Song Cycle for Five Voices. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics, 2005.

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