Before I go on let me dispel this wildly inaccurate opinion that people have about vegans. That old saying of ‘How do you know if somebody’s vegan? It’s okay, they’ll tell you’ is fair enough up to a point. Fact is, most vegans that I know – including myself – aren’t there to spoil your meat and dairy product party. We aren’t the preachy assholes that popular culture has made us out to be. I won’t sit there and tell you horrifying backstories about your dinner whilst I sit on my throne of self-righteousness nibbling on a lettuce leaf of right fucking on.
The truth is most of us only have to talk about our veganism because meat eaters will not stop talking about our veganism. Seriously. Every meal I have, or lunchtime trip into an office kitchen, has usually also ended up with a meat eater asking me about it and then telling me all about how I should be eating and wearing animal produce instead.
I’m not here to change the World – it would be nice, if I could, but I’m not fucking Wonder Woman – I know I won’t change anyone’s mind about the whole affair and I’m cool with that. I just want no part of the industry in my mouth, on my plate or on my body.
And so we have Hannibal. This show is incredible, first and foremost, using Thomas Harris’ characters and existing narratives with great craft and care. It’s tense, smart, artful and ultimately, satisfyingly horrific with some of the goriest and most inventive murders I’ve ever seen on TV. But what I’m really interested here is the meat. Let’s talk about flesh, baby.
Because the show revolves around our dearest Hannibal the Cannibal – the most precise gourmet chef to ever come out of the psychology department – we’re treated to an assortment of stunning culinary fare, all of which (regardless of my diet) I love watching. The recipe, the preparation, the sizzling, the sauces, the look on Hannibal’s face as he dishes up his latest creation to one of his colleagues investigating the people they’re probably eating – all of it is incredible. The dramatic irony is obviously delectable, but the menus in this show are astounding.
It’s spectacular to see the shit he comes up with. Cannibal or not, lets give credit where credits due and applaud this man’s culinary skills. Every episode serves up something new, and part of the thrill of each episode is also in seeing a fraction of a cookery show – Cooking with Hannibal. I’m fascinated by his patience and obvious love of edible creativity.
But meat is meat. And here’s where the vegan asshole in me comes out, because I can’t tell a lie, every time he serves up human to somebody who thinks they’re simply getting animal, I cackle, I applaud, I revel. Hannibal’s monstrous appetites are just as monstrous to me as the appetites of everyone who eats animal. I can’t separate one flesh from another. I’d be just as disgusted to know that the food in front of me came from a person as I would if I knew it came from a pig.
There’s been repeated discussions in the show about how Hannibal ‘fits the profile…’ of the Chesapeake Ripper. From the fact that psychiatry is often a profession adopted by those who get a thrill from superiority over others, to the fact that cannibals also enjoy their people diet, not for the nutrition or taste, but for the dominance. Hannibal is clearly a man who adores being an upper class, top of the food chain, intellectually superior being.
The way in which meat is used to signify this – human meat no less – is interesting. Not least when thinking about meat in terms of class. The upper classes enjoy a better standard of meat to the lower, often enjoying meat that lower classes revile like caviar (I’m gonna go right ahead and class that as a meat, because it’s gross pre-formed-fish, and near enough), veal or exotic animals. They eat that shit because they can afford to. It’s a signifier of how much money they have. Lower classes, on the other hand, will wind up buying and eating the cheapest they can find – the kind of stuff that you can’t trace back to a specific farm, or standard of welfare or feeding techniques.
Hannibal is simply taking this to the next level. By eating human flesh rather than animal flesh he’s making himself top of that class pyramid. He’s Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly watching everyone roll a dice to play on a board which he ultimately owns.
Meat is power. To slaughter a living creature for meat is to exert your power over that creature.
What Hannibal highlights is our hypocrisy as a culture when we think about meat and where meat comes from. The mistake that many of Hannibal’s dinner guests make – as we all do in our everyday lives when eating the mass produced muck that we pick up on our way home from work – is not questioning where that food comes from. How was it produced? Where was it produced? What the fuck is actually in it? Is it ethical? Does it matter? We eat because we’re hungry. We often don’t question any of it because we enjoy it. Often, the truth is too grim to bear. I’m probably just as guilty of it as most meat eaters are – no pedestal here, folks – albeit with different concerns about the grub I’m shovelling into my gob.
Question (Destiny’s Child style, if you will): Does Hannibal care about gender when he’s cooking? Does a female thigh taste different to a male? Is he a breast man? Would he delight in the delicacies of a boiled uterus or a stir fried scrotum? Does he have a preference? Hannibal’s sexuality is as subtle as the flavour infusions he packs his gourmet cuisine with. Sex, to Hannibal, seems like nothing more than a power exchange. A performance, even. A piece of the theatrical puzzle that he’s playing out via his grandiose murders and manipulation of the surrounding players.
It’s almost as though he’s replaced the dominant thrill of a fantastic fuck with the dominance over a flesh which can be completely devoured. Cannibalism is his sex – his conquering over another. So it would make sense that he would consume that meat with the same fetishisation that we all enjoy over whatever parts of a person’s body it is that gets us all wet and, well, salivating.
His careful dressing of the meats is to the point of perversity – such care, such craft, like a dude who buys his lady friends lingerie guaranteed to get him off. We’re a culture obsessed by but completely detached from flesh. We consume it, we ogle it, we enjoy it, but never like to think too much about the source of that flesh. We consume animals without thinking – people love their dogs and as such could never eat one, because they’ve formed a relationship with one – but the meat on people’s plates is anonymous, vague, a dinner and not a corpse. Through objectification we also allow for women to be reduced to torso, tits, pussy and ass, with little thought for who they might be in real life.We’re entranced by the body but detached from the individual. .
But Hannibal is a show which makes no qualms about the horror of eating flesh, in all forms. And whilst it portrays the monstrosities of flesh, death and murder in truly horrific manners, it also completely revels in it making centrepieces out of squid tentacles, pig heads, and entire roasted birds (claws and all! Euw!) just as the human corpses are presented theatrically and artfully.
Hannibal is indulgent in it’s love of meat, and no beast or part is spared, which is exactly the sort of meat eater that I can respect (if I had to, like). You’re either willing to partake of every single animal going, and every single part of the animal that can be turned into meat (Head! Heart! Liver! Kidney! Bollocks!) or else you have some serious questions that you need to ask yourself about your relationship with meat, and your relationship with animals.
The styling of the meat in Hannibal is just as artful as the murders of the humans are – I mean, they have to be, they’re by the same guy – but doesn’t that just make the whole thing that extra step creepier? These morbidly styled slaughtered animals dressed up to look like the cooked flesh of the morbidly styled slaughtered humans posed into masterful artefacts of the dead.
There’s such intricate parallels between the presentation of the murders of the week and the meal of the week that I honestly don’t know how meat eaters can stomach it. I’d be seriously paranoid that at some point in my life somebody was bound to do a Sweeney Todd on me and serve me human in place of pig. I don’t know how people separate death and corpses and murder from the meaty meals on their plates. When I eat meat all I can taste is death, skin, blood and expiry. It’s like tasting my own mortality and I can’t find anything delicious about suffering.
The fact is, flesh disgusts me, murder horrifies me, abuse sickens me and I’m sometimes made to feel completely socially suffocated and reviled every day because I strongly maintain those feelings towards animals as well as humans. What I love about Hannibal is that it highlights the possibility that there’s a possibly indistinguishable fine line between the two. That maybe Ghandi was right when he said ‘You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats it’s animals’. Because society is eating itself, my friends. And Hannibal is merely serving the waste right back to us.