Is a steak a cow? Through my work as a butcher at Sparrow Meat Market, I have debated this issue for about a year. As an animal lover, my line of work is not always morally easy, and there are some circumstances that are more difficult to swallow than others.
The meat counter is always stuffed full of different steaks, pork shoulders, and bacon. Looking at all of these parts separately is not a challenge, but when a full-size cow carcass gets wheeled behind the counter, I can’t help but think: at what point is the cow no longer a cow, or is it always a cow?
A cow starts as a living, breathing animal, and once it is slaughtered, I believe it is still a cow. Just a dead one. From there is where the lines begin to blur. Once a cow carcass is skinned and trimmed is it still a cow? Or just a large piece of flesh? Going even further, once all the different body parts are removed and trimmed down to individual cuts of steak, is it still a cow? And can’t that same logic be applied to any variety of situations when a whole is reduced to its parts. In the same way, the question might a hot dog be a sandwich is no different. At face value, yes, one could argue that by definition, a hot dog is a sandwich – a piece of meat between bread. However, regarding a hot dog as seperate pieces, it’s not really a sandwich. I don’t think this subject has a yes or no answer — it depends on the circumstances in which the question is being asked.
On Thanksgiving, Sparrow Market receives more phone calls than we do the rest of the year combined. The orders for whole turkeys, turkey breasts, turkey wings, and turkey legs are endless. We have to be efficient. The meat counter runs like clockwork, thinking about nothing other than “I can’t mess up these peoples’ turkey, their thanksgiving dinner is depending on me.” That was until I picked up the phone and instead of ordering straight away, the woman on the other line asked me if the turkey she was about to order had lived a happy life. Almost bursting into laughter I replied “I think so,” because my only job at that point was to sell this woman her bird.
As my shift came to a close I thought more about the question she had posed. It wasn’t a question I had ever heard, but the more I thought about it the more I realized how valid it was to ask. This woman thought of her Thanksgiving turkey as a turkey. Not as a piece of meat or a dead carcass. The thought of a whole animal makes it seem more real, but by breaking them down into separate parts, they become less “real” to us.
As a whole, our world has a tendency to mash what we see with what makes the most sense in our heads. We are always trying to make meaning from our experiences. At face value, a turkey breast is a piece of meat, but is that breast a bird, and did that bird have a happy life? These are the questions that we need to spend more time thinking about. Taking things as you see them is easy, but when you start to ask questions such as the one you pose here, the world becomes much more interesting.