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Monday 12 December 2011

Defrosting the Bird and Killing the Sprouts

When I was young I remember an Italian visitor to our house describing British Christmas cooking as ‘defrosting the bird and killing the sprouts.’

Years later, when I lived in Spain the story was very different. Around the end of November, live turkeys would begin to appear on the verandas along the street as families fed them up in preparation for Noche Buena (Christmas Eve). About a week before Christmas I got into the lift with an eleven-year-old neighbour and asked her how their turkey was coming along. Nice and plump, she said. She seemed quite excited. Then she told me it would be killed the next day. Ah, I said. And who does that? She turned to me with a spine-chilling, gleam in her eye. ‘I do,’ she said. ‘I do it every year.’

I got out of the lift feeling quite disturbed. She was actually looking forward to the killing. I had no trouble gutting and jointing a bird, but would not fancy wringing its neck. Then I asked myself if we had all become too squeamish. The meat we eat must be killed. We are happy to eat it, but only if someone else kills it, preferably out of sight. Perhaps my young neighbour’s attitude was really more healthy. She was taking part in a matter-of-fact, life-death-food ritual.

My reflections on our relationship with blood and guts were rekindled soon after Christmas. We were in England spending a few days with relatives, when the doorbell rang. I opened it to find a neighbour holding up an, enormous, gleaming, salmon trout he had just caught. “For you!’ he said. My relative recoiled at the sight. The fish she normally bought from the local supermarket was rectangular shaped, frozen, wrapped in plastic, and came without bones. I sat her down in a comfortable chair and then went to the kitchen to deal with the neighbour’s generous gift.

When I took her a cup of tea next morning, I couldn’t help noticing, on her bed-side table, the lurid cover of the bloodthirsty crime novel she was reading.

Bertrand Russell said that he read murder stories to stop himself from murdering people, which seems a good reason. I sometimes wonder what became of my little Spanish neighbour. I do hope she developed a taste for crime fiction.

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