"'Suicide food' is any depiction of animals that act as though they wish to be consumed," explains Ben Grossblatt in the mission statement of Suicide Food (suicidefood.blogspot.com), his blog and mild ethical obsession. "Suicide food actively participates in or celebrates its own demise. Suicide food identifies with the oppressor. Suicide food is a bellwether of our decadent society. Suicide food is not funny."
However sincere his message, Grossblatt's analysis is funny, in a horrifying way: Each entry—depicting, say, a barbecue joint's maniacally self-basting pig, or a sexy lobster entreating New Englanders to douse her in butter and eat her shapely hips—is dissected, categorized, and stamped with any number of nooses, from one ("Mildly troubling") to five ("Ye gods! I must go wash out my eyeballs!").
Grossblatt turned to vegetarianism in 1993 and went full-on vegan in 1994, thanks largely to John Robbins's 1989 bestseller, Diet for a New America. Grossblatt's wife is vegan, as is his 5-year-old son, Gus. I am not. The daughter of a nurse, I grew up in a household comfortable with flesh and viscera. I can watch surgery on TV. I can empty a mousetrap. I eat meat with pleasure. Still, I can understand the vegetarian impulse. I recognize it in myself when hesitating to squish a spider (because what about its spider wife, waiting, worrying, in an empty web?). Animals are people too, or something. Delicious people. Obviously I have a lot to learn. And Grossblatt—intimidatingly smart, reassuringly funny—has plenty to teach when I pick him up from his Central District house for a guided tour of Seattle's suicide food.
Our first stop is Ezell's Fried Chicken. Ezell's logo is a chicken running at breakneck speed in either desperation or glee, feathers flying. Above the chicken's head is a halo. From its mouth emerges a speech bubble: "I'M FRESH, GOOD, AND FAST!"
Grossblatt begins his suicide food exegesis. This chicken, he explains, is dead, and running eagerly toward the afterlife. I ask if it couldn't actually be a mad dash away from the deep fryer. No. It's definitely dead. Didn't I see the halo? Heaven is this chicken's final reward for being so delicious. "This is why he was hatched," Grossblatt says. "Look how much pride he takes. The fact that he's fresh for you—he takes a lot of pride in that."
We go inside and I purchase a single chicken leg—its spiritual counterpart no doubt sprinting toward some poultry pearly gates. It seems like bad form to eat the chicken leg in front of Grossblatt, so I toss it in the backseat of my car (soon to become my traveling suicide-food stockyard). I feel a little bit sorry for the cartoon chicken sign and its eternal humiliation.
The point of suicide food, in Grossblatt's mind, is to distance carnivorous diners from the cruelty and death that seasons their dinners. "Even though nobody takes these images literally, the suggestion is that eating meat is okay. This kind of imagery is one thing that keeps people from questioning their habits. It's everywhere. It's like the Muzak of the meat-eating world. I don't understand why this is so common. And it's everywhere. What makes it so effective? It should horrify people."
We pull up in front of Floyd's Place in lower Queen Anne. Floyd's display is more than a sign; it's a carnival ride. A cow and a pig, limbs splayed, mouths agape, rotate very slowly on a pedestal above the door. "It's not exactly dancing a lively jig," Grossblatt begins. "They're clearly suicidal, because they're saying, 'Look at our lives! We want you to experience the joy that we experience!' But the hollow eyes and the funereal pace reveal that this is not a happy suicide like the chicken at Ezell's—she couldn't wait to die, but these two just can't wait to stop living." He pauses. "Now let's eat!" Inside, it smells of meat and bleach, and I buy a half pound of ribs and toss it in the back seat.
As we drive north, I ask Grossblatt if he's troubled by fruit stands with murals of smiling, anthropomorphized bananas. He acts like it's a dumb question, and maybe it is. Oranges, unlike pigs, don't have moms and dads. They can't feel afraid. But, he says, that doesn't make them suicidal. "Write down that I don't think an orange wants to be eaten," Grossblatt says.
Next stop is Willy's BBQ on Lake City Way. The Willy's pig is an example of what Grossblatt calls "the surrogate animal." He sits at a table in front of a rack of ribs, wearing a bib (he doesn't want to spill himself on himself?), knife and fork in hand. "He is intoxicated with the idea of eating pig ribs. It's the ultimate in narcissism. I think he's thinking these are his own ribs, and he's delicious." Small white droplets, which I interpret as sweat, fly from his piggy brow. Grossblatt's take: "I'm not saying it's ejaculate, but those are some good ribs."
We get back in the car and Grossblatt gives me a vegan Twinkie he brought back from New York. It is basically indistinguishable from a regular Twinkie. "Honestly, I think the site is funny; I'm trying to be funny, but I am saying something serious. I am sincere. I think this imagery is sick, with an undercurrent at least of mockery and disrespect. I don't think you have to be vegan to recognize that it's poor sportsmanship." Fair enough. I totally agree. I am opposed to cruelty, and the sentiment behind suicide food is cruel and bizarre.
Still, I feel a sort of ideological defensiveness over the evolutionary rights of humans. Part of relating to chickens and pigs as fellow animals is recognizing ourselves as predators, no matter how disassociated we've become from active predation. The fact that I couldn't bring myself to physically kill a chicken is, to me, irrelevant. It's just one of a million unpleasant tasks I am privileged to avoid as part of an industrialized society. "That's right," Grossblatt stresses, "You're privileged." Yes. That's right. I'm privileged.
"I have heard people say that if you are in favor of animal rights, then you have a duty to eat meat," Grossblatt says. "Because if you don't, then the meat industry is left to the unethical meat producers. To me, that's like saying, 'If you are against slavery, it is your duty to own slaves, because if you don't, then slavery is left to the pro-slavery crowd. And they're a rough bunch.'" I sympathize, but disagree. Grossblatt is obviously not obligated to eat meat, but for me—who doesn't believe that killing animals for food is wrong—environmental sustainability is a more ethically precise goal than vegetarianism.
As for suicide food, isn't it actually less cruel to want to imagine these animals as happy, content, or at least fuzzily ignorant of their tasty, roasted fates? I am way more uncomfortable with the thought of a human relishing their dinner's suffering, even if that is more honest.
After I drop Grossblatt off, I unload my piles of suicide pig ribs and suicide chicken legs and suicide buns and suicide coleslaw, and spread them across my dining-room table. Even though I haven't eaten since breakfast, I can only force down a few bites. If I'm going to be a meat-eater, it's my responsibility to be aware of my privilege and my decisions, and the ramifications of that slice of animal steaming on my plate. Strangely enough, with a long day of careful ethical examination congealing in my throat, I find this pile of lukewarm suicide meat difficult to enjoy. Nausea persists for the next two days, and the cartons of suicide food skip eagerly, gleefully, into the garbage. What a waste.