I don't think I could kill a chicken if I tried. The third leg from my shared KFC bucket would be shocked to hear this. Or maybe it'd just give a resigned shrug. I couldn't ever find out for sure in its current non-ambulatory condition, but it seems to give me a wan stare as I size it up. The root beer never gives me these wishy-washy moments before consumption. Of course, it doesn't have any uncomfortable social malaise associated with it. Natalie Portman's divine judgement has never come to my mind when I drink a soda. Then again, there's also no physical barrier with the root beer. Eating a chicken leg feels intimate. There's bones to operate around. The last strings of gristle in your teeth that linger with you for hours like a phantom pain. There's a confrontation when I eat meat.
David Foster Wallace brought up offhandedly in his essay "Consider The Lobster" that while we use the same word for both product and animal in cases such as the aforementioned chicken or a fish, when the meat becomes mammalian we have to distance the word. Burgers don't contain cow, they're beef. That's not pig, it's pork. Advertising plays with this distinction. Chik-Fil-A made a memorable public image off of cows doing a grassroots campaign to save their own skins. However, Chik-Fil-A advertising with a personified animal that they're NOT asking you to eat is telling. I would be a lot less convinced by an advertising campaign of chickens begging to be eaten. This distance between a cow and beef is the same distance that keeps me from being able to kill a chicken. I want the product, not the process.
My mother drives to a store near her own mother's house every time she needs to get any spices or bulk ingredients. It's over an hour of driving, but she considers it time well worth it for a familiar source. It's out in Pennsylvanian farm country, a land familiar and unfamiliar to me. Hex signs adorn barns like Mayan panels. There's a culture here I can recognize at sight but could never fully grasp. I wait in the parking lot while my mom goes into the pharmacy. It's less claustrophobic here, and I have clear sight of the owners livestock. Goats and sheep laze about in the shade, chewing cud and staring a thousand yards. I stare back at what I fail to recognize as mutton. Or lamb (An exception to Wallace's observation). The goats are off-limits, at least in the US. Worldwide these exceptions don't apply, and I'd be staring back at chevon. Chevon is a relatively newly coined word to sell goat meat without saying goat meat, a combination of the french words for goat and mutton. Chevon has what feels like the respectful amount of distance from the creatures that I'm currently killing time with. It's french, exotic, and thousands of miles away from wherever I am. The livestock has no idea what their names are. They know about the cud and little else.
My mother was raised in this environment. I interacted with it, at Thanksgivings or Memorial Day picnics. The cows on my grandmother's farm were loping titans of nature. My 8 year old sense of individuality felt like it drowned when placed next to the overwhelming docility of the cattle. I knew, through education, what would happen to them, but instinctively I felt like they might be unkillable. Were they unaware of their fate? Charlotte's Web had only recently left an imprint on my young psyche, but these cows seemed like they shared none of Wilbur's Becker-lite mortal anxietes. They didn't even seem to notice I, a future consumer, was standing right in front of them. This fearlessness in the face of what I knew to be an inexorable death march had me convinced they knew a way out. A Rita Hayworth poster on the side of the stable would give way to a looping tunnel straight to greener pastures and a future full of cud. The beef in my house's freezer c/o Grandma 3 months later told a story much harder to grasp.
The gap between animal and meat is bridged by the path of least resistance. Sure, creatures that once lived, through a transubstantiation I couldn't put my finger on, became a wholly different product in front of me. It helps that the product is so delicious. If I could just abandon the little nagging thoughts, the ghostly doubt of what that meat once was, my diet would become easy to swallow. I know that this gap doesn't exist for everybody, didn't exist for my mother or many families before myself. They saw or at least took part in the mystical process that leads to the dinner plate. I'm only on the very tail end, the 15 dollars of lawn mowing money passed through a drive through window. Sitting at my kitchen table, the language barrier between chicken and chicken, so transparent on paper, seems impassable. Failing to grok, there's only one defense to fall back on, the Occam's razor that can cut through all the stringy gristle. "Just don't think about it so hard, it's food."