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  • Writer's pictureMiranda Brown

On the Ethics of Food Art, East and West

Animal rights activists could learn something from the Chinese about ethical eating.

Last year, British baker Hannah Edwards found herself at the center of controversy. The small business owner, also known as the Cake Illusionist, had perfected the techniques for baking sponge cakes that resembled real animals. Some of her creations included a shar pei, a popular Chinese dog breed, life-sized Springer Spaniels, and even horses. The cakes incensed animal rights activists. According to the Daily Mail, ten thousand of them trolled Edwards, calling her a closet serial killer.

Thousands of miles away in Taiwan, J.C. Co Art Kitchen sold chocolate ice cream that looked like the same shar pei. The café owners encountered none of the ire that Edwards attracted. Newspapers in Asia reported that while some people thought the ice cream “dogs” were cute, others found the dessert creepy. One person told a reporter, “It is as if a dog is lying here and I feel like cutting into him will hurt him.”

Despite the mixed reviews, J.C. Co soon had trouble satisfying orders. Before long, a knock-off product, a mousse shar pei, appeared in Beijing. Sitting on all fours, the “dog” looked up with pleading eyes. The chocolate dustings mimicked the texture of fur and skin folds. Chinese netizens picked up on the resemblance. Pictures of people and real pets posing with the “shar pei” circulated on social media.

A miniature mousse "dog"

But dog meat is taboo in major cities in the Chinese-speaking world. Many of them regard dogs as pets, and they have never seen one on a plate. Some of them even engage in rescue operations, traveling to remote places in Western China where people still occasionally consume dog meat. A few years ago, the New York Times reported a noisy scuffle between locals and Chinese animal rights activists. Two years ago, Taiwan enacted a ban on dog meat.

The milder response to the “dogs” in Asia reflects the fact that Chinese are used to imitation meats. Mock meats, in fact, have been a hallmark of Buddhist vegetarianism in China for centuries. Stanford scholar John Kieschnick thinks medieval Buddhist monks offered tasty meat substitutes to encourage lay people to adopt a vegetarian diet. Although pious Buddhists avoided animal flesh, fish, and eggs, they saw nothing wrong with eating foods that shared the texture or appearance of the real thing. The resemblance of mock meats made of konyaku and gluten can be uncanny.

In the 1960s, a Japanese health enthusiast introduced faux meats to the United States. Nowadays, Americans can buy not only tofu “burgers,” but also Thanksgiving turkeys made with gluten. Westerners are now working hard to take meat substitutes to new levels of craftsmanship. Scientists are trying to grow “bloodless” meat in labs. Since no animals will be killed, you will soon be able to devour a medium-rare steak with a clear conscience.

Until then, we would do well to take cues from the Chinese. Ethical eating is a fine thing -- so long as no one gets hurt.

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