Chicken Nuggets and the Civilizing Process

“In many of our meat dishes, the animal form is so concealed and changed by the art of its preparation and carving, that, while eating, one is scarcely reminded of its origin.”  Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process.[1]

Is the Chicken Nugget the most civilized of all foods?  Chicken nuggets tend to get a bad rap, as far as modern food goes, but I’d like to play the contrarian and argue that, just so long as you eat them with a fork, they might easily be considered the most civilized of all meat dishes.

Now that first question begs clarification of at least one term: civilized.

As a term and concept, civilization has fallen pretty far out of favor in academia, mostly because of a bad habit that modern peoples seem to have of calling themselves civilized and using their assumed status to justify conquering, oppressing, and enslaving peoples they deem to be less so.

But the term civilization has at least two technical and useful definitions that it’d be hard to replace, lacking as the English language does, useful equivalents.  Etymologically speaking, civilization comes from the Latin word civitas, meaning city.  In its barest sense then, it refers to societies that have achieved the requisite sophistication necessary for living in sedentary, densely populated urban environments: sophisticated attributes such as written law codes, differentiated labor forces, economic markets, and abstract social hierarchies, to name a few.  And with apologies to the post-modernists, it simply is the case that some societies fit this definition and others do not.  Or put another way: some societies really are ‘civilized’ and others really are not, though that being the case is no good justification for the civilized to enslave or oppress the uncivilized.

The other useful definition of “civilization”—perhaps better translated as “civility”— was theorized by German sociologist Norbert Elias over a half century ago in his landmark study: The Civilizing Process. Elias examined behavior manuals throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern period and found that standards for behavior and manners seemed to get demonstrably “better” as Europe inched toward the modern age. 

Now it might be objected that manners are all culturally relative…some cultures would have you remove your shoes at the door, while others would think that wrong, so how are some manners better and some manners worse?  Point taken.  Elias uses scare quotes around the words “better” and “worse” throughout the text.   So, sure, it depends a lot on what the observer finds better or worse; being civilized perhaps isn’t for everyone.  But it doesn’t mean the term is meaningless, and when Elias said social behavior became more civilized, he had a couple very clear ideas about what that might mean.  

One of the first changes that Elias traced was a gradual lowering of what he called “the threshold of repugnance”, which I might clarify as “the line at which people got grossed out by other peoples’ bodily functions.” So, whereas once upon a time, the very best behaved gentlemen had to be admonished not to spit into the wash basin when sitting at the table, by the 16th century, good manners had progressed to the point that Erasmus could merely warn eaters to turn from the table if they needed to spit and to cover up the saliva with their foot if at all possible.  Not exactly the individually wrapped moist towelette, but a major advance in civilized behavior, indeed

And the field of manners “bettered” all over the place.  As Europe crept towards the modern age, people were gradually encouraged not to wipe snot into the tablecloth, not to piss in street corners, and eventually by the late medieval period, even to use forks.[2]

The second point, not at all unrelated to the first definition of civilization, was that ‘civilized’ (city-dwelling) people were gradually trained to control their aggressive behaviors: by which I mean assault, rape, murder and that sort of thing. This may seem counter-intuitive to us, expectant as we are that our most dangerous places are our cities, but this was not the case in medieval and early modern Europe, where walled cities were often much safer than the lawless countryside.  And this makes quite a lot of sense.  If you were a rural strongman whose wealth was in land, it made some sense for you to beat up your neighbor and take his land, and thus to spend your life cultivating aggressive manliness.  But if you were a dyer, living in the city and dependent upon a highly differentiated labor process for finishing wool, it made quite a bit less sense to beat up your neighbor, who was much more likely to be the carder, weaver, or spinner on whom you relied for your product…or perhaps the customer whom you relied upon to buy it.  And at any rate, evermore powerful kings, as the heads of evermore powerful centralizing states, didn’t really want their citizens running around hurting each other anyways, so the state really started to get serious about proscribing murder, rape and the like.  That didn’t mean that city-dwellers didn’t ever beat up their neighbors, it just meant that they had gradually less economic motivation to do so and a gradually more watchful state threatening consequences for it.[3]

Reduction of violence and better manners seem to have intersected at the dinner table, since in medieval and early modern culture, there was a pretty undifferentiated continuum between the violence of warfare, the violence of hunting, the violence of butchering, and the way food was displayed to diners.  It was not at all uncommon for pre-modern Europeans to bring the dead animal right out to the table: eyes, feathers, and skin and whatnot, and to carve the thing right out in full view of everyone.  No one at a medieval table was under the illusion that they were eating anything other than a dead animal.[4]

And it seems like this hunting culture was conceptually linked to a culture of interpersonal violence: that for these people, it was a short leap between hunting animals to hunting men.[5]  Certainly this relates to their lower threshold of disgust: being in the habit of seeing dead animals carved up on one’s dinner table probably helps to develop a pretty strong stomach, which is useful if interpersonal violence is a social necessity. It is not easy to be a butcher of animals nor a butcher of men if you have a low tolerance for being grossed out.

And that brings us to the chicken nugget—the least gross of all meat products.

 So one day I was walking the aisles at my local Walmart, and I noticed that it was possible to buy frozen chicken nuggets that were shaped like dinosaurs.  How amazing is modern technology, I thought! We can take one dead animal and shape it into an edible meal that takes the form of an entirely different, long-extinct animal.  What a strange trick we play on our children to get them to eat their meat!

But then I got to thinking about the way the nugget doesn’t resemble the animal from which it comes—at all.  And maybe, I thought, that is the real point.

Unless you buy free-range or organic, your chickens will be grown on factory farms, which are typically terribly unpleasant, but which (thanks to differentiation of labor, the economic market, and written law codes) the consumer never has to actually see.  Meat is then mechanically removed and shaped into bite-sized pods, which really don’t look anything like the animal from which they ostensibly come.  The chicken is then further hidden by a breading that masks the fact that the food is made of meat at all.  In many cases, it is then boxed and frozen.  If you eat your nugget with a fork and take it all in one bite, you neither have to touch the chicken with your hands even once nor even look upon the flesh of the animal that you are consuming.  Indeed, it is quite possible to eat a chicken nugget without once having to ponder the unpleasant fact that it used to be alive.    

Mustn’t we give the nugget its due then in realizing that since the medieval period, both our levels of interpersonal violence and our threshold for disgust have trended in one direction: down.  Even our most violent modern European cities are usually 200 times less violent than their medieval counterparts.  And as violence has gone, so has gone our threshold for disgust, including everything from urinating in street corners to using forks, to the technologies of meat-craft, which from the hot dog bun to the chicken nugget have only ever served to put conceptual distance between the meat we eat and the animal from which it derives.  I am not sure if eating chicken nuggets makes us a kindler or gentler people, but I do think, according to Norbert Elias’ very useful definition of civilization, that the chicken nugget is one of the most civilized of foods, as long as you eat with a fork, and not like some medieval barbarian, with your hands. 

And as long as you avoid hocking a loogie in the tablecloth.

[1] Norbert Elias.  The Civilizing Process, Translated by Edmund Jephcott, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000): 102.

[2] Ibid. 129-136.

[3] Ibid., especially 161-172.

[4] Ibid., 102-103.

[5] For an especially illuminating example of this, see Ed Muir’s Mad Blood Stirring (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998).