The Neo-Medieval Habits of Tomorrow's Ruling Classes

In one of those quirky "lifestyles of the rich" stories, Fortune magazine recently highlighted Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg's new hobby: slaughtering animals for food. This bloody-minded pursuit has been popular among the young and privileged for years now. Though the "killing your own meat" movement is being hailed as a kind of food-conscious, environmentally-friendly trend, it also echoes a millennia-old hobby of the aristocracy, who often hunted and killed animals in their leisure time.

Zuckerberg's choice feels less like an embrace of new sustainable food models, and more like a throwback to the days when nobles and their hounds chased hares across their estates — and killed any poachers who dared pilfer from nature's bounty.

Let me be clear: I eat meat, and in general I don't think that killing animals for food is wrong. I'm just interested why so many people, especially the upper classes, are paying to become intimate with the way animals are killed for food.

Fortune is careful to cast Zuckerberg's new diet as both gourmet and health-conscious:

Zuckerberg's guide on this strange journey has been a well-known Silicon Valley chef named Jesse Cool. She lives in Palo Alto, eight houses away from Zuckerberg, and owns a local restaurant called Flea Street Café. Cool has introduced Zuckerberg to nearby farmers and advised him as he killed his first chicken, pig, and goat. "He cut the throat of the goat with a knife, which is the most kind way to do it," says Cool.

Killing is just the kickoff. After that, the dead creatures go to a butcher in Santa Cruz, who cuts them into parts. Zuckerberg and his longtime girlfriend, Priscilla, have been cooking what he slaughters, eating what many people would not dare consume. He recently ate a chicken, including the heart and liver, and used the feet to make stock. He posted a photo of the bird on his Facebook page, along with a list of the dishes he made from it.

So basically all Zuckerberg is doing is killing the animals, under the watchful eye of a celebrity chef. He doesn't actually deal with hunting, or the bloody aftermath (a special butcher in Santa Cruz handles that). Put this way, the whole endeavor sounds a lot creepier. Zuckerberg is just in it for the excitement of the kill, like many an aristocrat before him.

And Zuckerberg is not alone. In San Francisco, playground for tomorrow's technocratic millionaires, restaurants devoted to meat have blossomed. Pop-up restaurant Whole Beast offers diners a chance to eat every cut from a different animal during their specially-planned meals. Other San Francisco restaurants like the Comstock Saloon and Beast and the Hare focus on locally-sourced meat, often served in a style that evokes the dining habits of nineteenth century elites.

The Neo-Medieval Habits of Tomorrow's Ruling ClassesS

Killing your own meat, or at least knowing where that killing is "locally sourced," seems less about getting closer to your food than getting closer to feeling like a member of a more savage ruling class from history. Back then, the elites killed people and torched villages to expand their property. Today's elites stage sterile, bloodless hostile takeovers from the safety of their keyboards and smart phones.

Last year, Salon's food critic Francis Lam killed, gutted, and prepared a chicken, thinking it would bring him closer to his food. Instead, he found the whole process horrific:

Shelby emerges from the garden, holding the bird to his chest. "Hey, buddy, it's OK," he whispers to him, stroking his feathers. "It's OK, it's OK," he says, and I dumbly follow suit, stroking his soft back. "Hey, buddy, it's OK. It's OK." We lay him down.

Will I look into the bird's eye? I have a quick moment of thanks when he flops to the side, his eye trained away from mine. I stare at his neck. I don't see the hatchet come down, but, as if in reverse, I see the blade moving away from the board. In its place, where it was, suddenly there are different colors — red, white, yellow. The hatchet came down again, and then the body jolts. I see blood on my arm, on my feet, and I hold on to the bird, knowing that it would buck and kick. I hold him, and Shelby drops the hatchet and comes over to put his hands on, too, and we stay with him, thinking this is the only thing we can do. The feet stretch, and I can see the chicken's neck straining, as if searching. Shelby goes back to stroking the feathers, in gentle gestures. "It's OK, it's OK, it's OK," he keeps saying to the dead bird. My feet and arm are suddenly covered in tiny flies taking in the blood. "Circle of life," I mutter. "It's OK, it's OK," Shelby keeps saying to himself.

Later, Lam's friend Shelby admits he probably would have started crying if Lam hadn't been there.

Obviously, this isn't about food or eating. Lam and Shelby's chicken slaughter isn't directly teaching them anything about how food is grown or prepared sustainably. They're confronting death, and they're doing it in a way that real butchers simply wouldn't have time for. That's the difference between killing animals as a hobby, and killing them for your job.

I would argue that when somebody like Zuckerberg kills animals, that's precisely what he's doing: experiencing death, not embracing sustainability. You want to be sustainable? Then start a farm, or invest in technologies that make sustainable agriculture possible. Killing an animal for food is no different than a king shooting a duck, which is then brought back to his cook in the jaws of his faithful hound. It's sport.

In this way, the future diversions of our aristocracy are no different from the past. But there is one crucial difference. Zuckerberg controls his serfs with a keystroke, or a privacy policy. The blood he sheds is entirely symbolic. Which is perhaps why he and others like him yearn so tragically to experience true slaughter — in a contained, gourmet way, of course.

I write my editor's column while eating fruit and dreaming of sausage. You can read past columns here.

Detail from 1470 painting The Hunt by Night by Paolo Uccello.
Dog with duck photo by Bonita R. Cheshier/Shutterstock