More than a dog’s life

Feed pets what you eat and babies what you hate, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Eating In

“Dogs? Babies? I’d feed them to each other.” My friend Rafa, though misanthropic and cynophobic, was not advocating a convenient cull of creatures he despises, but showing impatience with my obsessive interest in my wife’s dachshunds and my son’s son. Domestic animals and small infants are the captives of our culinary prejudices.

We treat them as if they had no discrimination or independence of will, feeding them faddishly or whimsically with muck we would never inflict on ourselves, confident that they cannot protest except by spurning or spewing.

Domestic animals and small infants are the captives of our culinary prejudices

The English feed dogs — I can speak of no other pets — with indifference amounting to cruelty. The BBC’s revelation that the Queen’s corgis get meals from Tesco at 45 pence a whack is, if true, representative of the nation: self-designated “dog-lovers” who wickedly bar dogs from restaurants.

My own dogs are more cleanly in their habits and more delicate in their manners than most humans. But they must howl on the pavement outside the supermarket, sharing the anguish of the Big Issue vendor. “I wouldn’t do it to a dog” is a phrase the British reserve for their most heinous horrors; I suspect the Queen of preferring horses. Instead of devising menus to please dogs, her subjects abuse doggy mealtimes to offload the rejects of their abattoirs.

My wife, who is willing to cook for me, accepts that she should do so for creatures whose adoration of her is even more obvious. Our late-lamented Beau got chicken-breast poached with a bay leaf every day. “It’s boring for him always to eat the same food,” I protested. “He’s a dog,” my wife replied, showing that her Englishness was barely modified. His successors started with a kind of dry, proprietary product formulated specially for the breed. They detested it.

“Add a teaspoonful of olive oil or pan juices from our own meal,” I pleaded. The olive oil was spectacularly successful: so much so that the dogs eventually became bored. The proprietary staple is good for them, but — as demonstrative as any human in indicating preferences and evincing appreciation — they like it best when it is dressed with a little of the food their human co-denizens eat. Beef, lamb and salmon are their favourites.

So give your dogs whatever you eat — unless you are a vegetarian. To deprive dogs of meat is as perverse as stuffing cows with scrapie-infested sheep-scourings. In a Mesolithic cemetery at Skateholm, you can see the graves of the community’s dogs, buried with signs of honour comparable to those of the human hunters with whom they collaborated as equals in shared endeavour. Show to their descendants the same respect and the same awareness of their proper diet.

As for babies, I would no more rely on the nostrums of professional dieticians than I would in choosing my own menu. The experts bicker about everything, from the chronology of weaning to the suitability of milk or eggs or grains. Partly, their unreliability is the result of ignorance: prejudice — especially, in Britain, against meat — plays a bigger role than evidence.

Babies, in any case, are individuals whose tastes, aptitudes and digestive powers vary like those of the rest of us. In inter-species solidarity, feed your dogs on what you eat, but do not follow the same precept in dealing with your infants: to do so is to subordinate their individuality to your own power over their lives. To encourage independence, serve them the food of cultures other than your own, and dishes you dislike.

My younger generation feed my grandson on the diet of the Guardian-reading bourgeoisie: chia seeds with coconut milk and tuna niçoise. He likes to suck lemons — a taste which should be encouraged because it is distinctive (like the baby of Alexander McCall Smith’s imagination, whose choicest snack is an olive).

The NHS, labouring in its vocation as a multicultural nanny, recommends “veggie biryani, Jamaican fish curry” and “African bean stew”. I can’t help noticing that nothing Spanish is mentioned. I don’t want any descendant of mine to end up like me, but I was told in childhood that the only dish I would eat while being weaned was garlic soup, which seems highly recommendable — nourishing and assertive of the sort of personal peculiarity of which babies can be proud.

Slice abundant garlic finely; gild it in good olive oil, with lots of jamón serrano, diced small; add it to rich beef and ham stock; season liberally. Spaniards steep big tranches of bread and break eggs into the simmering broth — which suits babies, as the yolks become intriguingly viscous rivulets amid the steam.

But I prefer the eggs not-quite hard-boiled and finely chopped before being stirred in. What does Rafa think of my suggestions? “It might be more humane,” he avers, “to feed the dogs and babies to each other.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover