A few weeks ago, while was waiting for the bus at the station of the Slow Food university where I study, I ran into an irregular sight. A mother and a daughter were waiting for the bus with me. The mother, an L.A woman, was wearing clothes that are screaming New-age. The daughter, six years old, with long blond hairs, was running around us, singing and dancing. A few moments into the conversation I had with the mother, just before the bus has arrived, the daughter stood in front of us and with a cutesy childish politeness said: “Mommy, can I have titty please? I’m hungry”. I immediately turned my head to the other side, embarrassed, to try and hide my thoughts that were quickly running in my mind: “What are you, 100 years old? Open your mind!” The mom, understanding my desperate attempts to stay within the PC borders, looked me in the eyes and said: “Come on darling, what’s wrong? It’s Slow Milk, it doesn’t get any more sustainable than this!”
Whether or not we find it reasonable to breastfeed a six years old, the situation right now is this: Until 2050 the world population will reach 9 billion people. The production of good, healthy and just food to such a number will not be possible without significant change in the consumption habits. As for today, there are 1 billion people who suffer from malnutrition around the world, while another billion suffers from obesity, that is the outcome of a nutritional transition from traditional local cuisine to a western globalised one.
But while scientists are looking forward and trying to find innovative futuristic solutions like genetical engineering, artificial meet and nutritional peels, other food movements like Slow Food, are going for a different strategy and look backwards - learning from traditional societies and ancient ones on how to maintain a sustainable development. Amongst other topics being discussed, there is the subject of live food - animals - but those that we don’t usually see on the Western table, like insects for example. Naturally, those attempts are bringing with them some moral questions, and the borders between right-wrong, pure and impure - are requiring some new coping.
Through history, mankind was consuming foods and was avoiding others from different reasons like God’s will, health, animal rights or just necessary reasons. The range of the choices in food sourcing is dynamic, and dependent on society, geography and culture. But with this real threat of food shortage, arises the question - Is the division between right and wrong in food should change?
Different theories have been trying to explain the logic behind food taboos through generations. The most common and simple explanation for the reason why there are certain animals that are forbidden to eat is that they have other purposes: Dogs were used for hunting and protecting, horses for working and camels for transportation, and that’s why they were never eaten by humans. But this does not explain why in some places in Europe eating a horse is a normal thing, or why the pig is forbidden food in Judaism and Islam, although it never had a specific utility.
Another explanation is the hygienic one: One doesn’t eat filthy animals, like dog or pig. But then again, also other livestock are far from being sterile, and yet they become food. The explanation, therefore, should be searched deeper, within the human soul.
The choice of eating or not eating a specific animal is one of the things that characterises an identity and separates between social groups. Sigmund Freud talked about the animal as the Totem of the tribe, an ancient ancestor that is the center of the law and beliefs system, and it is forbidden to eat it. Also the anthropologist Friedrich G. Simons was dealing with the prohibition as an identity definer: The Lange people of Congo, for example, are called “Dog people” because they eat dogs meat, or the D’or people of Mumbai, that are separated from most cultures in India for their beef consumption. And here in Israel, eating pork was once a symbol of agnosticism, liberality and the religious coercion - all characteristics that are identify with the left wing in Tel Aviv - and today it is in fact the choice of veganism that identifies with liberality, openness and urban culture.
And what about the physiological instinct? The repulsion that one feels from certain foods is chiefly a defence mechanism of the body from spoiled or poisonous food. But this as well, ultimately, is a subjective system. For instance, in Eastern and Western Asia and also in Tropical Africa, there are societies that their members are refusing to drink milk - they are disgusted by it similarly to the reaction of Western people to drinking urine. A Western person will feel nausea just thinking of eating insects, and an Orthodox Jew will be repulsed by the presence of pork chops in their plate. Cultural processes therefore are penetrating into the physiological mechanism of the evolution. But is there logic within the difference between one prohibition to another?
The following paragraphs will expand five of these food taboos, each with a different reason and another season.
Pigs. Here and there
The pig is an intersection point between the new and the old, since it is forbidden amongst some cultures and yet considered as a normative food in others. One of the explanations for this abstention is pinned within the opposition that was existed between the immobile farmers and the nomads shepherds. The vagabonds Mongols, for instance, use to call the Chinese’s pigs “Black Meat” and to the chinese people themselves - “The black meat keepers”, and to the emperor - “The emperor of pigs”. Until nowadays there is a certain revulsion from pork’s meat in Mongolia.
The origins of this taboo are were rooted in the Middle East, but it seems that the revulsion of pork's meat was not defined by geographical circumstance. Remains from the Paleolithic period are indicating that hunting and feeding of wild boars were pretty common, and went on until after the Neolithic Revolution. Proofs for the domestication of wild boars were found in the remains of crafts from Ancient Egyptian period. In Mesopotamia wild and domesticated pigs appears in scripts and painted on seals, and there are some who believe that the pig was the main animal’s sourced food in the Sumer culture. Also in The Code of Hammurabi that was written in the Babylonian period there are laws regarding pigs breeding.
The prohibition of eating pork in Judaism, although not mentioned in the bible, became much more drastic with the conquest of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-164 BC) - when the Jews were forced to go through loyalty tests to the new government through sacrificing a pig and feed of it. The anthropologist Mary Douglas was arguing that the pig has became a symbol of impurity since it’s cloven hooves but does not chew its cud; meaning, it only withstand on one of the forbidden categories and by doing that, it's undermining the binary system that distinguishes between pure/impure, good/bad.
Plants. Did anyone say Gluten Free?
If the vegetarian people have started to feel comfortable around this text, well - please don’t. Not only meat products were expelled from a certain diets, but also plants sourced food. “A new variety of eggplants has arrived to contemporary Italy”, wrote the physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli on 1544, after seeing a tomato for the first time - but the gluttonous of Europe had to wait and only in the 19th century recipes for tomatoes - which were thought to be poisonous - have started to emerge in Italy. Until the 16th century the artichoke, that considered as an afrodiziak, was not allowed to be consumed by women in Europe, and in many cultures fava beans were forbidden too. The Yazidis are avoiding lettuce and beans, a prohibition that is sourced in religious beliefs, in South Italy until recently, root vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes and potatoes - were mainly used for pig’s feed, and in pre-Jamie Oliver’s England, many were considered wild greens as chicken feed only. And talking about vegetables, it is a great opportunity to mention one of the most outcast groups of food - the cereals: wheat, barley and other members of this family that was served faithfully the Western human in the last ten thousand years, are going through a process of demonetisation, and are pushed aside to a status that is almost considered to be “forbidden food”. All of this due to one little protein called “gluten”. In recent years, the debate about the danger that is concealed within the gluten is hot like a pitta bread that just came out of the oven, with a resistance movement that is not less loud. One way or another, today an avoidance of gluten is a status symbol and considered to be not only healthy but also an indication of capital, wealth and a part of the privilege to be choosing what not to eat.
True Blood, not so Mary
The traditional food of the Masai Tribe include drinking cow’s blood while it’s still warm. They are usually drinking it alongside a warm liquid animal fat, or mixing it with milk, or sometimes just as it is - blood. Although a blood sausage is a pretty acceptable dish in Europe, it is hard for the Western man to just think of blood, as it is, as a part of a meal. According to the theory of the American psychologist Andras Angyal, humans are disgusted by raw materials if they haven’t perform any change. For the same reason many people will recoil raw eggs, beef tartare, carpaccio of raw fish. Cooking, smoking, curing, baking - when a human’s hand touches the material it changes it, and from a “flesh” it becomes “meat”, therefore it changes from “waste” to “food”.
And in spite of the revulsion, in the food industry it is pretty common to use blood. It is an excellent stabiliser - the plasm uses as an emulsifier of fat and water in foods like butter, cheeses and sausages. In the wine industry blood is being used in the filtering process and in many farms there is a use of cow’s blood, which is rich with Nitrogen, as a fertilizer. And why not? I recall the “slow milk” of the mother that feeds her daughter with her own body fluids.
Dogs. Come here body?
In Korea it wouldn’t be a rare sight: a sirloin made out of a dog meat on a wooden board, served to a table at a restaurant. It would be reasonable to assume that the look of this dish is not very different than any other meat dish. Although I still haven’t got the chance of tasting this delicacy, but according to diners who have tasted it, the taste as well is not so different. And yet, the revulsion of eating the meat of man’s best friend is so deep, that there would be some who will ask in what way eating dog meat is different than consuming human flesh.
And still, In China, dog meat has been consumed as food since ancient times. The dogs were only seconds to the pigs in food crops. The anthropologist Simons described the Lango people in Uganda, who eats meat just to to redeem for their sins, and the Kongo and Mabondo in Angola, who despite their great affection to their dogs, they can still appreciate the deliciousness of their meat. The Aboriginals in Australia were fed of wild dogs until the arrival of the white men.
It would be a mistake to assume that Europe was always a safe place for dogs. Hippocrates wrote about the great qualities of dog’s cubs, Pliny described the Roman’s bliss after a feast of dog meat, and even in the 20th century, in times of famine in Russia and Ukraine between worlds war, there was also a consumption of dogs meat. Will this taboo stick around forever to defend our best friends?
Humans. With heavy heart
The issue of cannibalism as a response of passion or a sadistic pleasure has received many representations in the Western culture - the image of Hannibal Lecter, who sucks pleasure out of eating human brains is still echoing in our collective memory, alongside Eddie the biker from “Rocky Horror Picture Show”, whose meat was served to the enthusiastic guests, or the human meat pies of mrs. Lovett from “Sweeney Todd”. The contemporary TV shows “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story”, are also dealing with the topic of human flesh being consumed by humans. But the essential question, about the option of consuming human meat for survival, is becoming terrifying when is being asked in a reality where a real famine is knocking on the contemporary world.
Mrs Lovett and her pies
The anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday has studied cannibalism and its essence as a distinguisher between the “Cultured I” to the “Natural other”. Sanday, who bases her study on 156 different societies she had visited - especially in South Saharan Africa, isolated societies in the Pacific Ocean, and North, Central and South America - notes the fact that usually, the consumption of human meat is not the result of a hunger nor for the benefit of good taste, but it has to do with ceremonies and social orders. However, within the interviews she had led in Papua New Guinea, the Orokaiva people are admitting wholeheartedly that the reason they eat human flesh is the “lust for good food”. She describes “human bodies held like hunt victims. Adult man are tied with their arms and feet to a pole, carried when their head is falling towards the ground”. Alongside these phenomena, Sanday concludes, the cannibalism as a solution to a real hunger through history, although existed - even in the last century and even in Europe - has always considered a radical act and as an unreasonable solution until the very last moment.
Is this last moment approaches?
Most of the chances are that the readers of this text are safe for now. But if you feel protected and sure that the Western trends will not get to these “extreme” places, let me just remind you the recent trend in which women who gave birth are eating their own placenta. This custom, which originated in ancient Chinese traditions, has become strong amongst mothers in the US and Europe. A taboo? Maybe. But why wouldn't they eat the placena? It’s not that different than giving an adult child a nutritional body secretion.
Origianally published in Ha'aretz Food Magazine, edited by Ronit Vered