One area of anthropology that has always fascinated me has been that dealing with culinary taboos. There’s so much about the psychology of what we put into our mouths that goes beyond mere taste or satisfaction of appetite.
In Perth, a butcher has recently come under fire and even received death threats from animal rights activists for selling horse meat for consumption. That’s right – not simply for being a butcher, but because of one kind of meat he deals in. It seems some sorts of animals are more equal than others.
While Australia has exported choice cuts of horse flesh for consumption for quite some time, Western Australia’s Agriculture and Food Minister has only recently initiated a trial licensing system for its sale in his state.
The butcher has expressed his understanding of the emotional attachment people have to horses here, but felt the death threats were stepping over the line.
Let’s take a look at a wider buffet of animals that are considered to be too taboo to chew in certain cultures:
If horses inspired death threats, offering a slice of Lassie Pie would surely lead to rioting in the streets. Few people in western countries would even consider eating man’s best friend, but if you lived in Mexico before the Spanish crashed the party, a bite of ‘Xoloitzcuintli’– a breed of hairless canine – might have been served up at an Aztec feast. Oddly, they were also considered to be personal companions and were believed to have guided souls to the afterlife.
I had a lovely stew of camel meat while travelling through Syria in 2005, which is quite acceptable to those in Islamic cultures. If you’re Jewish, however, camel meat is a no-no, in spite of it being a cud-chewer. Deuteronomy 14:6-7 explicitly rules it out because its hoof doesn’t quite meet the ‘cloven’ clause.
My sister had a guinea pig named ‘Susie’. It mysteriously disappeared one night, never to be seen again. We wouldn’t have even considered making Susie into a Crepe Suzette, but in Peru and some places in Ecuador it’s a delicacy known as ‘cuy’. While it’s legal in New York State to serve this rodent’s meat, in New York City it was prohibited after cuy was sold by street vendors.
Tarzan might have taken Cheetah for dinner as the main course if he’d followed the customs of some Sub-Saharan African cultures. In the Congo, gorilla meat is a common source of protein, with the hands and feet being the choice cuts offered to guests. Sadly, this is leading to the demise of some of our closest primate relatives. For most cultures, however, anything remotely simian is a little too close to cannibalism for comfort.
A battered flank of ‘fruit de mare’ might be the perfect Friday night meal, complete with mayonnaise and a side of chips, unless you’re from certain Somali tribes, some Bantu communities or select ‘Cushitic’ speaking clans (a language-group who claim to have descended from the Biblical Cush, the eldest of Noah’s son, Ham). It’s not clear what inspired this avoidance, when so many other surrounding cultures not only eat fish but have close cultural ties with making their living off the waterways.
Living during Restoration England would have been a bad time for vegans. Since they grew in dirt surrounded by poo and bugs, vegetables were considered to be unclean for consumption and therefore best avoided for want of copious amounts of meat. The writer, artist and green-thumb John ‘no man can be very miserable that is master of a garden’ Evelyn attempted to address this imbalance in his 1699 book ‘Acetaria – A Discourse on Sallets’ that was supposed to be an encyclopaedia of botany and became something of a recipe book to encourage the carnivorous English to get out and get their hands dirty.
Obviously this list goes on, and could be a book in itself (in fact, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t already). Whales, pigs and cats are three other tasty beasties often responsible for heated debates. It’s got me thinking – maybe I could start a restaurant that sells such forbidden fruits. Call it ‘Taboo’. I wonder how popular it would be. Given the close ties between health and food, not to mention the variety of social relationships animals have with humans, it’s easy to see how there’s more to what we eat than just taste and nourishment.