When it comes to food people get weird. It’s not what they do eat, it’s what they don’t eat. Think about it. Despite famines, despite high food prices, despite all the amazing eating opportunities on offer, people across the world have steadfastly refused to eat:
- root vegetables
- satay goat testicles
- hot beverages
- uncooked food
- guinea pigs
- your grandparents.
That’s just to name a few.
Each of these foods has been proclaimed wonderful, or at least mouth-worthy, by one culture, and condemned as pig-swill and sin by another. How can we have such wildly different opinions about what counts as good food?
Here’s a few reasons why:
A) We Have No Imagination
Functional fixedness. A cat is a pet. A rat is a pest. A cow goes well with pasta. What it does is what it does is what it does.
That’s what it does.
A horse is a horse is a… tasty meal in France. But in England it’s just… no… you can’t… it’s a horse. You ride them. Horses. Riding. Don’t you get it? You don’t… no! Damn Frogs.
B) Philosophy and Religion
An environmentalist’s refusal to eat endangered sea turtles is easy to understand. Likewise a do-no-harm Jain’s refusal to eat animals, and your daughter’s refusal to eat her pet rabbit. And cannibalism is… do I really need to explain that one?
Other prohibitions get a bit stranger. Believers in reincarnation might go vegetarian out of fear of eating grandpa in goat form. Believers in animal spirits may only feed their children small animals, until the child’s spirit is strong enough to deal with eating bigger animal spirits. And believers in controlling one’s uncontrollable passions often dislike garlic because… garlic gets ya going?
When it comes to religious food taboos Judaism is head of the table. God said “Thou shalt not boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk.” and that was that. What can you do? It’s one of the Ten Commandments. (The other ten. Yes, there’s others.) No one’s clear why God said this. He just did. So Jews have been keeping their milk and meat kosher ever since. (P.S. ‘Kid’ here refers to a baby goat. Boiling children in mummy’s breast milk falls under that “Thou shalt not kill” bit. Just so we are clear.)
C) I Don’t Eat Garlic. Who Do You Think I Am?
What is it with garlic? Forget politics. You want a divisive issue, take a whiff of garlic. Go to the right time and place and “Garlic Eater” is a racial slur.
Food is community. Nothing sets you apart more than refusing to eat what others are eating. Nothing binds you together more than eating something no other group will eat. We are what we eat.
D) Power Games
Imagine if you could convince half the population that only you and people like you can safely eat chocolate. Wouldn’t that be great! All the chocolate for me!
Seems people have had this kind of idea before. Especially men. All the meat for me! And then, if they can, the rest of the group swings back around and slaps another taboo on you. Yes, you may get the chocolate and sausages, but we get the bananas and fish fingers! Ha! Social divisions end up getting written in food. Thus the elderly, chiefs, widows, children, and more end up with their own special taboos and rights of violation.
Don’t eat the milk cow. You get milk from it. Seems sensible. Likewise, if each neighboring village has a different taboo for hunting a different forest animal then the chances of everyone driving these different creatures extinct is diminished.
F) Blame the Grim Reaper
Food can kill you. New food is suspicious. Is that really edible? Are the garlic eaters trying to poison us? They said it was the brown mushroom, right? That looks brown to me.
In the game of evolution, one bad experiment and you lose.
Our food taboo paranoia reaches a high point with pregnancy. Don’t eat fish. Do eat fish. Only eat rats if your husband done the butchering. And no hen’s eggs. You don’t want the baby to be too chicken to come out.
Us humans never do anything straightforwardly. Nothing could be more animalistically basic than food. Yet we can’t stop ourselves from squirting identity politics and religious dogma straight into the middle of your lunchtime sandwich. It’s enough to make you want to go get a plate full of bacon and horsemeat, garnished with extra garlic, gluten, and plus-sized animal-spirits, just to spite them. Mmm, yum!
Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:
Food Taboos: their origin and purpose. Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow (2009) Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. Here.