Vail Daily column: Disgusting to some, delicacy to others
July 24, 2015
Want to hear something really gross? I ate maggots. At the time I thought they were worms, as though that was a distinction that matters. I chose the maggots because they looked less buggy than the crickets that were also offered to me by my Kunming hosts. The maggots were fried and crunchy, like Cheetos without the cheese.
My husband raves about the squirrel potpie his mother cooked for him during his childhood in upstate New York. Squirrels are members of the order Rodentia, so squirrel is just a rat with a bushy tail.
At a restaurant near Zurich I managed to decode everything on the menu with the exception of something called Pferd. My husband was also perplexed and questioned our waitress who explained that Pferd was horse and asked would he like some. He diplomatically replied, "Maybe next time" and ordered the schnitzel.
In People magazine, chef, author and CNN host Anthony Bourdain addressed his eating limitations. "I won't eat rat. Or live monkey brains. One has to draw the line somewhere." Bourdain's line meanders more than most. He stoically consumed warthog anus while filming in Namibia. He lived to regret it, requiring a round of antibiotics in the aftermath.
Our line as Americans used to be more expansive than it is today. During World War II, and for a while afterwards, Americans suffering from a lack of beef did eat horse. Pigeons and partridges were the only birds in the Northeast recommended for consumption by cookbook author Sarah Josepha Buell Hale in her 1841 cookbook. Her book also describes the preparation of hoary meals such as calf's head, turtle soup and brains. Old American cookbooks typically contain many organ meat recipes — kidney pie, liver with onions and brain balls. Today, veal seems rather tame by comparison.
A sampling of the menu items available at the GrillMarket in Reykjavik in June included puffin, minke whale and horse. Iceland may be one of the few places where you can go whale watching in the morning and whale eating in the evening. I ordered the cod. I do not eat horse, or whale for that matter, but wondered if I should have a beef with eating horse? Icelanders have been eating horse and whale for a thousand years. Turns out, what constitutes acceptable sustenance depends heavily on place of birth.
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Kathleen Taylor, writing in The Guardian, singles out the emotion disgust for strongly influencing our dietary preferences. Foods that are considered disgusting are often those that are "unsanctioned" by the local culture. Steven Pinker, in his book "How the Mind Works," explains that unsanctioned or disgusting foods are often those that carry the highest disease risk. Interestingly, during the 2003 SARS crisis it was initially thought that civet cats purchased for consumption in Guangzhou markets were the likely source of the outbreak. Civets were ultimately exonerated and bats were blamed instead. One market customer questioned about daring Cantonese eating habits remarked: "You see an animal and naturally wonder what it tastes like."
Pinker points out that while disgust is universal, what disgusts people differs between cultures. Most Americans draw the line at eating dog and horse. However, that line is an arbitrary one based on American culture that considers dogs companions and co-workers. Culture includes the general customs and beliefs of a group of people and includes artistic expression, language, religion, architecture and cuisine. Nevertheless, dogs were not, until relatively recently, companion animals in much of Asia, where dogs have been consumed for thousands of years.
The problem with absolutes regarding animal consumption based on the value humans place on animals is that value is not universal. One person's filet mignon is another's holy symbol of wealth and abundance.
Another objection to consuming animals such as dogs or whales has been the long held belief in their intelligence. However, as Marc Bekoff writes in Psychology Today, "… all mammals are sentient beings who share the same neural architecture underlying their emotional lives and who experience a wide spectrum of emotions including the capacity to feel pain and to suffer." Pigs have excellent long-term memories, horses form friendships and chickens are capable of complex social interaction. If we stop eating a species based on intelligence, then many more animals will join the contraband list.
Acting as arbiters of acceptable food ingredients in cases other than when a species survival is at stake reeks of Western sanctimony. This hypocrisy is especially galling considering the West has exported its fast food culture with devastating effect contributing to the global rise in obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
For the time being I will stick with standard American protein. So rest easy, I am not mentally fileting your Fido as you walk by. But nor will I judge Icelanders, Swiss or Namibians for the protein choices they make.
Claire Noble is the author of "State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure." She can be found online at clairenoble.org or follow her on Twitter @thewriteclaire.
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