Sunday, 20 January 2013

On the Nature of Taboo on Horsemeat

Muslims and Jews have centuries-old taboos on pork, which is the most favoured meat of the Ukrainians, the Czechs, the Germans and the Chinese. The Russians prefer beef (pork comes second with them), which is forbidden to the Hindus. The Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz and the Tatars prefer horse meat - an abomination to Christians. And all these confessions have a taboo on dog meat - the Koreans' favourite. Eating in public, or - worse - offering someone such forbidden food (not to say forcing them to eat it, as was done in the Soviet army where Muslims were served pork) might cause an inter-ethnic conflict.
(Moshe Gamme, The Caspian Region)

Isn't it strange how much of a clamour there is about horse-meat in Burgers?

It's not the deception, the notion that the ingredients were not properly detailed, for if they were, it would have been only the poor and desperate who would have eaten those meals, knowing what was in them. There is a taboo against eating horse meat, and where there is a taboo, the action in question is bound up with deep rooted feelings of disgust and revulsion.

But not all cultures have this taboo. As Wikipedia notes:

Horse meat is the culinary name for meat cut from a horse. It is a major meat in only a few countries, notably in Central Asia, but it forms a significant part of the culinary traditions of many others, from Europe to South America to Asia. The top eight countries consume about 4.7 million horses a year. For the majority of mankind's early existence, wild horses were hunted as a source of protein. It is slightly sweet, tender, low in fat and high in protein. (1)
"Low in fat" sounds good, so why is there this taboo in British and American culture? I don't dislike horses, but I have never ridden a horse, nor do I have any desire to do so. My sister had riding lessons, went to help out at riding stables, and obviously loves horses more than I do. But I still feel a revulsion against the notion of eating horse meat. It seems something very deeply embedded in our culture, and moreover not something that is taught, but something that just becomes an unconscious part of growing up, like learning to speak a language.

There's a long history of eating horse meat:

In the late Paleolithic (Magdalenian Era), wild horses formed an important source of food. In many parts of Europe, the consumption of horse meat continued throughout the Middle Ages until modern times, despite a Papal ban of horse meat in 732. (1)

I think it is related in part to how we relate to animals. Horses do work on the farm, but they can also be pets, like cats and dogs. As John Feffer notes, there is a taboo against eating pets:

While vegetarians naturally reject meat of all kinds, the rest of America maintains some form of double standard--chicken but not crow, beef but not horse, venison but not reindeer, lamb but not mutton, legs and wings and rumps but not hearts or lungs or tongues. Some Americans are adventurous meat eaters who will cross the line and enthusiastically tuck into possum, ostrich, or alligator. One line in America, however, is inviolable. Anonymous livestock and wildlife are fair game, but pets are a different matter, and dog in particular remains the most potent meat taboo. (2)

And yet dog meat has formed a staple of Korean cuisine to this day, although it as common as animal rights protestors make out, because it became illegal in 1988:

While dog is usually listed as the fourth most popular meat in Korea after beef, pork, and chicken, the government banned sales of all "foods deemed unsightly" during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul so as not to give foreigners the wrong impression of Korean culture. Although some legislators are trying to overturn the ban and regulate the industry--an eminently sensible approach that should satisfy diners and activists alike--the government is unlikely to change the law with the World Cup around the corner.(2)

There has in fact been a trend with globalisation for the taboos on food to effect other countries, as cultures become more aware of their own singularity. It is interesting, because you might expect a widening of cuisine to lessen the effect of the taboos on food, but instead, the opposite has taken place:

Consumption of whale meat in Japan has fallen precipitously since the Second World War. Cat, which was once eaten in parts of Spain, can no longer be found on the menu there. Smoked dog ham and dried dog meat were once popular in Switzerland, but no longer. In globalization-speak, this might be called "harmonization": Difference is tolerated only within certain parameters.(3)

Part of that is conscious, at attempt to ensure - as with Korea - that cultural sensibilities of the rest of the world are considered when hosting major events, where the last thing anyone wants is to highlight foods that cause offense. But it also seems that the deep seated unconscious nature of the taboo makes it spread more widely as well.

Another element of food taboos has been addressed by the idea of "usefulness":

Why, however, should Jews and Muslims abhor pork and Hindus beef? One theory is that as long as a food source is economical to grow, rear or catch it remains culturally acceptable; but if circumstances change so that it begins to waste resources or human effort it falls out of favour. So, the argument goes, beef is taboo to Hindus because cattle are an inefficient food source that would compete for land in an already overcrowded sub-continent. Before 800 BC when India was sparsely populated beef eating was perfectly acceptable. The religious prohibitions since have coincided with increasing economic deprivation as the population has grown. Crops to feed cattle for meat are more wasteful than crops to feed people directly. (3)

But the "usefulness" theory is not the whole story. Because there is also that element common to taboos in general - that of disgust or revulsion. And while some people go out of their way to try a different culinary experience, they are the exception when it comes to a lack of sensitivity to the taboo. As Michael Freeman notes:

Food prejudices are among the strongest we have and the hardest to shake off. No one can understand how their normal diet can be perceived as strange, and even disgusting, by anyone from a different culture. But making a deliberate effort to accept and enjoy what they consider "bizarre" foods can sometimes be an impossible exercise.(3)

To understand the taboo in depth, we need to look at our evolutionary roots, where it is linked to the emotion of disgust. Charles Darwin commented on the idea of "disgust" in his book "The Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals"

The term 'disgust,' in its simplest sense, means something offensive to the taste. It is curious how readily this feeling is excited by anything unusual in the appearance, odour, or nature of our food. In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty. A smear of soup on a man's beard looks disgusting, though there is of course nothing disgusting in the soup itself. (4)

Darwin notes how the repulsion over food leads to vomiting, and how this is an involuntary action, although he speculates that it comes from the distant past, when it was a voluntary mechanism to avoid being poisoned by foods:

It is remarkable how readily and instantly retching or actual vomiting is induced in some persons by the mere idea of having partaken of any unusual food, as of an animal which is not commonly eaten; although there is nothing in such food to cause the stomach to reject it. (4)

When vomiting results, as a reflex action, from some real cause-- as from too rich food, or tainted meat, or from an emetic--it does not ensue immediately, but generally after a considerable interval of time. Therefore, to account for retching or vomiting being so quickly and easily excited by a mere idea, the suspicion arises that our progenitors must formerly have had the power (like that possessed by ruminants and some other animals) of voluntarily rejecting food which disagreed with them, or which they thought would disagree with them; and now, though this power has been lost, as far as the will is concerned, it is called into involuntary action, through the force of a formerly well-established habit, whenever the mind revolts at the idea of having partaken of any kind of food, or at anything disgusting. (4)

He notes how it still appears to be a voluntary action with other species:

This suspicion receives support from the fact, of which I am assured by Mr. Sutton, that the monkeys in the Zoological Gardens often vomit whilst in perfect health, which looks as if the act were voluntary. We can see that as man is able to communicate by language to his children and others, the knowledge of the kinds of food to be avoided, he would have little occasion to use the faculty of voluntary rejection; so that this power would tend to be lost through disuse.

And he also describes how it is a very deeply ingrained part of our biology, from birth:

I never saw disgust more plainly expressed than on the face of one of my infants at the age of five months, when, for the first time, some cold water, and again a month afterwards, when a piece of ripe cherry was put into his mouth. This was shown by the lips and whole mouth assuming a shape which allowed the contents to run or fall quickly out; the tongue being likewise protruded. These movements were accompanied by a little shudder.

While the different foodstuffs which cause disgust to arise in different cultures, the taboo, once inculcated is a very strong one, and it would appear that, as Darwin noted, it has deep roots in our evolutionary history, much as a fear of spiders on snakes is involuntary, because to survive, the body must react with speed, either to avoid a dangerous creature, or to eject a dangerous foodstuff.

Modern psychological techniques can probably can desensitise ourselves and overcome it, but is there any real point? After all, it has enabled human beings to survive so far, and the ability to eat hitherto unpalatable foodstuffs may also be the removal of a safety net that which we would not appreciate until it is too late. After all, it seems good to be desensitised to snakes, until one fails to react quickly, and gets a fatal bite. There's often a reason for apparent irrationality in our world, and we would be wise not to always scoff and despise it. I won't be eating horses anytime in the near future.

(2) The Politics of Dog: When Globalization and Culinary Practice Clash. John Feffer, The American Prospect, 2002
(3) Food for Thought, Michael Freeman, Geographical, 1998
(4) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin


James said...

The Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz and the Tatars prefer horse meat - an abomination to Christians.

errr... that'd be why there are still a few boucheries chevalines in France, which that last time I looked was still at least nominally Christian!

The main reason French people no longer eat horse is that it is expensive. The number of horses has declined with the mechanisation of agriculture; in addition it requires far more land to support a horse than it does a cow.

TonyTheProf said...

Yes the French are an anomaly, but horse meat eating there goes back to origins in the French revolution.

James said...

The French are not an anomaly.

The Belgians and Italians also eat horse. So do the Swedes and Norwegians. Indeed, so did the British up until after the Second World War (ignore what the Wikipedia says, my wife ate horse meat as a small child in suburban London).

TonyTheProf said...

Point taken, but except in starvation conditions (e.g. German soldiers in Occupation in Jersey), some meat was still taboo in these countries - e.g. dog and cat.

TonyTheProf said...

I'm more interested in the general nature of food taboo that cultural differences, which can be very wide indeed. Some tribes in New Guinea, for example, used to eat the brains of their dead.