Recent news of horse meat being mistakenly mixed into ground beef in Europe got us thinking about cultures that frown on eating horse meat, and why some foods are considered taboo -- or even "icky" in some cultures -- while other morsels are prized delicacies.
The Splendid Table's Lynne Rossetto Kasper is here to talk about food taboos and how they seem to originate.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Taboos come from a lot of different places that are about human nature and are about the environments we live in. Every single culture has some kind of food taboos, and within the culture groups are food taboos. My taboo may be another person's or culture's delicacy, essential or the healthiest thing you could eat. It could be something that could be sacred; it could be evil.
Tom Crann: Prohibited by religion?
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Right. It could be something dangerous. It could be unhealthy. It could threaten your life.
There's also differentiation: that is, "I don't eat what those people eat." For instance, one of the things that is really interesting is, up until the '30s or whatever, lobster in "lobster country" was considered "poor man's food." It was everyday food. There's a wonderful story in a Time-Life food book about these people that moved from New York to Maine and to thank their neighbors for their help they invite them in and have heaps of lobsters, because in New York it's a luxury. And someone actually turns to them and says, "we don't eat lobster."
Tom Crann: In the west, especially in America, we love our burgers. We love our steak. But obviously, that's literally slaughtering the proverbial "sacred cow."
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Well, in India, to religious groups, the cow is sacred. And you do not eat beef. What's interesting is for us, this has been the symbol of prosperity.
Most of the early settlers came from western Europe, and in western Europe, only the wealthy ate meat regularly. But here, we had the land for the cows to graze. We could have great slabs of meat. We tend to think this is a modern thing, but it really goes back to that testament of, "look how wealthy we are, we can eat meat every day, and we can eat beef which takes time to grow and needs a lot of land, but we've got it." That kind of thing.
Tom Crann: What about foods that we seem to take issue with or find icky that are just common fare elsewhere, like offal?
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Yes, as in innards. There's movement now, it was given a name by Fergus Henderson in England. It's called "Nose to Tail." If you look at the food magazines or go to a restaurant, everybody is doing this. The idea is no longer that it is fashionable to only eat from the top of the animal -- which is where the steaks and roasts come from -- and the chops. Now it's the feet, it's the tail, it's the ears. Pork belly, which you could buy for $1.50 a pound, is now $20 for three slices on a plate if you go into one of our fancy restaurants here in town.
The point is that if an animal is going to meet its demise, you waste nothing. This is very chic right now, but our great-grandparents were doing this.
Tom Crann: It's the way people ate for years.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: People ate this way for years. People all over the world are still eating this way.
And the idea of eating innards -- innards also had symbolism. You ate the heart of something, you might be braver and stronger. You ate brains, you might be smarter. You see where it comes from.
Tom Crann: We're getting back to that.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Well, we are.
Tom Crann: Then fans of Andrew Zimmern and Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, have seen plenty of things; people eating things that we wouldn't necessarily eat in American culture, like bugs and insects.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: There's a fascinating book called "Man Eating Bugs."It's a wonderful read from an anthropological point of view, and just fabulous because the pictures are wonderful.
This is the interesting thing. For a lot of cultures, bugs are either a delicacy or a basic protein. But again, it's that taboo thing: one of the stories in this book is a group of teenagers eating, I don't know, some form of ant, in one part of the world, saying, "do you know that those people who live in this other part of the world they eat mealy bugs? How awful!" Taboo, right?
Right now the European Union is offering a multi-million dollar prize for anyone who can come up with a marketing plan to make bug-eating attractive. Because this, for the future, is going to be a very sustainable source of protein. We laugh now, but in the future...
Tom Crann: It's a reality.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Yes, it is. And probably a lot to be learned from folks who have been doing it all along.