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Posts tagged ‘taboo’

Presumptuous Insect

A few months ago, I was interviewed on a radio station about changing attitudes towards food and eating. After a caller commented that when he’d lived in rural Limpopo, he’d happily eaten frogs, but preferred McDonald’s having moved to Johannesburg, I managed—somehow—to talk myself into an urgent appeal to the nation to eat insects. I’m still not entirely sure how this happened, but I think it was partly connected to the recent slew of articles on why we need to eat insects to save the planet.

This insect turn in culinary fashion is, of course, nothing new. In 1885, the entomologist Vincent M. Holt published Why not eat insects? To some extent, current arguments for eating insects deviate little from this little manifesto. Holt remarks, rightly, that there is nothing inherently dirty about insects—in fact, crustaceans, being bottom feeders, are potentially more dangerous to eat—and that they can form part of a balanced diet. He suggests that Western aversion to eating them is linked strongly to culturally specific ideas about what is fine and not fine to eat. He cites the example of a Chinese banquet at an exhibition in London, pointing out that Britons happily sampled a menu which included cuttlefish, sea slugs, and birds’ nests because it was both exotic and, apparently, healthy. Past Europeans ate insects, and societies in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere happily, according to Holt, eat insects:

Beginning with the earliest times, one can produce examples of insect-eating at every period down to our own age. Speaking to the people of Israel, at Lev. xi. 22, Moses directly encourages them to eat clean-feeding insects: ‘These ye may eat, the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.’ …

Cooked in many and various ways, locusts are eaten in the Crimea, Arabia, Persia, Madagascar, Africa, and India. … From the time of Homer, the Cicadae formed the theme of every Greek poet, in regard to both tunefulness and delicate flavour. Aristotle tells us that the most polished of the Greeks enjoyed them… Cicadae are eaten at the present day by the American Indians and by the natives of Australia.

He appeals to his readers:

We pride ourselves upon our imitation of the Greeks and Romans in their arts; we treasure their dead languages: why not, then, take a useful hint from their tables? We imitate the savage nations in their use of numberless drugs, spices, and condiments: why not go a step further?

Contemporary interest in eating insects is, though, strongly connected to anxieties about a food chain which seems to be increasingly ecologically unsustainable. Current methods of producing enough protein for the world’s population are to the cost of animal welfare and good labour practice, consume vast quantities of water, and produce methane and other greenhouse gases. Something needs to change, and insect enthusiasts argue that crickets, grasshoppers, and caterpillars are a viable alternative to beef, chicken, and pork. In a 2013 report for the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Dutch entomologist Arnold van Huis—academic and author of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)—notes more than 1,900 species of insects already form part of the diets of ‘at least two billion people.’ A lot of these insects are high in protein—higher, in some cases, than beef—and other nutrients. Many of them consume waste, and farming them is comparatively cheap and requires little labour.


This promotion of what Dana Goodyear calls ‘ethical entomophagy’ in Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Easters and the Making of a New American Food Culture, has met with some commercial success. There are now—outside of regions where insects are normally part of diets—businesses dedicated to farming insects for human consumption. It’s possible to buy cricket flour; Selfridges sells chocolate covered giant ants; and pop up restaurants and Noma have featured insects on their menus. The logic is that these high-end sales of edible insects will gradually influence the middle and bottom of the market. A kind of ‘trickle down’ revolution in diet.

While it is certainly true that we can and have chosen to eat foodstuffs once deemed to be dangerous or socially taboo—potatoes in eighteenth-century France, beef in Japan during the Meiji Restoration—these shifts in attitude take time to achieve. Also, in the case of potatoes and beef, these societies were strongly hierarchical with powerful aristocracies. Thankfully, most of us no longer live in a world where the king’s decision to consume a formerly shunned ingredient changes the way that all of us eat.

As every recent article on entomophagy notes, the main obstacle to the widespread incorporation of insects into, particularly but not exclusively, Western diets is a strong aversion to eating them. If only, the argument goes, picky Westerners would give up their hypocritical dislike of insects—they eat shrimp and prawns, after all—and then we’ll all be fine. But I think it’s worth taking this dislike seriously. As Goodyear makes the point, a lot of these insects aren’t particularly delicious. She tries embryonic bee drones picked from honeycomb:

the drones, dripping in butter and lightly coated with honey from their cells, were fatty and a little bit sweet, and, like everything chitinous, left me with a disturbing aftertaste of dried shrimp.

I’ve eaten fried, salted grasshoppers at a food festival on London’s south bank, and they were crunchy and salty—improved, like most things, by deep frying—but otherwise memorable only for having been grasshoppers.

Making insects palatable involves processing, something which almost inevitably increases the ecological footprint of the product. Perhaps even more importantly, as the caller I referred to at the beginning of this post said, insects are widely associated with poverty and deprivation. Modernity—life in the city—requires a new diet. While it is true that in many societies, people do eat insects out of choice, it is equally significant that when they can, people stop eating insects as soon as possible.

Our current anxiety about sustainable sources of protein is driven partly by concern that the new middle classes in China and India will demand to eat as much beef, in particular, as their Western counterparts. I wonder to what extent this concern is part of a long tradition of Malthusian yellow peril: that China, in particular, will somehow eat up all the world’s resources. I don’t have any objection to promoting entomophagy—although trickle down strategies have a fairly low level of success—but I think we should look more carefully at the reasons underpinning our interest in investing in alternative forms of protein, and also be careful that we won’t take seriously the interests and tastes of people clawing their way out of poverty.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Edible Animals

I have a weakness for strange novellas in translation, published by obscure imprints.* Last week I read Eat Him if You Like by Jean Teulé (Gallic Books, 2011). In slightly more than a hundred pages, Teulé describes a horrific incident which occurred in Hautefaye, a village in the Dordogne, during the summer of 1870. In the midst of drought, food shortages, and a disastrous conflict with Prussia, a mob of peasants turned on a young aristocrat, Alain de Monéys, and tortured him to death over the course of an afternoon.

In the evening, he was placed on a funeral pyre and set alight. His remains may have been eaten by his attackers.

The atrocity is the subject of Alain Corbin’s academic monograph, The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 (1992). He demonstrates that although the people who carried out the torture were mainly peasants, figures of authority were well aware of what was being done to De Monéys, as John Merriman explains in a review:

The mayor, despite wearing the tricolour sash symbolising his authority, was not much help… After a clumsy, ineffective effort to calm the crowd, he shut his door, fearing that the mob would smash his dishes. Worse, a witness reported that he told the crowd: ‘Take Monsieur de Moneys away from the front of the inn. He’s blocking traffic!’ And when someone shouted, ‘We want to kill him, burn him, and eat him,’ the mayor replied, if not ‘A table!’ at least ‘Eat him if you like’…

Why did this happen? Why did a group of three to eight hundred otherwise reasonable people – who, afterwards, deeply regretted their behaviour – turn on an innocent fellow subject? The immediate reason for the lynching was that De Monéys was accused of being a ‘Prussian’ and had shouted ‘Vive la République!’ at a time when France was ruled by Napoleon III.


Corbin argues that a collection of factors converged in Hautefaye on 6 August 1870, each of which contributed to the summer afternoon’s madness: a combination of hunger and desperation caused by the drought, growing peasant hostility towards the aristocracy, and anxiety about the progress of the Franco-Prussian War. Merriman writes:

There can be no question about the intrusion of national politics in the world of these peasants… Corbin sees the event as reflecting an intensification of a nationalism in the wake of the war, extending even into a peasant community in one of France’s most ‘backwards’ regions. …Corbin sees the community as affirming its own identity by ‘expel[ling] the monster from its midst.’

There is no evidence, only rumour, to suggest that De Monéys was eaten. In the novella, Teulé implies that, Christlike, in consuming his body, the mob is able to rid itself of its sins:

His ashes rose higher, swirling around in the air above the crowd who were feasting as they did on the most important holidays. They devoured their cannibal sandwiches. … Eating this body would purge the community.

As several of the reviews of Corbin’s book note, his explanation for the torture and possible cannibalism is not entirely satisfactory. And Teulé, despite his depiction of De Monéys as a scapegoat, implies that not all of his torturers may have had such elevated motives. The problem is that cannibalism in these circumstances – where a group of people willingly choose to eat another – transgresses so many taboos and social and cultural boundaries, that it seems to defy all logical explanation.

It’s little wonder, then, that cannibalism was central to the justification for colonialism – and, indeed, the word emerged at the beginning of the colonial encounter. Shirley Lindenbaum writes:

The word cannibal is said to be a legacy of Columbus’s second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493. Referring originally to the Caribs in the Antilles who were identified as eaters of human flesh, the term was subsequently extended as a descriptive term for flesh eaters in other populations. The discourse of cannibalism, which began with the encounter between Europe and the Americas, was to become a defining feature of colonial encounters in the New World

With its association with savagery, cannibalism was bound up with the construction of the colonial other.

But however much we may be appalled by cannibalism, it is very, very rarely done without reason. It’s easier to understand this by looking at the several forms of cannibalism which exist. I think we’re most familiar with survivor cannibalism, which occurs when people eat others in the absence of any other food, like the case of the 1972 Andes plane disaster, when a group of sixteen Uruguayan rugby players ate their deceased fellow passengers to survive freezing conditions. Also, cannibalism occurs during times of famine. There were instances of cannibalism in Russia in 1921, and, allegedly, in China’s Great Famine between 1958 and 1962.

It’s used in rituals to strengthen bonds within groups or communities, and also as a weapon of terror in warfare. It’s a symptom of psychopathology – as excited reports of the ‘face-eating man’ in Miami last year confirmed. But it’s also been done for medical reasons:

Medicinal ingestion involving human flesh, blood, heart, skull, bone marrow, and other body parts was widely practiced throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Human flesh obtained from ‘mummy shops,’ where the remains of an embalmed, dried, or otherwise prepared human body that had met with sudden, violent death, was considered to be a ‘universal panacea’… Samuel Johnson’s 1785 dictionary of English includes a description for preparing mummy, indicating that it was still being sold at that date, and it was still available in 1909 from a reputable German pharmaceutical company.

Placentophagy – where mothers eat their new-born babies’ placenta – falls within this definition too.

Cannibalism is more familiar to us than we probably realise – and certainly to those of us who’ve been to church:

Sacrificial cannibalism, in which the victim is treated with solicitude and honour as a prelude to sacrifice to the gods, is a widely reported form of aggression. Aztec cannibalism in fifteenth-century Mexico, as well as nineteenth-century Fijian practises, belong in this category. The Christian ritual of the Eucharist is its symbolic extension.

Even the use of organs in transplants involves a recycling of body parts between different people.

I want to emphasise that my point in writing this is not to horrify – and I think it’s absolutely imperative for every adult to consider signing up as an organ donor. Rather, thinking about cannibalism helps to illuminate aspects of our relationship with food and eating.

Firstly, there is nothing ‘savage’ or ‘senseless’ about cannibalism. It occurs for a range of reasons and takes a variety of forms, only some of which I’ve mentioned here. When people consume other people, it is for specific, well thought-out reasons. In fact, the contexts which cause people to break this taboo are, I think, more interesting than the cannibalism itself.

Secondly, cannibalism is the supreme example of eating being done for reasons not connected to nutrition: it was and is done – either by literally eating bodies or consuming them symbolically – to create and maintain group identities.

But it also draws our attention – uncomfortably – to ourselves as animals. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Soylent Green, and, even, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, there are moments of profound – horrifying – realisation that humans are, like cattle or pigs, potentially edible, or (re)usable, animals. In other words, understanding how and why and what we ate – and eat – changes over time, is intertwined with histories of cannibalism, and of ourselves as members of the food chain.

* Have you read The little girl who was too fond of matches, Pereira Maintains, or The Marquise of O-? You really should.


Edward Berenson, Review of The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 by Alain Corbin, The Journal of Modern History, vol. 66, no. 4 (Dec., 1994), pp. 815-818.

Rachel B. Herrmann, ‘The “tragicall historie”: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown,’ The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 1 (January 2011), pp. 47-74.

Shirley Lindenbaum, ‘Thinking about Cannibalism,’
Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 33 (2004), pp. 475-498.

John M. Merriman, Review of The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 by Alain Corbin, The American Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 3 (Jun., 1993), pp. 883-885.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Gourmet Traveller

One of the perks of academia is being able to travel for research, study, and conferences. The odd side-effect of this is that academics become unwitting experts in the quality of travel food – by which I mean the meals available in airports and railway stations and on planes and trains.

I’ve never really understood the griping about airline meals: they’re certainly not the most inspired dinners and, particularly, breakfasts I’ve ever eaten – and I’ve probably drunk the worst coffee in the world while on long-haul flights between Cape Town and London – but I haven’t ever had anything that was actively offensive.

In fact, I rather liked the lamb biryani with cashew nuts and caramelised bits of onion I ate on a flight from Qatar to Joburg, and the macadamia and honey ice cream I had while flying from Perth to Melbourne. I’ve had considerably worse food on trains. On a nine-hour journey between Montrose in northern Scotland and London, the dining car was closed because the tea urn was broken. Which, although an interesting commentary on the centrality of tea to the British diet, was nevertheless unpleasant. A woman can subsist on crisps for only so long.

I wonder why there’s so much complaining about airline food. I think it has something to do with the overall unpleasantness of economy-class flying – the cramped seats, the mucky loos, and the dismaying misfortune of being stuck beside fellow passengers with strange personal habits – but it’s also connected, to some extent, with the ways in which we understand travel.

I’ve just returned from a month in Australia – it was amazing – and became particularly aware of how much I spend on food when I travel because it’s probably the most expensive country I’ve ever visited. But I still went out of my way to eat friands and Anzac cookies and to drink fantastic coffee to try to understand the cities I visited in Australia.

There are few non-fiction genres which blur so easily into each other as food and travel writing – as attested by the continuing popularity of magazines like the Australian Gourmet Traveller, and the legion of food-and-travel cookery books and blogs. The best food writing is a kind of inadvertent travel writing. Claudia Roden’s writing on the Middle East and North Africa, Fuchsia Dunlop on China, Madhur Jaffrey on India, and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth David’s writing on France, are as much introductions to these countries and regions at particular moments in time, as they are recipe books.

And it’s striking how much travel writing focusses on food. One of the most memorable sections of Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana (1937) – by far my favourite travel narrative ever – features a blue porcelain bowl of chicken mayonnaise.

It was in Isfahan I decided sandwiches were insupportable, and bought a blue bowl, which Ali Asgar used to fill with chicken mayonnaise before starting on a journey. Today there had been treachery in the Gastrell’s kitchen, and it was filled with mutton. Worse than that, we have run out of wine.

Later, stranded in the middle of the night and in the freezing cold on the road between Herat and Murghab, Byron and his travelling companions take refuge in a makeshift tent after their car breaks down:

Quilts and sheep-skins replaced our mud-soaked clothes. The hurricane lantern, suspended from a strut in the hood, cast an appropriate glow on our dinner of cold lamb and tomato ketchup out of the blue bowl, eggs, bread, cake, and hot tea. Afterwards we settled into our corners with two Charlie Chan detective stories.

Byron uses food to suggest his and his companions’ feelings at particular moments of the journey. Relieved to have reached Maimana – now on the Afghan border with Turkmenistan – he and Christopher Sykes are treated to a feast:

The Governor of Maimena was away at Andkhoi, but his deputy, after refreshing us with tea, Russian sweets, pistachios, and almonds, led us to a caravanserai off the main bazaar, a Tuscan-looking old place surrounded by wooden arches, where we have a room each, as many carpets as we want, copper basins to wash in, and a bearded factotum in high-heeled top-boots who laid down his rifle to help with the cooking.

It will be a special dinner. A sense of well-being has come over us in this land of plenty. Basins of milk, pilau with raisins, skewered kabob well salted and peppered, plum jam, and some new bread have already arrived from the bazaar; to which we have added treats of our own, patent soup, tomato ketchup, prunes in gin, chocolate, and Ovaltine. The whisky is lasting out well.

Byron is less interested in what the people around him are eating, than in how food reflects his experiences of his journey through the Middle East and Central Asia. Writing in 1980, in an essay included in the collection What am I doing here, Bruce Chatwin uses food to emphasise his sense of what was lost – culturally, socially – during the communist revolution in Afghanistan:

And we shall lose the tastes – the hot, coarse, bitter bread; the green tea flavoured with cardamoms; the grapes we cooled in the snow-melt; and the nuts and dried mulberries we munched for altitude sickness.

His elegy for Afghanistan is problematic on so many levels – his deliberate misunderstanding of Afghan politics, his romanticising of pre-1960s Afghanistan, and Chatwin’s own dubious reputation for factual accuracy – but it’s an evocative piece of writing which conjures up what feels like a realistic and layered portrayal of the regions of Afghanistan which Chatwin visited.

Describing food is absolutely integral to this: unlike foreign religious ceremonies or social customs, we can all sample – or imagine sampling – the cuisines of other societies. Food allows us some purchase on ways of living which are unfamiliar to us: we can use food to try to understand a different society, and also to judge it.

In her account of a journey through parts of West Africa in the mid-1890s, Mary Kingsley used food – this time cannibalism – to explain the what she perceived to be the ‘backwardness’ of Fang society:

It is always highly interesting to observe the germ of any of our own institutions existing in the culture of a lower race.  Nevertheless it is trying to be hauled out of one’s sleep in the middle of the night, and plunged into this study.  Evidently this was a trace of an early form of the Bankruptcy Court; the court which clears a man of his debt, being here represented by the knife and the cooking pot; the whitewashing, as I believe it is termed with us, also shows, only it is not the debtor who is whitewashed, but the creditors doing themselves over with white clay to celebrate the removal of their enemy from his sphere of meretricious activity.  This inversion may arise from the fact that whitewashing a creditor who was about to be cooked would be unwise, as the stuff would boil off the bits and spoil the gravy.  There is always some fragment of sound sense underlying African institutions.

Uncivilised – in this case, taboo-breaking – food and eating habits suggest an uncivilised society.

When I was in Perth, I dropped into the fantastic New Edition bookshop in William Street. Having taken photographs of the incredible mural which covers the shop’s back wall, I was afflicted with guilt – and also the same desperate desire that I feel in most independent bookshops for it to survive and flourish (which makes visiting independent bookshops needlessly stressful) – so I bought a book: a small, light collection of Italo Calvino’s essays, Under the Jaguar Sun (1983).

The three essays which comprise the collection are the germ of a longer book which Calvino had planned to write on the five senses. He completed only these three before his death, and the titular essay, happily, focuses on the sensation of taste. It’s about a couple who visit Oaxaca in Mexico. Their interest in the country’s cuisine becomes, gradually, the purpose of the holiday itself:

From one locality to the next the gastronomic lexicon varied, always offering new terms to be recorded and new sensations to be defined. …we found guacamole, to be scooped up with crisp tortillas that snap into many shards and dip like spoons into the thick cream (the fat softness of the aguacate – the Mexican national fruit, known to the rest of the world under the distorted name of ‘avocado’ – is accompanied and underlined by the angular dryness of the tortilla, which, for its part, can have many flavours, pretending to have none); then guajote con mole pablano – that is, turkey with Puebla-style mole sauce, one of the noblest among the many moles, and most laborious (the preparation never takes less than two days), and most complicated, because it requires several different varieties of chile, as well as garlic, onion, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cumin, coriander, and sesame, almonds, raisins, and peanuts, with a touch of chocolate; and finally quesadillas (another kind of tortilla, really, for which cheese is incorporated in the dough, garnished with ground meat and refried beans).

This obsession with the country’s food coincides, unexpectedly, with their shared enthusiasm for Mexico’s Pre-Columbian past. After a visit to a ‘complex of ruins’ in Monte Albán, where their guide implies that the losers of a ballgame played at one of the ruined temples were not only ritually slaughtered, but also eaten by the temple’s priests and the victorious team, Olivia, the narrator’s partner, becomes preoccupied with discovering how these human remains were prepared. The story implies that her desire to eat ever-more exotic Mexican dishes stems from her belief – never articulated – that some remnant of these cannibalistic feasts must exist within contemporary Mexican cooking.

The narrator reflects:

the true journey, as the introjection of an ‘outside’ different from our normal one, implies a complete change of nutrition, a digesting of the visited country – its fauna and flora and its culture (not only the different culinary practices and condiments but the different implements used to grind the flour or stir the pot) – making it pass between the lips and down the oesophagus. This is the only kind of travel that has a meaning nowadays, when everything visible you can see on television without rising from your easy chair.

For Olivia, eating becomes a way, literally, to imbibe the culture, politics, and history of Mexico. If she can’t be Mexican, then she can, physically, become closer to Mexico – its land and people – itself.

I don’t, obviously, advocate cannibalism as part of the average tourist itinerary – it’s illegal in most countries, for one thing – but I think that this idea of ‘eating’ a country is a useful way of exploring how we use food to construct national identities.

In some ways, food stands in for a society: we eat piles of pancakes with bacon and maple syrup in the United States as a way of engaging with what many believe to be an excessive, consumerist society. Travellers who think of themselves as being in pursuit of the ‘real’ – unpredictable, utterly unfamiliar, occasionally dangerous – India eat the delicious, yet potentially diarrhoea-inducing, street food of country: eating the more familiar offerings at hotels signifies a failure to leave the tourist bubble. Since the 1940s and 1950s, France has promoted its cuisine as a symbol of its national culture. (Something which Charles de Gaulle may have been thinking about when he wondered how he would govern nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese.) French food is sophisticated, so French society is sophisticated.

There are grains of truth in all these stereotypes, but they remain that – simplified and often clichéd understandings of complex societies. They are also, largely, not a real reflection of how most people eat: they exclude the ingredients bought at supermarkets, and the meals eaten at fast food joints. So if we want, truly, to understand countries and societies through their food, we have to be willing to eat that which is, potentially, less interesting and, perhaps, less enticing, than the exotic meals described in travel books.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.