Thursday, November 5, 2009

Taste

Author of Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer, who is described by the New York Times in a review of his book recently as "Vegetarian activist", has some very compelling arguments about why eating animals is not in our best interest.

Unlike many such activists, not all of Foer's reasons have to do with our health. A lot of it has to do with the power of the meat industry in our society today. While he identifies and explains some of the important social and economic reasons for the dominance of the meat industry in our society, other authors such as Michael Pollan have been down this path already. It is the moral question that clearly concerns Foer the most.

He offers up the case of eating dogs--or, rather, why we don't--as a clear example of the role morals seem to play in food consumption.

Foer writes that, "Despite the fact that it's perfectly legal in forty-four states, eating "man's best friend" is as taboo as a man eating his best friend...Our taboo against dog eating says something about dogs and a great deal about us."

Indeed, it does. I cannot argue that our sense of morality has a great deal to do with why we don't eat dogs, but I do maintain that there is another, even more basic reason that "man's best friend" is not and never will be on the menu no matter how many free pounds of dog flesh go begging every day.

Taste.

It's the same reason that early European arrivals to the Great North American Plain slaughtered the buffalo for their hides and drove the cattle to market for their meat. Buffalo just don't taste very good.

Considering that free range cattle that had been just been driven a thousand miles or more must not have tasted particularly good either, it is a clear testament to the fact that taste is literally a force of human nature. I think that taste is often simply overlooked when it comes to why we eat what we do.

I don't think we are just hardwired to eat anything and everything, nor do I think that morals alone is a force powerful enough to dictate what we will and won't eat. What I do think is that other less obvious factors such as taste guided us through the evolutionary maze. This idea has been explored by other scholars such as primatologist Richard Wrangham, who wrote Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.

The taste imperative isn't just about dogs, either. Though it won't please their egos, nor is it about cats. Consider rabbits. I know that they are a staple food source in many places, but the fact is, even though they multiple like, well, rabbits, we just don't like the way they taste enough to make them a major part of our diet.

Pigs on the other hand, benefit from being smart but are severely handicapped by the fact that they taste so darned good. I know Charlotte was "One Fine Pig" but I've also had some mighty fine pork ribs in my day.

So, even though they are more dogs out there than pigs, more pigeons than chickens, even though the pork and poultry industries are literally killing the Mississippi Delta and parts of the Gulf of Mexico, we'll continue to eat McNuggets and pork chops for as long as they are around.

They will be around, I believe, because taste may be an even more considerable force than the economic and social engines that Foer rightly identifies as driving the meat industry today.

4 comments:

d2 said...

Hmmm.. Interesting thoughts. However, I don't know if taste is the major deciding factor. After all, don't the Chinese eat all manner of things which we in the West would disdain (probably including dog)? The Koreans eat dog, I believe, too.

I would argue it is more a matter of economics. We eat beef (and pork and chicken) not only for the taste, but because it is cheap compared to other forms of protein (horse, dog, cat, rabbit and rattlesnake to name a few). Of course, it's cheap because it's produced on an industrial scale, whereas dog is not. You could probably get a lot of meat off a Great Dane, but would the cost of breeding, raising and slaughtering such an animal be worth it in economic terms?

You cite the buffalo vs. the cow as an example of taste winning out (winnowing out?). But buffalo, despite being present in huge numbers were not a domesticated animal and could not be bred and raised in a sustained way. Cattle, on the other hand, were.

To get back to the Chinese - they eat almost everything they can lay their hands on because, well, they have over a billion mouths to feed. (see the introduction here: http://books.google.com/books?id=BAcknxN_S8QC&lpg=PP1&dq=chinese%20food&pg=PR10#v=onepage&q=chinese%20food&f=false). Of course, there is more to it than that (social, ritual and traditional influences are bound up in food, too) but demand certainly puts pressure on supply in this case!

We have the economic luxury in this country to limit our choices of food sources, instead of expanding our tastes.

bc said...

I like lots of kinds of raw fish, too; we're sushi fans.

valgal said...

i think i'll go get a hot dog...

Greyghost said...

While I hope my point was that taste is not the major but one of the major and often overlooked factors in human food consumption,I agree--and for that matter, so does Foer--with the dismal conclusion that the primary factor is economic

Where I take issue with him is on the role of morals in the process of eating animals.

That said, I have some quibbles with the numbers too. For example, Foer cites some staggering statistics about how many pounds of dog meat are discarded every year.

He cites this as proof that the current system is in some ways driven by a perverted set of economic principles; perverted, that is, by morals.

The Chinese and the Koreans, naturally--are the perfect proof of this. With the billion plus mouths to feed, they do indeed put their stomachs before their morals, it would seem. I simply question the quantities.

Certainly, there is a restaurant in Peking that serves dog. Certainly there must be nothing inedible and quite a few barely edible (blowfish anyone? Japanese, I know) that are, not on the menu, so to speak in China.

But, how many times a week does the average Chinese eat dog, as compared, with, say, chicken? Or beef, even? I am, for brevity's sake, leaving aside the creatures of the water.

I have no numbers at hand, but I expect that the dominant sources of protein from animal flesh in every country that can sustain them--including China--are the, for want of a better word, 'conventional' ones: beef, chicken and pork.

The argument that the cow was more easily domesticated than the Bison and was therefore declared the winner (loser) of the best-protein-source-for-humans lottery doesn't entirely make sense.

Certainly in the 1800's it was easier to round up and herd the cattle, but it was a matter of convenience as well as taste. You could drive the cattle and eat them too.

Bison can and are being domesticated today, but for other reasons. The fact that buffalo meat is not as flavorful as beef has now been masked by the 'health-friendly' argument that the meat is leaner and therefore better for you.

Even if it doesn't taste as good.

We are now exploring that region where good food tastes bad and I just don't buy that at all. But that's just me.

While I am sure that this perspective is afforded by the luxury of a western upbringing, it is perhaps, an indication of what happens to food in a society where taste--like luxury itself--is given more attention than ever before.