After Horse Meat Scandal, Why Is Some Food Taboo?

The discovery of horse meat in European beef products created an international uproar. James A. Serpell, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, explains why some foods that are forbidden in some cultures are considered delicacies in others.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

But now to the scandal that's rocked Europe. The use of horse meat in food products that was supposed to be beef has created quite the uproar. In some cultures, though, horse meat is a delicacy, in others, it's culturally unacceptable. Today, we're going to look at some food taboos from around the world and we want to get your stories. Tell us about a meat that perhaps showed up on your plate and gave you pause before you took that bite, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation from our website, npr.org and then click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now is James A. Serpell, he's the director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. Serpell wrote an article for onthehuman.org about the evolution of animal food taboos. And his piece explores the relationship between who we are and the meat that we eat. He joins us from his home in Philadelphia. Welcome.

JAMES SERPELL: Hello there.

HEADLEE: Well, James, let me begin by asking you the same question we're asking our listeners, which is has a meat ever appeared on your plate that you did not want to eat?

SERPELL: Yes. In fact, I remember very vividly years ago when I was traveling in the northern part of Indonesia. I was being wined and dined by some local people and they presented me with a dish of meat which I tasted and thought, I don't like the taste of this. So I asked my host what it was and then they said it was dog. And I had to admit, I couldn't continue to eat that. I switched to something else very rapidly.

HEADLEE: Well, let's kind of use it as our microcosm here. Why? Because a dog - you associate dog with a domestic pet?

SERPELL: Yeah. I think it's even more than that in a sense. I think, you know, I and many people in my culture, you know, grew up with dogs as family members and we think of them as almost like kin and it's very something kind of inherently unspeakable about eating your kin.

HEADLEE: Well, yeah, I can imagine that. Absolutely, that makes sense. But I know that in many Asian cultures or in some Asian cultures where they eat dog, they also have them as pets. So what makes the difference?

SERPELL: Well, there are some - interesting things go on in these cultures. So for example, it's very common for them to eat one particular type of dog, usually the kind of common feral or street dog, but not eat Western-type dogs which are then used as pets. So they differentiate between the pet dogs and the pet - the dogs that are meant for eating.

HEADLEE: Almost like species.

SERPELL: Yeah. They can - they sort of categorize them into edible and non-edible categories, and I think they adjust their expectations accordingly.

HEADLEE: And we're talking about taboo meats. On the phone right now is Van in Hampton Bays, New York. Van, our question is has a meat ever appeared on your plate that gave you pause? Tell us your story. Van, do we still have you?

VAN: Hello.

HEADLEE: Hi. Do you have a story of a meat that appeared on your plate that gave you pause?

VAN: Yes. When I first met my wife, she cooked me a meal. The first time she cooked for me it was guinea pig.

HEADLEE: And she told you before you ate it?

VAN: Yeah, she did. She told me before. She called it cuy. That's where they - that's where she's from, in Ecuador, they call it cuy. And I was aware and she put way too much garlic in it and it did not have a very pleasant taste. But I've had it many times since then and it's delicious.

HEADLEE: Didn't give you - you didn't pause at any moment think, wow, I can't eat this what would I think of as a pet?

VAN: No. I knew that they had eaten it many times and that it was a food in their country so I figured it couldn't be all bad.

HEADLEE: OK. That's Van in Hampton Bays, New York, recommending the taste of guinea pig, I guess. Let me bring this back to you, James, because, you know, there are some people right now looking at - wondering why people are upset in Europe. Why are you upset about eating horse meat? I mean, there's China. They eat a lot of horse meat there. They eat a lot of it in Kazakhstan, for example. The island of Sardinia, it's eaten regularly. What makes the difference when it comes to horse meat?

SERPELL: I think it's just the role that the animal is assigned within the culture. So I think all of these things are kind of, you know, an anthropologist would say it's culturally constructed. So in a sense, you know, if you grow up in, say, Britain, which is where the scandal erupted, your view of horses is as almost pets, for the most part. I mean, long gone are the days when people relied on horses as a mode of transport, and nowadays, they use horses for, kind of, recreational riding and as pets.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

HEADLEE: Is that one of your dogs barking in the background?

(LAUGHTER)

SERPELL: The dog's erupting because somebody's at the front door.

HEADLEE: Well, let me just take this call from Sam in Lynchburg, Virginia. And, Sam, our question is when has a meat appeared your plate that you perhaps thought twice about, before eating? When did that happen to you?

SAM: Well, I was in China with a tour group from West Virginia University, and we were sitting there at the table - of course, they serve everything in a Lazy Susan. So exactly what this meat was served with, I can't remember. But the tour guide said that it was donkey. And it was actually, you know, it was like, do I want to eat this or not? And - but it looked, you know, kind of sliced. And I said why not eat it? And it actually tasted good.

HEADLEE: And would you eat it again, Sam? Would you choose to eat donkey?

SAM: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: OK. So ready to eat - which is, you know, kind of a cousin to horse. So would it bother you, Sam? Let me ask you, what if you found out that what you thought was beef was actually partially horse meat?

SAM: Well, I do have a very fond affection for horses.

HEADLEE: Ah. OK.

SAM: And I think they are absolutely gorgeous animals. So from that standpoint, I think I would be reluctant if somebody said, you know, this was horse meat. I guess donkeys are kind of the same thing.

HEADLEE: Kind of.

SAM: But as far as the taste is concerned, if horse tastes like donkey, then it's probably a delicious meat. But I would have some reservations about horse meat.

HEADLEE: And people do say it's good for you... All right. Sam in Lynchburg, Virginia, thank you so much for your call. And I wonder, James, how much of this is just an unfamiliarity with it? I mean, I have a hard time imagining eating a lot of haggis, for example. There are certain things that I just consider to be kind of - there's that eww factor because I'm not used to eating that. Or say somebody eats plenty of beef but stops before they'll eat cow brains or cow tongue.

SERPELL: Yeah. And I think there is certainly an element of that. People are very cautious about eating unfamiliar food. Some people are more cautious than others, and that's a sort of well-recognized kind of psychological characteristic. But I think there is more to it when it - when we talk about animals. I think another issue that we have to think about here with the examples that are being given, like me eating the dog or the person you spoke to who had eaten donkey in China, there - it was kind of accidental in the sense that the food appeared in front of us and we hadn't had any responsibility, in a sense, for what happened to it, to the animal.

But that's a far cry from, say, killing these animals yourself and preparing them for food, or indeed going into your supermarket and buying a dog steak or a donkey steak, where you're more complicit in what's happened to the animal.

HEADLEE: Well, that's a really good point. Let me take this call here from Leslie in St. Louis, Missouri. Our question is - is meat that appeared on your plate that you maybe didn't want to eat? Leslie, your answer.

LESLIE: Hi. I was in Jerusalem some years ago, in East Jerusalem. And there was this sweet little Arab man sitting at the table next to me and he kept giving me things off his plate. And I kept saying, you don't have to feed me. I'm fine. But at one point, he gave me something that was really delicious, and I said, oh, that's really good. What is it? And he said, it's sheep's eggs. I said, sheep's eggs? Sheep don't have eggs. He said, men sheeps do.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: You need to explain no further, Leslie.

LESLIE: I figured I didn't need to.

HEADLEE: Do you - but you - and you would eat sheep meat, right?

LESLIE: Yes. I would eat lamb. I will not necessarily eat mutton. I wouldn't have eaten it if he would have told me what it was. But since he didn't tell me what it was, I ate it all. It was delicious.

HEADLEE: All right. So Leslie in St. Louis, Missouri seems to be recommending sheep's... eggs, we'll continue to call them there. Leslie, thank you very much. And, James Serpell, that's - that's a different thing other than the culture you're talking about; that sounds like she's on the eww factor of something unfamiliar.

SERPELL: Yes. I think that's very important. I mean, I used to have some Icelandic friends who ate the most extraordinary things and, you know, one or two of the things that they thought were real delicacies I had some problems with, because they were just - the smell, the taste everything was so unfamiliar that, you know, I just had trouble stomaching it.

HEADLEE: How much of this, James, is influenced by the wealth - relative wealth or poverty of the eater? I.e. there are some countries in which if they get an animal, they're going to eat every bit of it because they need to.

SERPELL: Yes. And I think that's a very important aspect of, kind of, food culture in different societies. So, for example, the French eat a lot of things that the British don't eat. And I think it's fair to say that a lot of that is to do with French history and a lot of their food being, you know, deriving from rural peasants; whereas British food, during the Victorian era, people were putting on airs and trying to emulate their betters. And so they eschewed peasant food and tried to eat more sort of refined foods.

HEADLEE: And yet some things - when you - some things are pickled because that helped you preserve them for a long time. Some things are motivated simply by practicality.

SERPELL: Absolutely, absolutely.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. Our question to you is, when has a meat appeared on your plate that gave you pause? And you can give us a call and let us know. You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

So let's go back to you, James. And before we take another call, how much does it tell us? I mean, what do we know about a culture by what they eat? Just availability, is that it?

SERPELL: Ooh, no. I mean, if you look at almost any culture in the world you'll find that there are some, you know, seemingly mysterious taboos, or foods or animals that they won't eat. I mean, some we're very familiar with - for example, the Islamic or the Jewish prohibition against eating pork. That's a very familiar food taboo, but almost every culture has these types of prohibitions, certain foods that are proscribed, nobody will eat them and - or particular groups within the culture won't eat them. And often the reason for doing so is not at all clear. It seems very arbitrary sometimes.

HEADLEE: All right. We have this email here from Andy in Mount Vernon, Washington. Andy writes: I was living in a village on the Iditarod Trail in Alaska. The first potlatch, we were offered roasted beaver, which smells just as you imagine, and jellied moose nose. I have the recipe, which begins: after boiling, pluck nose hair. Lots of great foods there but I'd recommend skipping these.

No problem, Andy. I don't - it's fine. I can skip those without hurting myself. Let's go to this call here from Frank in Kansas City, Missouri. Frank, what meat have you - has given you pause?

FRANK: Oh, yeah. I was listening to your conversations, and I'll try and throw a couple quick things out at you. Many years ago when I was in service in South Vietnam, you know, you go through a village and the people were very glad to see us 'cause they know we were trying to do our best to help them out, and they would fix you a plate. And I had eaten half of one plate and the guys told me that I was eating dog meat. So I went on and finished my plate because it was good.

But in another village we went through, they put on the table something that look like to me, it had a lot of eyes in it, you know. And it was meat and eyes looking up at me. And, you know, when you go to a person's house and they fix you a plate, you don't want to disrespect your guests, so I said oh no, man. I can't eat this. You know, I ate my C ration and I told him, no disrespect, saying it in Vietnamese. But I was born in Louisiana, raised in Kansas City and, you know, we talk about the pig - I eat pig tail, pig feet, pig ear, pig nose. So I just want to say, to answer your question: them eyes, oh no, I couldn't touch that.

HEADLEE: Pork rinds, but no eyeballs, thank you, for Frank in Kansas City, Missouri, right?

FRANK: Have a nice day.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: You too. So, James, I mean, what are - give me an example of a food which is - the taboo on it is completely cultural?

SERPELL: Well, for example, among some of the Australian aborigines, you know, they - when a person is born, depending on where the person's mother thinks she - first realizes she was pregnant, she - that particular place in the landscape is always associated with some kind of ancestral animal sprit. So it might be the kangaroo spirit or the emu spirit. And if that's the case, then the mother will say that the child she bears is a kangaroo child or an emu child. And that child, when he or she grows up, will have an absolute taboo on eating the particular species that she or he is affiliated with in this way. So it's a total accident of where the mother was when she suddenly realized she was pregnant.

HEADLEE: Although that's true for some tribal cultures. If you - if your guiding spirit is a certain animal, you're not supposed to eat it or kill it, right?

SERPELL: Right. Or sometimes it's the other way around. Sometimes it's like you've been given a special permit just to hunt that particular animal. And you're allowed to eat that animal, but you have to be very careful about eating other kinds of animals.

HEADLEE: Well, let me ask you, James Serpell, I mean, you're the - you probably have tasted a lot of - I don't want to say abnormal, but maybe unique things, right?

SERPELL: Yes.

HEADLEE: So if - you're here based in the United States, if you were going to recommend that the Americans become a little adventurous, what meat would you recommend we try?

SERPELL: Actually, the previous caller mentioned guinea pig. I have had guinea pig in Peru and it was extremely delicious, I can confirm.

HEADLEE: Well, let's go to Karina(ph) in San Francisco, California. Karina, let's take this last call from you. What meat have you been presented with that gave you pause?

KARINA: Well, it was in Ghana, that I had spent some time years back.

HEADLEE: And?

KARINA: We've actually just - it was called da-da(ph) soup. I got it from one of the vendors, and I was eating it, it was served over rice. It was like a stew almost. And, you know, a couple bites into it I asked, so what is in that? And they said, oh, da-da's a cat.

HEADLEE: Cat?

KARINA: And I was like, oh, cat, and they were like, yeah, meow, you know, like cat. I was like, OK.

HEADLEE: Did you finish it, Karina?

KARINA: You know - huh?

HEADLEE: Did you finish the soup?

KARINA: You know, the truth is I did not. I didn't right away just throw it away. I just - I didn't want to be rude about it, but I just, you know, one of the things I was very conscious about is, you know, not being disrespectful in any way and if that's one of their everyday dishes, and it's OK...

HEADLEE: But couldn't finish it.

KARINA: But I'm, you know...I ate it and, you know...

HEADLEE: Yeah. We'll going to have to leave it there, Karina. Thanks so much for your call. Karina calling from San Francisco in California. And we've been speaking with James Serpell, the director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. Sorry to cut you off there, Karina. We're just ending the hour here. James Serpell joined us from his home in Philadelphia. Thank you to you, James.

SERPELL: My pleasure.

HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington.

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