Eating and Being Human


Eating and Being Human

1) The folklore and terminology of food have become such a deeply rooted part of most cultures that we do not even think about them when we get into a "beef" with the "oily" used car salesman who talked us into buying that "cheesy" car that turned out to be a "lemon." Maybe he "buttered us up" with a "corny" joke he heard from some "ham" comic on television. He probably was "cool as a cucumber" while we "waffled" about the price. What a bunch of "baloney!"

2) We humans think about food mostly when we are beginning to get hungry. Yet eating is absolutely essential to life. Every living creature must eat and be nourished to stay alive. To talk about food and eating is to talk of one of the more commonplace subjects we know. It is about as familiar and humdrum as breathing or sleeping - so everyday, so ordinary, that it does not receive much notice.

3) And yet eating - what, where, when, how, and with whom - (...3...) says a great deal about who we are. At the same time, because of what we do not eat, it also says something about who we are not, or who is not "one of us." We are not likely to think of food and eating that way, precisely because hunger is so commonplace and the ways we satisfy it are so obvious.

4) Stop to think about the things connected with eating that send messages: using a napkin, not using chopsticks, or holding silverware "backward" (knife in the right hand); being a vegetarian, not mixing meat and milk dishes, or not eating port; liking very hot peppers or disliking ice cream; belching loudly, chewing with one's mouth open, or eating with one's fingers. All these behavioral traits say something, whether we intend them to or not.

5) (...5...), in addition to being habits of eating, they are messages, pieces of communication, like signal flags or Morse code, even when we are not trying to say anything. Eating turkey at Thanksgiving or not eating meat during Lent are other messages. Similarly, in some cultures, dad carves the roast while mom serves the vegetables. Such a division of labor is supposed to send the ancient message that males are hunters and women gatherers.

6) Although we all must eat, in no society in the world do people eat everything that is edible. For instance, we in the United States (hopefully) never eat the family cat, but the Chinese think eating dogs is much nicer than having thousands of stray, hungry animals roaming the streets. What's more, most people think that what they eat, and the way they eat it, is the normal, or correct, pattern, and that everyone else is at least a bit odd and maybe even worse. The English truly dislike the French for eating horses.

7) Choices in foods are not random, either. Cranberry sauce goes with turkey, horseradish with boiled beef, mustard with hot dogs, and caraway seeds with red cabbage. In this country, we think eating raw oysters is normal, but what do we think of people who eat raw shrimp?

8) We learn our eating habits very early in life, and usually we associate those early experiences with some of the best feelings we ever had. Foods we learn to like in our early years probably will have a special meaning for us forever because they are associated with the people and things we love. Just as we associate the experience with the feelings that accompany it, we associate the food with those feelings, too.

9) (...8...) the world, people use food and eating to mark the seasons, to signal changes in status (such as growing up or getting married), to honor their gods, and to say something about themselves. Holidays are occasions for different foods, and sometimes people even explain why they eat certain things on these occasions. Americans do that at Thanksgiving: We eat turkey, corn, succotash, and Indian pudding because the Pilgrims ate them at the first Thanksgiving. Jewish people provide such explanations at Passover, Christians during Lent.

Bits and Pieces
10) The Aztecs of Mexico considered dog to be a great delicacy, but they forbade women to eat chocolate. They also relished a variety of agave worm.

11) Some meals celebrate special occasions: Births, weddings, coming-of-age rites, and funerals. Business deals often are made over lunch, and courtship often occurs at a candlelight dinner.

12) Sometimes a particular food may take on a special symbolism. Its nutritional value becomes secondary, and eating it might even be forbidden. The most famous example is the sacred cow of India.

13) All societies forbid certain foods. Most food taboos seem to be based on religious symbolism, ideology, or folklore, not on whether eating those foods might be bad for the health. Hindus avoid beef; Jews and Muslims are forbidden to eat pork; duck is not eaten in Mongolia or camels in Ethiopia. Even in areas such as the Kalahari Desert of Africa or the Australian outback, where scarcity and starvation are common, people rule out eating certain foods.