Beyond Bad Taste: Rethinking the Food Boundaries

bratwurst-10427__340Lately, the overwhelming majority of my intellectual energy has been devoted to the issues of research design and specific data collection methods I am going to use in my study. I have, therefore, had little opportunity to engage with materials other than those that one way or another pertained to methodological matters. Now that all these endeavours have finally spilled over into the first draft of my upgrade report, I had a chance to treat myself to a couple of mind-gripping documentaries about food cultures, tastes and identities.  Part of the National Geographic’s Taboo documentary series, both movies explore food traditions, customs and rituals of different world cultures as something that bring people together or split them far apart.

The first movie takes us on a round-the-world trip to discover the most unorthodox for a western gastronome ways to please the palate. We first visit Iceland where we become guests on a celebration of Thorrablot – an age-old midwinter festival where ram’s testicles, sheep’s head and rotten shark are among the delicacies served as a way to pay homage to the pagan traditions of the Nordic past. While for an unprepared diner this is going to be a “vomit or love it” experience with the first kind of outcome being a more likely one, for Icelanders eating these seemingly indigestible meals is a means to preserve the Viking heritage, enliven ancestral connections and reinforce the sense of belonging to the Icelandic culture.

The next highly controversial delicacy – an animal fetus – is served as a main course on a festive Sunday lunch in Southern India. We follow the hostess all the way from the market where she comes in search of the main ingredient to the kitchen where elaborate cooking of the “kutti pi” is taking place. The practice of eating an unborn animal is in stark contrast with western perceptions of the acceptable and the forbidden. Yet, we are strikingly unmindful of the ways in which all signs and traces of violence and blood shedding are carefully removed and hidden from the eyes of sensitive customers before that perfect steak arrives on a supermarket shelf – clean, washed and neatly packed as if has never been a part of a living creature, so that it does not occur to us that the act of eating may somehow involve a violation of the sacred right to life.

The next stop is Togo, where we witness villagers arduously hunting for and then feasting on one of the most delicious local titbits – a rat.  For the people of West Africa, it is not just about tantalizing taste buds, but is also an important way to reinforce the sense of belonging to the community though the collective acts of hunting, cooking and sharing the meal. But where the imagination of a western epicure truly gets stretched to the limits is in Taipei. Here one of the most renowned Taiwanese chefs hosts a very special dinner for the members of Chinese culinary association – experts whose palates are hard to please. But the chef is going to treat his guests to a very rare and exotic delicacy – a sex organ of a freshly killed bull. Thought to have extraordinary health effects, this seemingly unappetizing part of an animal is a valued fare – much praised by Chinese emperors and highly sought after by contemporary men seeking to improve the quality of their sex life. But “what you eat is what you treat” principle is not just characteristic of the Chinese culture. In fact, medicinal properties ascribed to foods are a powerful motive forcing many people to transgress the boundaries between acceptable and unthinkable eating practices.

All in all, the documentary is truly a gripping one. Not only do we witness the most astounding culinary performances and eating experiences throughout the world, we also hear renowned anthropology and psychology experts unravelling complex relationships between food traditions and people’ identities. A real treat is to listen to Paul Rozin, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the notion of the omnivore’s paradox, explaining how distinctive food traditions act as an important source of people’s sense of who they are, where they come from and where they belong.

The second documentary brings even more examples of the fact that food taboos and traditions are about mind over matter and that different cultures have strikingly different notions of what is edible, what is delicious and what is an absolute taboo.  I’ll let you discover the delicacies served in the second documentary – be prepared to have your imagination staggered and, who knows, your food boundaries reconsidered and redefined.

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