The Cultural Convictions That Land Some Animals on the Menu

... and keep others off of it

A man slaughters chickens hung on a fence
Chris Keane / Reuters

In the West, when it comes to which meat is for dinner, we nearly always choose beef, pork, or chicken. Yet cows and pigs are only two of more than 5,000 species of mammals, and chicken is one of nearly 10,000 species of birds. Meanwhile, at different times in history and in different places around the world, people have enjoyed dining on all sorts of animals, from elephants to flamingos to jellyfish. So how do individuals and cultures decide which animals to eat, and which they don’t? And why is this decision so divisive? Why do many Americans look with such horror on those who eat, say, horse or dog? Listen in this episode for a healthy serving of myth busting—about domestication, disgust, and deliciousness—as we explore this thorny question.

Growing up in the United States, Soleil Ho, a journalist and a host of two podcasts, Racist Sandwich and Popaganda, was asked repeatedly whether she ate dog. “I didn’t understand why people thought this,” she told Gastropod, “because we never even talked about eating dog at home.” But as Ho grew up, she came to realize that the question wasn’t born out of curiosity about her Vietnamese family’s dining practices, but rather on “ancient prejudices that the West has had against the East.” The question’s subtext, Ho told us, is “Why would they do that? That’s insane!”

But is it? While Ho reflected on the racism and xenophobia behind the question “Do you eat dog?” in a recent story for Taste, we at Gastropod decided to add to her research by tackling the broader question: How do humans choose which animals to eat? And why does the idea of eating other animals typically fill us with revulsion?

To answer this, we assembled a group of experts to explore a series of hypotheses. For example, it seems logical that we eat so much chicken today because our ancestors domesticated it—and that happened because chickens were particularly amenable to domestication and our ancestors found them particularly attractive as food. Not so fast, say Naomi Sykes, a University of Exeter archaeologist, and Greger Larson, an evolutionary genomicist at the University of Oxford. Their research shows that the process of domestication doesn’t play out that way at all. The chicken’s jungle-fowl ancestors seem to have been first adored for both cockfighting and for the animal’s supposed connection to the divine, Sykes explained. Imagining that our ancestors looked at these stringy birds and saw nuggets is, Larson tells us, “a presentist fallacy.”

Another approach is to flip the question: Why don’t we eat all the animals? Hal Herzog, a psychologist and the author of the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, and Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and expert in disgust, talk us through the varying reasons—logical or (more often) not—that explain why different cultures see insects as disgusting or as dinner, and dogs as pets or as meat. With Harriet Ritvo, a historian at MIT, we explore brave attempts to change these cultural norms, including the “acclimatization movement” of the Victorian period, when well-meaning elites attempted to expand the range of protein available for a growing population by adding various exotic animals to their diets—almost always without success. (The most famous such attempt in the United States occurred when an entrepreneur and a politician teamed up to—unsuccessfully—turn Louisiana swamps into hippopotamus ranches.)

So when did those semidivine jungle fowl become food? Why do French people eat horse, while the idea makes many of their fellow Europeans gag? And how did dog meat go from something everybody ate, according to the archaeological evidence, to the bone of contention between East and West it still is today? Listen in now to find out!

This post appears courtesy of  Gastropod.