Sunday, January 23, 2011

Can We Eat That?

In modern society we have knowledge of so many cultures, and our cuisines and palates have become more sophisticated. We will try many foods that have previously not been part of our native culture. This can be true either of cuisine styles or particular ingredients. From this form of globalization, there arises questions of cultural equivalency and whether it is morally correct to eat certain foods.

One example is that cui is a delicacy in Peruvian cuisine, but illegal to sell for food in Canada. Cui refers to guinea pig. In Peru, it is a very popular feast dish, served on special occasions. In North America, the guinea pig is primarily a child’s pet and it is illegal to sell them as food. Now this would not have been an issue were Peruvian cuisine not the latest popular food trend, with authentic Peruvian restaurants cropping up in many places in Canada. For instance, Montreal has an excellent high end Peruvian restaurant called Mochica (I have not reviewed them as my last visit was 2 years ago). They try to use authentic ingredients: the chef imports his spices from Peru and they feature llama (Quebec raised) on the menu. I would imagine, if cui were legal, they might consider offering it on occasion, perhaps as a special. Now most of you are probably disgusted at the idea of eating guinea pig, but rabbits are frequently eaten, and they are similar in the sense of also being a popular cute and cuddly pet for children.

This paradox raises the question of which foods are morally acceptable to eat and which, if any, are not. I am not referring here to religious proscriptions against certain classes of food. Since I do not follow the dietary laws of my own religion, it does not really concern me in a general societal sense whether or not others do. What I am trying to ascertain is whether some foods are morally unacceptable for all of society to consume. For instance, many animal rights groups are exerting pressure in various places in North America to ban the production and sale of Foie Gras, the fattened liver of ducks and geese. The reasoning behind the opposition is that, to produce foie gras, the ducks need to be force fed grain for a period of time, which some regard as cruelty. In 2006, Foie Gras was actually banned in the city of Chicago but only two years later the ban was overturned. My personal opinion is that there is no reason for foie gras to be banned. The first reason is that it is one of the world’s true gastronomic pleasures. The second, and more pertinent reason, is that, as far as cruelty in animal rearing is concerned, foie gras production is not overly cruel, and some other accepted practices are far worse. While you certainly would not want a tube shoved down your throat and force fed, people do not realize that geese and ducks do not have the same physiology as humans. The entrance to the human airway is in the back of the throat, but in birds is in the top of the bill. This means that ducks and geese do not have a gag reflex, so the insertion of the feeding tube is not painful. The actual force feeding process is for only 30 seconds at a time. Finally, this force feeding only occurs in the final weeks before slaughter; before that ducks are generally raised with a great deal of open space, and a great deal better than animals raised only for meat (foie gras is more commonly produced from ducks in North America, while geese are the more common source in Europe). I find it interesting that North American foie gras producers are usually willing to allow film crews and tv programs to bring cameras into their farms and barns, yet you almost never see the same access at high-density chicken farms. And on those rare occasions when we do get to see these conditions, it becomes obvious why the chicken producers want to hide their barns. The “living” conditions are atrocious - they are pumped full of antibiotics, primarily because most of them would catch diseases and die if this wasn’t done. That is why, when I post chicken recipes I stress the importance of avoiding the least expensive chickens, as they are the ones raised in these horrible conditions.

Getting back to my point, while some believe people should not eat foie gras, I have good reasons to refute their claims and have no moral problem with foie gras. Getting a little more controversial, in North America eating dog is generally considered abhorrent. I have personally never eaten dog and am not certain if I ever would. However, ancient Hawaiians and other Polynesians used to eat dog as a ceremonial food, as it was one of the few meats they had available. Even in modern times, dog is eaten by some in Korea and, I think, China. I only have two animals that I have determined I will never knowingly eat under any circumstances: cat and horse, because I have some deep personal connections with these animals. Now I know of no society that eats cats, but horse meat is frequently consumed in France and some other places in Europe. It is even offered for sale here in Montreal, even in some large supermarkets. I know some people have mistakenly purchased ground horse meat thinking it was ground beef. I have had wonderful equine friends over the years and could never let myself eat their meat. But the point is, some do.

As I mentioned earlier, immigration and globalization are bringing the culinary traditions of one society into another, possibly generating moral conflicts. I think the best way to deal with this is simply to go with the flow - at least as far as you are personally able. Apart from the two animals I have mentioned, I am open to trying pretty much anything. My mother cooked cuisines from around the world and I continue in that tradtion - I have even shared some of those recipes here with you. Since moving to Montreal I have eaten a wide variety of new foods and tried many different cuisines. In the past few years I have tried alligator, llama, kangaroo, octopus, oysters, goat, organ meats and offal of all kinds, and probably a bunch of other stuff I’ve forgotten about. On my trip to Washington D.C. I had Ethiopian food for the first time, leaving very few world cuisines I have not yet sampled. I believe that being open minded regarding food can also facilitate being open minded about other cultures and, by extension, other people. Back in University, I conducted a study that sought to find a relation between exposure to ethnic foods and a measure of Intercultural Sensitivity. This complicated-sounding measure simply is a test that seeks to determine one’s attitudes regarding openness and willingness to accommodate people from other cultures. I found that people who were culturally sensitive were more likely to have tried more of the examples of ethnic foods that I listed. I also recorded peoples’ willingness to try these foods, but found that actually trying these foods was more strongly related than willingness. To me, this implies that sensitivity and understanding of other cultures can likely be improved as much by practice as by having good intentions. So, as I am discussing ethnic foods, the lesson to take from my study is: just try it!

At least from my perspective, I think we can conclude that we can’t really apply any standard criteria to what foods are acceptable or not. We will always have personal standards and restrictions to what we choose to eat. Some, like me, may only have one or two potential foods they will not eat, while vegans and vegetarians have entire classes of foods they will never eat. So it comes down to personal choice, although I do believe that the more we are open to trying, the better. I invite your thoughts on this issue, or if you just want to share what your experiences have been.

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