When my sister and I were young, we were fascinated by the drive-thru menus at the Mcdonald’s down the street from our house: thick sandwiches pilled with verdant plumes of lettuce, neat golden slices of American Cheese, slivers of iridescent pickles, spurts of crimson ketchup, tawny sesame buns. And then there was the patty. Black and exotic, gleaming in its All-American splendor. The Cheeseburger. When my mother would pull up, answering to the speaker with her thick Indian accent, she asked us what we wanted. My sister and I would stare with such curiosity at the Cheeseburger until one day, my sister declared to my mother: “I want a cheeseburger”. Mama spun around in her car seat and slapped my sister across her face in one swift lash. “We’ll have McNuggets, amma”: I muttered. And that was that.
Food taboos and preferences are all around us: Ask the vegan who gasps at the mention of cookies with real chocolate? Or the Jewish youth who asks repeatedly: is your meat prepared Kosher? After reading different reflections on the causes for such variations in what we eat, I believe a material anthropological explanation can often be given to understand what we eat.
As I grew up, the motif of the gentle bovine maintained its sacrosanct position in Hindu society. When I visited family in India, the tableau of the cow was everywhere: etched in temple architecture, sitting against my grandfather’s gate while chewing on a sodden papery cud and making it impossible to leave the compound for hours, and even political poster campaigns for the Congress party posted in the streets of Bangalore. To be against the cow, it seemed, was to be against the very foundation and principle of the nation-state. Whenever I would ask why the cow was sacred, my mother would look at me sternly at say “Because the Gods deem it so!” And then mutter prayers in my name under her breath. I do not have any desire in eating beef, I have always wanted to understand the roots of such a practice. It enables thin cows to obstruct traffic during peak hour in Mumbai’s convoluted and crowded road systems to name an example of its ‘uselessness’. Is it truly due to some mystical resonance that the cow provides? If this is true then why are other faiths such as Islam or Christianity not praising the bovine with such religious fervor? Is there a more pragmatic reason as to why the cow is so sacred? When I read Marvin Harris’ “The Riddle of a Sacred Cow” my journey for food answers began.
According to Harris, the sacredness of the beloved cow in India had not always held sway: “religion has affected India’s food ways, but India’s food ways have affected Indian’s religion even more” (Harris 51). During the Vedic times, cows were sacrificed and eaten at temple meals. Brahmins ate the majority of the meat and shared it with those of lower castes. Beef, believe it or not, was the most eaten meat in Northern India one millennia ago (Harris 52). But over the years, the population of Hindu cities grew drastically and the amount of grain needed to feed the large and thriving population. Cows were competition for grain food source. Why feed higher tertiary levels for meat as food while grain can feed more people without the middle man? (Harris 54). Only Brahmins could afford beef, leaving the lower castes even more aware of their economic and spiritual marginalization. Buddhism became widely popular by lower caste and poorer communities in India for its message of spiritual equality and ahimsa or non-violence. In order to compete with the rising faith, Hinduism, too, glorified the principle of ahimsa, but maintained its position on sacrifice. Milk was now sacrificed to the Gods instead of meat and brahmins became the caregivers of cows (Harris 56). The cow became not only the symbol for Hinduism but also for India. During the Gandhi movement for Indian Independence, Mahatma Gandhi used the zebu as a symbol of non-violent, pro- Indian Democracy movement(The British ate cows). Hinduism retained its popularity and populations for worship. The cow or oxen was also useful in agriculture and its dung was used as both fertilizer and fuel (Harris 58). But this does not go to say that the cow is never killed. Many cows roam the streets of bustling Indian cities without caregivers. Many of these cows are abandoned and starved until death. Some are even sold to the Middle East as live cargo then slaughtered for food in the Gulf (Harris 67). Through Harris’ perspective on dissecting Hindu practices, we are able to understand a food taboo outside the contexts of religious law that the Word of God is Final. We are able to see that the bovine was never always holy but became holy through courses of history.
When I shared the article to my parents, they were baffled and not sure what to say. But this article does not liquify my faith in Hinduism. In fact, it makes me proud to be human. According to Anthropologist Emily A. Shultz in Cultural Anthropology, A Perspective on The Human Condition, “Human culture is the sets of learned behavior and ideas that human beings acquire as members of society. Human beings use culture to adapt to and transform the world in which they live (Shultz 6). But as we look into the future of food, what are the food taboos that will arise and become popular out of human need?
Vegetarianism is a food preference that has been in practice dating back to 6 Century BC (The Heretic’s Feast by Colin Colin 33). But today, vegetarianism is often associated by a the radical PETA. I have experienced this when I made the switch to vegetarian. I get sensitive when someone is eating meat in front of me. My identity as a vegetarian (lacto vegetarian because I do not eat egg) is strong but I do not criticize someone for eating meat. I have met vegetarians who lash out at the McDonalds counter for serving beef or attempts to convert ‘meat eaters’. Some vegetarians feel so close to their identity as vegetarian that not eating meat can become an ethical debate.
When I first was vegetarian I would use the terminology “I do not eat animals because it is not ethical”. But this was vague because I was condemning all people of the world for eating meat. For instance for the !Kang people of the Namibian desert, bush meat is the solution between life or death. Many non-vegetarians reply that the meat in the United States is provided by animals simply born and raised as food. If we do not eat it who will is the question that most non-vegetarians supply. All of these arguments are mapped out in a news clipping from the New York times by Michael Pollan in “An Animal’s Place”. After listening to so many discussions of justifying vegetarianism or justifying the meat industry I can only speak for myself:
I am vegetarian not because of an ethical quest or because I feel bad for the animal. If one describes that killing an animal for food is taking a life, then what of plants? Many non-vegetarians say that when some vegetarians claim their principles are founded on environmental awareness however the amount of pesticides used for the agricultural business is even more harmful to the environment. I acknowledge this notion that is made. But I think we need to look even more into where the food on our plate is coming from.
Over the past century the food industry has become a story of innovation: larger yields, more reliability from the amount of food. But in order to do so, many companies began to mono-crop. The constant process of food used for fast-food was being implemented on the agri-business. In the 1970s and 1980s, a new product became available: Round-Up and seeds. Monsanto company genetically engineered seeds to withstand the pesticide but everything else died including weeds and unwanted plants buy also including crop that was not a Monsanto seed. During the time, the company was celebrated because yields grew larger and larger. However, the patenting of life complicated the food industry. From the 200 types of corn grown in the United States in the 20th century, the industry reduced the different varieties to 12. In fact, the majority of the new corn is not even digestible for humans! It is grown for good for cattle and other animals as feed. But cattle for instance were not genetically able to break down this food. The cow literally eats itself to near death then slaughtered to speed up the process. Cows are killed after six months because they keep eating and eating. Also the method of genetic modification of crops occurs when bacteria is introduced into a plant cell (E.Coli often used) and then the new DNA sequence follows. This is why the number of E.Coli outbreaks is so high in the country: because the way the food is actually grown is in many ways harmful to human life, not to mention animal life as well. I do not support the meat industry because I do not support the way that corn is grown in this country or other produce that supports the strange transfers between trophic levels of food. 60-90% of the country grown in the United States is not used as primary food consumption. Much of it is used as animal feed or bio-fuel.
There is a thriving culture for vegetarianism for these reasons. In fact, vegetarians and ‘meat eaters’ are working together to establish fair-trade co-ops in which people can read and purchase where their food is coming from and how it is being grown. This becomes not as much an ethical issue engrossed in the ideals of universalist benevolence but an issue of how is our land being managed and how come all the farming in the middle of America does not result in healthy food for humans. The food industry is not evil as many claims to be It is the method in which we do so. I acknowledge that meat is an integral part in many communities: in Islam, the sacrifice of the cow during Ramadan is holy, camels for Bedoin weddings bring good luck, ex cetera. But often our food taboos can be insensitive. For example the Makah people of the North Western United States worship and eat the Grey Whale. The whale could provide the tribe with food for weeks. Its use for the survival of the community was highly prized to the point where the ritual of hunting whale became sacred. It is so engrossed in indigenous mythology that it is considered a rite of passage to be in a whale hunt. The Makah even traded 90% of their land for whaling rights. But many Europeans began hunting whales as well. By 1920, the Makah had to stop whaling or there would be no Grey Whale left. In the 1990s, when the Grey Whale was removed from the Endangered Species list, the Makah were once again ready to hunt the whale. The Makah were exempt from Whaling Prevention Laws because of their indigenous ancestry, yet many American citizens flocked to the reservation to protest the hunt for whale. American food taboo in a way was an ability to speak ethnocentric slangs. Many protesters rebuked the Makah as rapers and pillagers of the environment. But they did not see that the whale hunt was a reclamation of identity that was taken from the Makah because of a history of Colonial Power. The Makah, through their ritual and use of ancient fishing tactics, are aware of the issues of sustainability. The Makah kill to feed the community. They take as they need, enabling the whale population to continue to thrive. I respect the Makah tradition of whaling. I am vegetarian because I have resources readily available to supplement protein with nuts and soy.
By foiling religious food taboos and food preferences, I have through writing come to terms with being vegetarian. In high school many high school students would purposefully try to hand me chicken fingers or burgers, thinking that it would anger me. I do not have a problem with meat. I just prefer to eat locally because then I know where my food is coming from. If I know what I put in my mouth, I can be more proactive with my nutrition and how the food is grown in this country. I think vegetarians need to reassess their reasoning for being vegetarian so that they do not commit fallacies and have culturally competent reasons for eating a certain way.
The Cheeseburger may look tempting on that McDonalds drive through, but I have no idea where it has come from. I will stick to my local, organic black bean burger instead.
Food, Inc.. Dir. Robert Kenner. Perf. Eric Schlosser. Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2009. DVD. The Meaning of Food. Dir. Karin Williams. Perf. Julie Dash, Nikky Finney, Vertamae Grosvenor. PBS, 2010. DVD. The Future of Food. Dir. Deborah Koons Garcia. Perf. Exequiel Ezcurra, Sara Maamouri, Percy Schmeiser. Virgil Films And Entertainment, 2007. DVD. Schultz, Emily A., and Robert H. Lavenda. Cultural anthropology: a perspective on the human condition. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.