Friday, October 22, 2010


I went to the library. I checked out this book because the page I happened to open it at had this paragraph on it:

"The fondness of the Chinese for all gelatinous substances is well known, and has been described by all those who have visited that country and partaken of their banquets. In addition to employing animals and parts of animals which are rejected in other countries, as articles of diet, they import various substances which can be valuable only as yielding gelatine of different degrees of purity..." Ok, yeah. That hasn't changed noticeably in the last hundred and fifty years.

The original publication date of the book is 1859, and it is interesting to me primarily as a record of a prosperous 19th century European man's worldview. In an early chapter, he says that "...the prejudices of the stomach are, perhaps, more unconquerable than any other that tyrannize over the human mind" and that "there is a great want of courage and enterprise on this head among Englishmen." What follows is nearly 400 pages of trivia regarding what animals and animal products are known (or thought to be) eaten in various parts of the world. Read as a list of facts, it is utterly, repetitively, stultifying. It is the implications of the list which give the book its creepy fascination to me.

The 19th century was the age of Victoria, upon whose Empire the sun never set, of Manifest Destiny, of brazenly self-satisfied colonialism  and the exploitation by the colonizers of everything from timber to human labor to manatees. Yes indeed, manatees- there is a horrifying account of how many manatees were slaughtered by south American fishermen, and how cheap they were to eat. Two things emerge from the incidental information:

First, the total ignorance of human impact on the environment. I really can't claim to think that this is a case of denial. Environmental sciences are, I think, some of the newest sciences and weren't even in their infancy a century and a half ago. It's true that from the moment humans began to live in cities, there have been back-to-nature types, but these were more spiritual or mystic convictions, rather than fields of study recognized for their intellectual rigor, such as mathematics or chemistry, which have hundreds, or thousands of years of history. The prevailing attitude of human beings toward the rest of the world was "if it's there, use it up". (I think dad even said that very thing, on at least one occasion.) This is typified by the description of gathering penguin's eggs:

"It is really amusing sport. I must remind you that kicking them (the penguins) over with our soft moccasins...does not hurt them in the least, and the next day they will have just as many eggs."

I'm not about to get into a sophomoric discussion of whether it is possible to push a penguin down without hurting it, but anyone today who knows a thing about wildfowl knows that unlike domestic poultry, they lay one clutch of eggs a year, and if those don't hatch, that's it until next year, by which time the adult bird may or may not still be alive. The theme of gleefully infantile brutality which runs throughout the book is absolutely hair-raising.

The second theme has a marginally more subtle presentation, but is just as pervasive- prejudices of the stomach are not the only ones exhibited in this lexicon of carnivory. The writing style of the book first struck me as quaint, in the way many documents of that age will. It is written with a kind of exuberance which can be very entertaining, as in the first quote above. Also, the author's chauvinism in favor of English beef takes up nearly a chapter in itself, and is pretty damn funny. What disturbs me is that, while reading through this list of factoids and anecdotes, the encompassing ideological hegemony of the time becomes glaringly obvious. The author's sources are those which he would have thought reliable, i.e., information published by other men who were the products of the same socioeconomic strata as himself, and occasional historical sources written by Frenchmen. These include nineteenth century arctic explorers, naturalists, and colonial honchos. All a bunch of guys born rich enough to expend the astronomical quantities of resources then required to get their butts halfway around the world and back, and raised to think that just because they had been born rich and well connected, then they must be inherently better than everyone else, and naturally if they were better than everyone else, they must have a moral right, even an obligation to use everything in the world however they saw fit. Leaving aside the question of whether these sources could have been factually accurate (I have no way of knowing how to assess that), and as amusing as they sometimes are, each vignette is presented in a self-congratulatory tone of "Look at all the savage little brown people! Aren't you glad that God made you White?"  The very existence of the book presupposes an audience composed of wealthy, white christian westerners.

I don't imagine that prejudice, of the stomach or of the mind, is the sole provenance of rich dead white dudes. My dad had an amazing degree of  chauvinism about many things, and I distinctly remember him telling me as a child that when he was about my age, he and his friends used to catch garden snakes and set their tails on fire for fun. They hadn't invented sparklers yet, you see. I used to think these were things peculiar to him, but he was as much a product of his time and place as Peter Lund Simmons, or the woman on the max earlier this week declaring loudly that she had no hate for homosexuals, but that she just thought "it was wrong, and she wishes they would change their ways" (between desultory attempts to turn a trick for a group of cons on their way back to their halfway house).

Hindsight ought to tell us that ignorance is inherently to be deplored, which has nothing to do with food, specifically. But it does tell you something about why I find the subject of food fascinating. Food, like clothing, is a universal need among humans. The study of food is illuminating as much for the fact that the subject leads into other things as for its own merits. Here's this book- like anything you read, it is what it is. No doubt the author never imagined that I would take it as an amusing, gruesome cautionary tale of cultural hubris and environmental degradation, but I too am a product of my time and place.


  1. This is a really interesting essay!

  2. Thank you.

    As an aside (sort of) for the last five years I have had the dubious honor of teaching some of the descendants of those explorers, naturalists and colonialists of whom you speak. While some of them are intelligent, thoughtful and progressive a startling number of them retain their forefathers' views of the rest of the world... a challenge when attempting to teach critical thinking. This was in particular evidence when I taught a section on the plight of the Chagos Islanders and was informed by several students that is was perfectly acceptable for some (in this case black, distant) UK citizens to have fewer rights than themselves.

    I believe they lived mainly on frozen pizza and ready-meals, too.