A basic methodological assumption of anthropology is cultural relativism—that people in specific cultures have reasons for what they do that are contextually meaningful and that understanding of the things they do should be examined in context. Understanding aspects of what people do and explaining them cross-culturally—say in an undergraduate classroom, for example—is therefore an act of translation. Teaching anthropology can be tricky because it is easy for “far out” behaviors, from the perspective of students in the classroom, to simply be left untranslatable as “exotic” or “crazy.”
Done well, the act of teaching-as-cross-cultural-translation will get students to see the unfamiliar cultural behavior as more familiar and the taken-for-granted “normal” aspect of their own culture as potentially just as strange when seen from the perspective of an outsider.
So anyway, this week in my Introduction to Anthropology class we are talking about food. I am often fond of quoting Sidney Mintz on the topic who, in his introduction to his classic book Sweetness and Power, observed that humans pretty much eat anything that doesn’t kill us.
“We appear to be capable of eating (and liking) just about anything that is not immediately toxic…What constitutes “good food,” like what constitutes good weather, a good spouse, or a fulfilling life, is a social, not a biological matter. Good food, as Lévi-Strauss suggested long ago, must be good to think about before it becomes good to eat” (Mintz 1985:8).
In class, I like to talk about foods that demonstrate this point. When talking about food to an average group of American undergraduates, for whom simply the idea of a fish being served with its head intact is an uncomfortable idea, there are a lot of examples from China that can seem really extreme.
Take, for example, eating dog meat. Relativizing the eating of dog is a pretty tall order for a professor in a midwestern school talking to a class with many pet owners. Yet, it seems to me when talking about food that trying to make the strangeness of eating dog more familiar is a useful exercise in trying to understand other places and denaturalize the taken-for-grantedness of our own everyday lives.
Just a bit over a week ago I was sitting in the Dong Family Dog Restaurant in Shenyang, China considering dog food. Not dogfood, of course, but “dog-as-food.” I was sitting there with a colleague from our university admissions office paging through the menu over a beer. We weren’t planning on eating, but the beer was a perfect excuse to hang out, consider the menu, chat with the owner and think about the space.
Full disclosure: I have eaten dog before. I tried a dog stew back in 2001 when I lived in Beijing. I thought I’d try it and it was pretty much indistinguishable from any other meat that might be stewed in a spicy sauce with lots of cilantro. Sitting in the Dong Family Dog Restaurant, however, was an entirely different experience with details for which I was unprepared.
It had its difficult and uncomfortable moments—especially when I read the menu to my colleague. The menu, complete with photos, included such dishes as: BBQ Dog Brisket, BBQ Dog Tail, Fried Bean Sprouts with Dog Skin, Spicy Dog Steak, Pepper Fried Dog Tongue, Dog Hearts and Dog Brain. It was difficult to talk about it without either being upset or laughing. We wanted to be respectful of the hospitality of the owner, but the menu was a tough read.
I spoke with the owner, a man of Korean ethnicity who had owned the restaurant for decades. Eating dog in all of its forms is a traditional food by just about any measure that one might consider. When he asked us what we wanted to order to eat, he was sincere and clearly confused why we just drank beer and wouldn’t eat anything.
But I digress.
The point of the visit wasn’t to make dog eating exotic or to go into such detail that our stomachs turned. Hanging out there for a while was intended to make the space more comfortable, perhaps even to understand or consider the idea of a dog restaurant. The goal was to try and understand.
I knew that I was going to walk into class just days after returning to Saint Paul to talk about food and culture for my Introduction to Anthropology class. How does one translate dog-as-food into a middle class, midwestern American classroom? How does one translate the strangeness of Pepper Fried Dog Tongue? What do my students eat that is just as potentially inedible and repulsive from a different perspective as dog might be to them?
When I came back to campus last Wednesday and considered this, it hit me.
Let me paint you a picture.
Standing in line for a sandwich in the school cafeteria, spotting a bag (packet?) of Uncrustables® is a jarring experience. They are food, but packed in mechanically sealed plastic with a corporate label on the front. Inside are two disks of soft, bland, mushy white “bread” with a filling inserted between them. The “pocket”—a popular form of fast food consumption in contemporary America—is sealed, not by the hands of a cook, but a cold mechanical press. Making a peanut butter sandwich is apparently too difficult and apparently bread crusts are too undesirable to a whole swath of contemporary consumers. The food is not cooked according to any historical standards of meaning or nutrition. It is manufactured to extract profit from simple consumer desire.
According to the website Fooducate a typical ingredient list reads like this:
bread: unbleached whole wheat flour, water, wheat gluten, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, contains 2% or less of: salt, dough conditioners (distilled monoglycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylate, datem, enzymes [with amylase, lipase, ascorbic acid, calcium peroxide, azodicarbonamide, wheat starch]), yeast, peanut butter: peanuts, dextrose, sugar, mono and diglycerides (palm and/or soybean oil), contains 2% or less of: fully hydrogenated vegetable oils (soybean and/or cottonseed and/or rapeseed), salt, molasses, strawberry jam: strawberries, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, contains 2% or less of: pectin, citric acid, potassium sorbate (preservative).
Very simply, Uncrustables® reflect the food culture of contemporary America—more than I have time to go into here. The deceptive “peanut butter and jelly” Uncrustable® is packed with fats, oils, sugars and other ingredients that are unhealthy and part of a food culture that is detached from any human historical or cultural tradition. It is industrial food at its most banal. It is the opposite of food prepared by hand by an expert chef in a family-owned restaurant with a long local tradition.
Not just Uncrustables® mind you. I could just as easily add Cheetos® to the list. What are they but crushed cornmeal slurry, deep fried, artifically flavored, and then artificially colored with a hue not found in nature. I could, in fact, add all kinds of contemporary “foods”—things that my students and I eat that are, from an outside perspective, much more exotic, unusual and potentially disgusting than dog. The dishes at the Dong Family Restaurant were all homemade, from scratch with fresh ingredients. Albeit, ingredients with which I am uncomfortable. While I wouldn’t eat a meal there, whenever I see Uncrustables® I think about cultural relativism.
Of course, I also think about my dog, Griffin.