Food taboos sometimes worth questioning

In many cases, the reasons for religious food taboos are lost in the mists of history.

Recently a Hindu temple announcement that a local Muslim family had killed a cow and was eating beef led to a lethal mob attack. The meat in the family fridge was goat meat. A commission of inquiry found the crime pre-planned but the ruling Hindu party appears to disagree. State elections were near and there is a practice in India of deliberate violence to stir up religious fanaticism in order to solidify votes through ‘communalism’ or religious hatreds. Indian poet Ashok Vajpeyi said, “The Indian tradition for millennia has been accommodative, open. It is a multi-religious tradition, a multilingual tradition. And that plurality is now being under assault.”

It’s hard to believe that differences in what people choose to eat can lead to the kind of frenzy that justifies open murder. But food taboos, or the deliberate avoidance of a food item for reasons other than simple preference, are unwritten social rules which often defy rational or scientific explanations. For example, the Ache hunters and gatherers of the Paraguayan jungle use only 50 of the hundreds of edible mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish species around them. Only 40 of the myriad plants, fruits, and insects are exploited. Ninety-eight per cent of the calories in the diet of the Ache come from only 17 different food sources.

Why do people cling to inexplicable food taboos? One reason is that a particular behaviour is seen as part of a group’s identity and conveys a sense of belonging. In many cases, the reasons for religious food taboos are lost in the mists of history and over time layers of justifications have settled into unquestioning habit.

In the developed world, eating animals that are considered pets, particularly cats and dogs, is taboo. It can be suggested that pet animals have domesticated humans, in order to lead protected lives. The domestication process has become so entrenched that the pets are regarded as part of the family.

Twenty-five years ago, in a large Indian city, I visited with members of a social change group who would have no truck with unscientific food taboos. Their commitment to community development work was demonstrated by living together with the people they were helping with basic needs as well as skills training and general education. And periodically they would hold beef and pork dinners for their Hindu and Muslim friends. At the time, I thought it a bit cheeky. But today I understand better how they were attempting to remove sources of difference and intolerance by sitting down to eat together without disapproval.

Often I find myself wishing that people who cherish particular food views would be less intolerant of others’ preferences and instead strive together to accomplish food systems that are good for people, animals, plants and general ecological balance. We might be surprised by how much we have in common in that endeavour.

Marjorie Stewart is past chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at marjorieandalstewart@shaw.ca.