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Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands
By Deborah Gewertz, Frederick Errington
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Thinking about Meat
During one of the first conversations we had with a New Zealand meat trader about the politically controversial sale of lamb and mutton flaps from his country and Australia to the Pacific Islands, he stopped to make sure we understood something very basic about his enterprise and the market: You do realize, he said, that no one grows a sheep for its flaps; the reason flaps don't bring a very good price is because they are too fatty for people who can afford better. But we will be able to sell them someplace when the price gets right. Meat never goes uneaten. It's that simple.
We had not thought about flaps in quite such succinct terms before, but we certainly understood what he was saying. In fact, we had become interested in flaps partly because they are usually avoided by white New Zealanders and Australians yet eagerly sought by many Pacific Islanders. For the former, flaps, which contain less than 50 percent lean meat, are visibly too fatty to seem appealing or healthful. For the latter, flaps are too cheap and plentiful to be passed over. Indeed, the less affluent countries of the nearby Pacific Islands are a ready market for the export from New Zealand and Australia of large volumes of these low-value cuts (though 9–12 percent of a sheep's carcass by weight, flaps are only 3–5 percent of its value). Thus, while peripheral to the centrally located trader, flaps are central to our friends on the periphery. Of course, as the meat trader knows, however simple marketing principles of supply and demand may be, actually trading flaps, especially into the Pacific Islands, is rarely simple. Such trade involves more than grasping the global opportunity of turning one people's trash into another's treasure. Because, as we shall see, those who treasure flaps know that they are rejected as trash by those who provide them, this trade is, at the least, politically sensitive. But such complexities temporarily aside, the meat traders do seem to be correct in a fundamental recognition: meat never goes uneaten. And this seems to have been the case for a very long time.
HUMANS AS MEAT EATERS
No one can be certain about the significance of meat eating to our earliest ancestors. Scholars speculate and infer based upon incomplete evidence in their attempts to reconstruct when, where, and why those who evolved into Homo sapiens began to eat meat with regularity. They also speculate and infer concerning the physiological and cultural effects of meat eating in human evolution. However, we are not anthropologists who specialize in reconstructing this evolution. All we can do is briefly convey what makes sense to us given what we have read.
In considering the role of meat in the lives of our ancestors, we think it important to avoid some of the assumptions about gender and human nature that are associated with the classic "man the hunter" argument. This argument has been rightly criticized as discounting the role of women and their gathering in human evolution. In fact, female gathering likely provided the calories that could be relied on for daily survival. In addition, the argument has been rightly criticized as fostering the stereotype of humans—men in particular—as fundamentally violent. In fact, male hunting likely provided important contexts for trust and social solidarity through cooperation and food sharing.
This being said, there is widespread—though not universal—agreement that our earliest ancestors ate meat whenever possible. They could, it seems, digest meat with relative ease. Initially, raw meat acquired through scavenging and opportunistic hunting was a nutritionally dense supplement to the raw roots and tubers available in the woodlands of Africa. As human evolution continued, meat remained an important component of the diet. And, at some point (perhaps as early as two million years ago), our ancestors began to cook. While cooking enabled a wider range of plant foods (including those otherwise toxic) to be exploited, its greatest value was in helping our ancestors to extract more nutrients, more easily, from all of their foods—plant as well as animal. With increased nutrition, stature increased. In addition, with the availability of plant and animal foods that were easily chewed and readily digested, both tooth size and gut size decreased. Hence, the nutritional benefits of meat eating and cooking may have been important in the gradual (400,000-year) transition from the short-statured, large-toothed, big-gutted, small-brained members of the genus Australopithecus into the taller, smaller, slimmer, and larger variants of the genus Homo.
The decrease in gut size was itself perhaps significant because it, in turn, may have facilitated an increase in brain size. Brains are expensive tissues to provision. Evidence of this comes from physical anthropologist William Leonard. He reports that a contemporary adult human (at rest) uses 20–25 percent of his or her energy needs to maintain brain metabolism, while nonhuman primates use 8–10 percent. Such facts have been interpreted by some to suggest that large human brains could not have been adequately sustained under early gathering and hunting circumstances without the reduction of another major metabolic system. There might, in other words, have been insufficient calories to support both a big brain and a big gut.10 Others are content to argue that a better diet resulting from an increase in meat eating (and eventually by cooking) was enough to foster the development of the human brain. Largely in support of the latter perspective, Leonard writes, "For early Homo, acquiring more gray matter meant seeking out more of the energy-dense fare"—namely, animal foods.
At a certain point, increased brain size and the development of culture proved mutually reinforcing. Simply put, smarter people with more sophisticated ways of organizing, innovating, and interpreting their surroundings became more successful as they encountered one another and expanded through diverse environments. Culture, once elaborated, became Homo's master adaptation. In its elaboration—in the development of ways of organizing, innovating, and interpreting—meat eating continued to have a role. Cooking allowed nutrients to be better extracted from the relatively reliable vegetable food base (again, confirming the importance of woman in gathering) so that more time and energy could be spent over greater distances in hunting for nutritionally dense meats (which could, in addition, be preserved through smoking). Success in hunting, in turn, both relied on and further encouraged the development of the broadly adaptive strategies of cooperation and food sharing. Hence the increased emphasis on hunting that was facilitated by cooking may itself have contributed, at least in a small way, to the transition to a smarter and more culture-dependent Homo.
Significantly, as hunting techniques and technologies improved and as hominids spread out of Africa, large herbivores (including very large ones, such as mammoths) became prized game. In fact, Leonard believes that early humans may have spread widely out of Africa initially in pursuit of migrating animal herds. According to the geographer and environmental ecologist Vaclav Smil, such large herbivores would certainly have been more desirable than monkeys, hares, rabbits, and small deer—animals that might yield only two to three times the amount of energy expended in killing them. Large herbivores, with their larger body mass and (often) greater fat, might have more than twice the energy density of these smaller species. To be sure, they were big and often dangerous, but the payoff from a successful hunt would be great. According to Smil, if a group was lucky enough to kill a mammoth, its members would have access to between thirty and fifty times as much energy as the energy that had been expended in making the kill. On the other hand, physical anthropologists John Speth and Katherine Spielmann argue that, at particular seasons, such large herbivores as bison and caribou may have been seriously fat-depleted and therefore less desirable energy sources than some smaller species. For instance, beaver and bear—and some fish—were likely to be relatively fat even in the later winter and early spring. Nonetheless, all agree that protein from meat sources was both necessary and valued. (We return to the significance of fatty animal protein a bit later.)
Some ten thousand years ago, however, such hunting and gathering subsistence strategies became less viable in certain areas of the world such as the Middle East, where agriculture became both feasible and necessary. Although agriculture did allow for larger population densities, it also led to a decline in the amount of meat—fatty or not—available for most people. Smil estimates that "average per capita meat intakes in traditional agricultural societies were rarely higher than 5–10 kg a year," while preagricultural intakes were no less than 6–17 kg per year and, in many environments, 10–20 kg per year. Concerning peasant societies in the Old World, he writes that "meat was eaten no more frequently than once a week and relatively large amounts were consumed, as roasts and stews, only during festive occasions.... Consequently, animal foods provided generally less than 15 percent of all dietary protein, and saturated animal fats supplied just around 10 percent of all food energy in preindustrial populations." In fact, until relatively recently in the Old World, meat was reserved mostly for ruling elites, wealthy urbanites, and marching armies; most people seldom ate meat.
Meat's value thus derives from a complex of reasons. It is energy-dense and, when limited in availability, is often associated with wealth and privilege. It is, in addition, a food suggestive of existential and moral considerations. Because its acquisition involves the death of creatures that are clearly analogous to humans, it often carries with it considerations of life, death, and reproduction as well as those of reciprocity between species, spirits, and social groups. For example, among the horticultural, though forest-dwelling, Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, men would hunt for weeks to amass the smoked meat necessary for the ceremonial exchanges that linked kin and neighbors throughout a particular region in relationships of positive reciprocity. At the same time, Kaluli cosmology posits animals—especially wild pigs—and humans as linked in reciprocity. The world of one is the mirror of the other: humans in the Kaluli world appear as wild pigs to those in the other world, and vice versa. Hence Kaluli pig hunts result in the deaths of humans in the other world, and Kaluli deaths are often attributed to pig hunts by the mirrored others. A comparable cosmology is found among the horticultural Wari of the South American Amazon. There people become white-lipped peccaries when they die and are believed to offer themselves up to living kinsmen as game.
As a final example, and one closer to home, the anthropologist Nick Fiddes argues that it is precisely in the Old World—influenced as it eventually became by the Judeo-Christian tradition—that meat became an apt expression of God's relationship to man. According to the Bible, God gives man "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Under these circumstances, meat becomes, in Fiddes's phrase, a "natural symbol": one that is tangible and easy to understand and comes "naturally" to hand as a way to represent human control of the natural world. Indeed, he says, "Consuming the muscle flesh of other highly evolved animals is a potent statement of our supreme power." Such power—the power to kill sentient animals for one's own benefit—can be not only gratifying in its assertion of human pre-eminence, but also discomfiting, as shown by efforts to distinguish the "animal from the edible"—for instance, in calling the living creature a cow and its flesh, beef.
Energy-dense, difficult to acquire, and socially and symbolically meaningful, meat does seem to be special. Even for those relatively few who actively refuse meat—who, for instance, strongly object to the assertion of human preeminence—it can be argued that meat remains salient if only as "that which must be rejected." And when people gain increased access to such a multifaceted good, they usually eat more of it. By the nineteenth century, especially in Western Europe and the United States, industrialization, urbanization, and greater agricultural productivity that allowed livestock to be fed grains began to provide such access. As Friedrich Engels noted in 1844 in Condition of the Working-Class in England, "The better-paid workers, especially those in whose families every member is able to earn something, have good food as long as this state of things lasts; meat daily, and bacon and cheese for supper. Where wages are less, meat is used only two or three times a week, and the proportion of bread and potatoes increases. Descending gradually, we find the animal food reduced to a small piece of bacon cut up with the potatoes; lower still, even this disappears."
Meat consumption would continue to increase in Europe, although, as the statement from Engels suggests, the rich were likely to eat more of it than the poor. If one extrapolates from aggregate figures of carcass weight provided by Smil, it appears that the amount of meat eaten by the British tripled during the nineteenth century to a per capita consumption of 40 kg a year by 1900; the amount eaten by the French remained stable through the first half of the nineteenth century and then doubled over the next eighty years to more than 35 kg; and the amount consumed by Americans reached 51 kg by 1909. In fact, as early as 1851 a working-class family in New York would buy annually about 66 kg of fresh meat per person (at about ten cents per pound). To be sure, these would be cheaper cuts for stewing and boiling, bones for soup stock, and an occasional roast or steak purchased for special occasions.
These trends in increased meat consumption have continued, and not just among those in the industrialized world. With increasingly globalized food systems, says Jeffery Sobal, "the dietary and nutritional transitions from plant-based high-fiber diets to animal- and vegetable-oil based, low-fiber, high-fat, high-protein diets" is spreading "to an increasing proportion of the world's population." According to statistics collected by the Food and Agricultural Organization during 2000, those in affluent countries worldwide consumed a mean of 53 kg/year of meat, and in modernizing ones, 18 kg/year (although there is controversy over this figure because China seems to have inflated its statistics; see below). Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist, supplies supplementary and more finely grained statistics, estimating that in Japan the per capita consumption of beef, veal, pork, and poultry rose from 2.2 kg in 1955 to 30 kg in 1994, while in China the consumption of these meats rose from 8 kg in 1970 to 35.8 in 1994.
Indeed, for many poorer people meat has become the marker of modernity, a topic we explore in some detail later in this book. Thus the anthropologist Sarah Mahler found that among Central and South American migrants to the United States, increased access to meat is one of the few satisfactory aspects of their experience. Though the lives to which they aspire often remain out of reach—the nice cars they lean against in the pictures they send home are not theirs—they do feel affluent in terms of what they can eat. According to the historian Roger Horowitz, "When the relatively marginal gained more buying power, their meat consumption grew dramatically.... Meat is coveted and immigrants can be seen in the supermarket aisles pushing shopping carts laden heavily with packages of beef and chicken." Certainly the link between meat and modernity is clear to those enjoying the cheap and fatty lamb and mutton flaps in the Pacific Islands.
ON FATTY MEAT IN PARTICULAR
Human beings thus have long liked meat. But the trader with whom we began was not only saying that meat, by virtue of its universal appeal, will always find a market. He was also saying that some cuts of meat will find a market more readily than others. Even lamb and mutton flaps, deemed too fatty for some, will find a home if they are priced right. What do we make, then, of the fact that very fatty meats are likely to be of low value in terms of desirability and price?
Humans do tend to appreciate at least some fat on their meat. Large herbivores, as we have mentioned, were particularly sought after as food by stone-age hunters not only because they were large but also because they were fatty (though not as fatty as contemporary domesticated animals). The anthropologist Marvin Harris goes so far as to suggest that much of the craving for meat is actually a craving for fatty meat. Fat is essential for the processing of the fat- soluble vitamins necessary for human health. Fat is also particularly useful because it is energy- dense and can be used readily to fuel the body. Unless there is such an energy source present in the diet, the amino acids in meat will be diverted, becoming fuel rather than body- building proteins. Correspondingly, "hunters run the risk of starving to death if they rely too much on lean meat."
Excerpted from Cheap Meat by Deborah Gewertz, Frederick Errington. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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