Consuming Culture

Consuming Culture

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by Jeremy MacClancy

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Why do some pregnant American women eat clay? Why do Cornish women blush at the mention of skate? What is the secret of a healthy diet in Papua New Guinea? Consuming Culture is about why we eat what we eat - and what our eating habits say about us. Original, witty, and provocative, this world tour of food cultures shows how food relates to sex, to the culinary snakes… See more details below


Why do some pregnant American women eat clay? Why do Cornish women blush at the mention of skate? What is the secret of a healthy diet in Papua New Guinea? Consuming Culture is about why we eat what we eat - and what our eating habits say about us. Original, witty, and provocative, this world tour of food cultures shows how food relates to sex, to the culinary snakes and ladders of meat versus vegetables, and to the often baffling rules of eating etiquette. The first book to investigate the human fascination with food, Consuming Culture explains how food makes friends or enemies of us all and why many societies, including our own, are obsessed with eating what is bad for them. "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are," French gastronome Brillat-Savarin declared. To the Aboriginals of Australia it is fried witchetty grubs; to the Bameka of Cameroon it is spiced cat stew. As this pioneering work demonstrates, the use of food in different cultures a round the world is by turns perverse, fascinating, disquieting, and, above all, deeply revealing. From the psychology of supermarkets to the cuisine of trench warfare, from the diet industry to cannibalism, Consuming Culture gives valuable - and often hilarious - insight into the importance of food in our society. It will be an essential source of reference for life in the 1990s.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This sly, rollicking cross-cultural account of eating and ``alimentary extremists'' may put some readers off their food. MacClancy ( To Kill a Bird with Two Stones ), a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute in Great Britain, has stocked his larder with wittily recorded gastronomic esoterica, manners and foolishness from the British Isles to the Amazon. These include horrific recipes for unspeakable morsels and stories about quixotic faddists such as the ``Great Masticator,'' Horace Fletcher, who advised 32 chews per mouthful. MacClancy proves that all societies have their own definitions of what is and is not edible. Also described here, the Hindu worship of cows, which makes the bovine a taboo food; American squeamishness about germs; the untutored eating habits of feral children; supposed aphrodisiacs; the shifting menus and hours of Western mealtimes and a harrowing report of the Japanese consumption of blow fish (so potentially deadly that eating it is akin to playing Russian Roulette). This altogether entertaining book's message? Eating is wonderful, but people are very silly about it. Photos not seen by PW. (July)
Library Journal
This lively look at the capriciousness of our food choices and the effect that culture has upon our eating habits and preferences should appeal to anyone interested in food in its wider context. MacClancy (anthropology, St. Anthony's Coll., Oxford) investigates food not as a nutritional substance but as a social, political, and religious element in our lives. Displaying a broad knowledge of both food and culture and revealing a gentle, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, he discusses taboo foods, vegetarianism, cannibalism, aphrodisiacs, mealtimes, table manners, cravings, fast food, dieting, food faddism, national cuisines, etc., and how they have evolved in different cultures. Through anecdotal accounts of various civilizations, both historical and contemporary, MacClancy clearly demonstrates the impact that culture has on food and concludes that man is not what he eats, but what his society makes him eat.-- Linda Chopra, Cleveland Hts.-University Hts. P . L., Ohio
Donna Seaman
Food is more than mere sustenance; it defines cultures, shapes family life, and plays a role in various religions. The deep connection between food and sex is manifest in language; words for eating and loving are often the same. MacClancy, very British and a little corny, takes us on a thoroughly enjoyable multicultural romp through the history of the world's cuisines. Every page of this lively volume is packed with little-known facts about specific foods and eating habits. MacClancy discusses food taboos, diet fads, and the nutritional illogic of the food choices of many societies. His wry sense of humor adds zest to his descriptions of how different cultures have established standard menus and dining etiquette, while a feel for irony shapes his dissection of the politics of food. What's wrong with eating insects, cats, or dogs? How could garlic be seen as a despicable substance? Why is one man's offal another's delicacy? MacClancy ponders the cravings of pregnant women, the vegetarian versus meat-eating debate, and the rituals and desperate circumstances of cannibalism. Intriguing, if frequently facile.

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Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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1st American ed

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Consuming Culture

Why You Eat What You Eat

By Jeremy MacClancy

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1992 Jeremy MacClancy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-2578-1



On the morning of 8 January 1800 a filthy, almost naked boy emerged from the woods and entered the village of Saint-Sernin in southern France. He seemed about twelve years old. Kindly and curious villagers offered him a meal of raw and cooked meats, rye and wheat breads, apples, pears, grapes, nuts, and an orange. The boy sniffed the food but refused it all, only accepting acorns and potatoes. He rejected wine and would only drink water. The strange child could not speak, wore only the tatters of an old shirt, and, if chased, could run on all fours. He showed no modesty about his bodily functions, relieving himself whenever, wherever. When the wind blew from the Midi, he would look towards the sky and let out great cries, like a dog. In the previous three years peasants in a nearby valley had occasionally spotted the lad digging up root vegetables, which he ate immediately or carried off to his lair. The untamed child of the forest had been captured twice before but had always managed to escape. This time the villagers made sure he could not run away.

They dubbed him the Wild Boy of Aveyron and imprisoned the lad in a local orphanage. There, he slowly became used to wearing clothes and on fine days was taken for a walk on a leash. The Wild Boy started to become tolerant of more foods and began to eat rye bread, peas, broad beans, cabbage, chestnuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, beechnuts and soup. Within four months he had developed a taste for meat, though he never minded if it was raw or cooked. He was uninterested in wheat and other cereals and refused white bread, sugary foods, any seasoning, and cultivated fruits such as apples, pears, cherries, currants, and plums. He preferred wild fruits and the sorts of food found on the forest floor.

One doctor who observed the boy noted, 'He gets everything into his mouth with one flick of the fingers, and does not chew for long. He is greedy and impatient when he sees some food; he wants to swallow it immediately.' Though he ate like a glutton and even devoured sawdust in handfuls, he took great care, when eating fruit, to stack them neatly in a pile. And if he spilled any soup on his hands, he did not dry them with a cloth but in ashes from the fire. When he had eaten enough, the boy swept the leftovers into his shirt and squirrelled them away in the orphanage garden, as a stockpile.

While some mistakenly thought the Wild Boy an idiot, he did know how to get much of what he wanted. For example, once he had acquired a taste for fried potatoes, he used to carry the tubers to any man in the kitchen wielding a knife, then find a frying-pan and point to the cupboard where the oil was kept. When he was offered sausage for the first time, he sniffed the offering and then ate the lot voraciously. The next day, an officer who came to lunch made a sign for the boy to approach him at the dining table. The officer cut off a small piece from the large sausage on his plate and showed it to the lad. With his left hand the boy took the morsel from the captain's fingers – and with his other he adroitly snatched the rest of the sausage.

Victor, as he was later named, was moved to Paris where a young doctor, Jean Itard, spent years educating him. Though some at first thought Victor's whole life centred on his stomach, the boy did learn to read, write and speak in a very simple manner. He came to accept a wider range of foods and even became quite pernickety, fastidiously making sure that everything on his plate was clean. But even by the time of his death in 1828, Victor's food preferences were far more exclusive than those of most civilized humans. Unlike almost everyone else, Victor had never been taught what foods to eat or how to eat them. When first captured, he had no idea how to cook. Instead, during his years in the forests, he had made the most of what he had found around him. With no one to show him what to do, he had taught himself how to gather food and how to eat it. Though born into the species Homo sapiens, Victor on the day of his capture had no human culture: he could not cook and had no cuisine.

An even more dramatic case, if possible, of cultural deprivation is that of the Wolf Children of Midnapore, in West Bengal. These two Indian girls, aged about five, were discovered in 1920 when a band of locals killed a she-wolf, entered her cave and found two children inside, huddled together with a pair of cubs. Placed in a nearby orphanage, they shunned the light of day and spent part of each night howling. On hot days they panted and let their tongues loll out. They walked on their hands and knees for short distances, and ran on their hands and feet. Humans who came too near were snarled at; the closest friend they had was a captured hyena cub.

Reared by wolves, these real-life Mowglis ate like them as well. They did not approach their food. They attacked it. As soon as a bowlful was placed in front of the girls, they would sniff it quickly, then hurl their faces into it, and, making repulsive noises and hideous grimaces, bolt down the lot in seconds: they literally wolfed it down. Sometimes they ate so ferociously they made themselves sick. Though used to a meat-only diet, they prevented constipation by swallowing earth and pebbles after eating. When thirsty they did not hold a bowl to their lips, but had to crouch down and lap up the water noisily.

At times the parish priest who ran the orphanage could scarcely believe what he saw. On the tenth day after their arrival, the older of the pair, Kamala, automatically bent down to eat with the local dogs, competing for scraps of meat and offal. With convulsive shakes of her rib-cage, she gulped the food. Seizing a bone she carried it off in her mouth to a quiet corner, where she held it down with her hands as though they were paws. Gnawing at her food, she rubbed it on the ground to separate the meat from the bone. On one occasion, when Kamala saw vultures – as tall as herself – picking at the remains of a dead cow, she scared them away in order to grab some meat for herself from the carcass.

The younger of the pair died within twelve months. Although the priest tried to civilize the remaining wolf-child, it took five years before Kamala even learnt to walk on her feet. She was slowly weaned on to a mostly vegetable diet and gradually learnt to tolerate salty and sugary foods. But if given meat, she instantly forgot all the table manners she had been taught so laboriously and immediately reverted to her dog-like conduct.

Kamala came to be very fond of the priest's wife; she learnt to hold simple conversations and to call people by name. By the time of her death in 1929 she could also perform simple chores like frightening off crows that were eating grain, collecting eggs from the hen-house, and caring for the smaller children in the institution. In her own limited way, Kamala had managed to find a place for herself in the orphanage, which she might have called home – if she had had the vocabulary.

Like Victor, Kamala had taught herself to adapt to life in the wild; unlike Victor, she was never completely isolated. Deprived of human contact during her crucial early years, she had survived by imitating the behaviour of her foster-parents, the wolves of Midnapore. Unlike the Wild Boy, who had been a herbivore with the diet of a squirrel, the Wolf Child had been a single-minded carnivore with the behaviour of a beast. She had no time for hazelnuts or other forest fruit.

Tragically, Victor and Kamala are not the only examples of wild children. They are simply the most notorious, well-documented cases. Today, tabloid newspapers sell thousands of copies by printing sensationalist stories about the latest cases of grossly neglected children. Effectively abandoned by their parents, these toddlers are left to compete with the family dog, snarling at anyone who chances upon the scene. In November 1970, officials in California were appalled to discover Genie, a thirteen-year-old girl whose sadistic father had fed her baby foods and soft-boiled eggs, pushing them into her mouth as fast as possible. Those later put in charge of Genie tried to give her solid foods. However, since she had never learnt to chew, she would instead stuff her mouth until her cheeks bulged like those of a chipmunk storing nuts. She would wait until the saliva had softened the food and would then swallow it whole.

These wild children – storing acorns, howling like dogs, living off raw meat, unable to use their teeth – seem more animal than human. With their unpalatable mannerisms they appear less than primitive, more unpredictable than any household pet, and further removed from us than even the most exotic of peoples studied by anthropologists. They lack the basic forms of self-control and self-restraint that we were all taught as youngsters. These children do not learn the rules of any tribe but make up their own, or, like Kamala, adopt those of their animal caretakers. Ignorant of how to behave with fellow humans, they are not the sort of person one would invite to a dinner-party. When Jean Itard took Victor to a formal lunch-gathering at a chateau outside Paris, the boy paid no attention to the highly distinguished guests but ate voraciously and then ran into the garden and up a tree. Having no understanding of the intricacies and subtleties of human life, these isolated individuals have no sense of mealtimes, of sharing, or of manipulating others through the use of food. Unlike our food, which we can use as symbols or metaphors, their food has no meaning beyond that of fulfilling basic nutritional requirements. For them food is not something 'good to think with' but simply a means to a biological end: satisfying their hunger.

Maybe Romulus and Remus could found a great city but, outside the realms of myth, those not brought up by humans do not learn to become full functioning humans. By the time of their capture or discovery it is often too late to civilize wild children completely, for no one was around during their early, critical, formative period, when some of our most basic attitudes are moulded and fundamental skills developed. Children who are not taught a language at the right time never learn to speak or be able to communicate properly. In a similar, though not quite so drastic, manner wild children never come to appreciate the full range of a cuisine. Even after years of training by humans they still have peculiar gastronomic habits; they continue to reject a variety of popular foods and their taste never extends beyond an almost inhumanly narrow assortment of foods. Their palate, like their ability to speak, remains crude and unrefined. A wild child's inability to appreciate anything more than a few favourite flavours shows he belongs to a society of one: his own.

These children learnt to survive in their own way, in the wild. Their condition is like a mirror reflecting back upon ourselves, reminding us how we might have turned out. Their uncouth behaviour and restricted diet reveals just how essential is our upbringing – gastronomic and otherwise – by affectionate, responsible caretakers. Without their constant love, example, and company, we would remain stunted for life. Isolated from our parents and other children, we would not only act like the animals we had in effect become. We would eat like them as well.



The Original Scene: Primordial Man strolling through the bush, with his Woman, their children, and a small band of companions. They do not cultivate crops, they have no fixed abode, and they spend their time picking fruit or killing the occasional animal. They are not discriminating about what they eat, so long as it is edible. They gorge on nuts, pull up a few plants, or roast some roots. When they have digested that lot, they potter on until they feel hungry again.

It is an idyllic scene, an innocent paradise inhabited by people who do not have to worry about where to find the next mouthful. They seem like Adam and Eve in an appleless Eden: nothing is forbidden – it is all up for grabs. In fact, of course, things are not that simple.

Gatherer-hunters, as nomadic peoples who do not practise agriculture are known, do not just lunge for the nearest food to hand. They like some plants and some kinds of meat, and they reject others. Far from being indiscriminate omnivores, they are among the most choosy peoples in the world. The Mbuti pygmies of the Angolan tropical rainforest, for instance, have their own rules about what to eat and what not to touch. Because leopards devour humans, some Mbuti will not consume them: in their eyes, eating the flesh of an animal that might have been fattened itself on some of their own kind is a bit too close to the bone. Similarly, some will not kill chimpanzees or monkeys because they are too humanlike; buffalo is considered tough and unpleasant; and fish is regarded as food only fit for children. But they crave honey and can distinguish the taste of over ten different types. They particularly relish combs full of white maggots, which they heat slightly to soften the stiff honey and make the little white blobs wriggle, before eating the lot with gusto. The Mbuti know what they like and are prepared to work to get it; they do not hunger for everything in sight nor do they gobble everything around them.

Although the San (they used to be known as 'Bushmen') of the Kalahari Desert live in a completely different environment from that of the Mbuti, they are just as pernickety. To them the desert is no sun-scorched wasteland but home to over 200 species of plants, almost half of which they regard as edible. Despite this variety, the San choose to eat only fourteen types of plant most of the time. These are called 'strong' or 'big foods', which are thought tasty and/or highly nutritious. Other foods are 'weak' or 'small', and the San do not usually waste their time over them. While their women and children are left to gather fruit and nuts, the men go off to hunt warthogs, antelopes, or giraffes. Though ostrich is perfectly edible, they do not kill the big bird because, to them, its meat tastes bad; similarly, they leave most zebra alone because, they say, its flesh smells. Monkeys and hyenas they never even touch. In short, the San class certain foods as good to eat and others as not worth the bother. Their desert Eden provides them with more than sufficient foodstuffs to create a varied and appetizing cuisine. Their taste may not be the same as ours, but that does not mean they are not picky.

Most Westerners think the diet of 'traditional' peoples is perfectly adapted to their environment. If that were not true, so the reasoning goes, they would all be dead by now. If they were not completely in step with nature, nature would have had done with them. This idea might be appealing, but it is as wrong-headed as the image of Primordial Man as Greedy Gobbler. Contrary to what most Europeans think, the eating habits of many groups around the world are not perfectly in tune with their needs. In nutritional terms, they are maladapted to their environment. The gastronomic rules of a society do not always ensure that its members receive the sorts of foods necessary to keep them all hale, healthy, and ready to face the next day. For a society to survive, its diet does not have to be exactly right, just adequate. So long as most people in a society get enough food to stay alive and reproduce, they will not disappear as a group. This is not survival of the fittest, but extinction of the least fit.

In the dry parts of north-central India, farmers sow their fields with a mixture of wheat and a legume called Lathyrus. If the rains fall, the wheat chokes the legume. If they do not fall, the wheat dies and the locals reap harvests of Lathyrus. Making the legume part of your diet, however, is a risky business: eat too much over a period of time and you will be left crippled for life. It is like playing roulette, with your body as the chips.


Excerpted from Consuming Culture by Jeremy MacClancy. Copyright © 1992 Jeremy MacClancy. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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