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How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food

How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food

by Leon Rappoport

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Rappoport treats the dinner table like a Freudian couch, asking us to lie back and spill our guts. Tracing our culinary customs from the Stone Age to the stovetop range, he illuminates our complex and often contradictory eating habits, and suggests that perhaps we are what we eat.


Rappoport treats the dinner table like a Freudian couch, asking us to lie back and spill our guts. Tracing our culinary customs from the Stone Age to the stovetop range, he illuminates our complex and often contradictory eating habits, and suggests that perhaps we are what we eat.

Editorial Reviews

The focus of How We Eat is welcome...fun to peruse because it contains so many small pieces of information that are interesting to those of us who love to cook, eat, and talk about food and eating.

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ECW Press
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How We Eat

Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food



Copyright © 2003 Leon Rappoport
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55490-241-5


From Myths to MacAttacks

There is an embarrassing emperor's-new-clothes question about food behaviors that sooner or later imposes itself on anyone who takes this subject seriously: what is food? The question comes up partly from both research and common experiences showing that items considered to be good food, or even special delicacies in one group, culture, or subculture, are considered by others to be unfit for human consumption. It is often found more dramatically in the memoirs of world travelers and explorers. In The Oregon Trail, for example, Frances Parkman describes in striking detail the first time he ate a puppy dog. He was a guest in an Indian lodge at Fort Laramie when his host's oldest wife entered, carrying a tomahawk: "I had observed sometime before a litter of well grown black puppies, comfortably nestled among some buffalo-robes at one side; but this newcomer speedily disturbed their enjoyment; for seizing one of them by the hind paw, she dragged him out, and carrying him to the entrance of the lodge, hammered him on the head till she killed him. Conscious to what this preparation tended, I looked through a hole in the back of the lodge to see the next step of the process. The squaw, holding the puppy by the legs, was swinging him to and fro through the blaze of a fire, until the hair was singed off. This done, she unsheathed her knife and cut him into small pieces, which she dropped into a kettle to boil. In a few moments a large wooden dish was set before us, filled with this delicate preparation. A dog feast is the greatest compliment a Dacotah can offer to his guest; and knowing that to refuse eating would be an affront, we attacked the little dog and devoured him before the eyes of his unconscious parent."

There is no mistaking Parkman's studied sense of repulsion at this scene. It was all the more impressive, therefore, to discover in Undaunted Courage, Steven Ambrose's account of the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition from St. Louis to the Columbia River, quotations from the journal of Meriwether Lewis indicating that he and his men had acquired a taste for dog meat and preferred it to the game and horse meat they often lived on.

My own experiences with the cultural relativism of cuisine have been relatively trivial. While I was stationed in Germany in 1955, my wife bought some corn on the cob at the army commissary. When our German landlady happened to see it, she made a face, calling it "pig food." Several years later, the shoe was on the other foot: while we were on a research fellowship in Oslo, a Norwegian colleague invited us to a traditional holiday meal of ludefisk (boiled dried cod), which we were just barely able to get down. My wife threw it all up when we got home. The moral of the story is that the body does not swallow cultural relativism as easily as the mind.

For their part, nutrition experts and other authorities never seem to bother much with the question of just what is food; they are apparently content with the commonsense notion that food is simply the stuff that people eat, while pointing out that the stuff most of us are eating is not very healthy. There's nothing terribly wrong with this, except that, when you look in the dictionary, the definitions of food turn out to be a bit problematic. According to the 1981 edition of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, food is "material consisting of carbohydrates, fats, proteins and supplementary substances (as minerals, vitamins) that is taken or absorbed into the body of an animal in order to sustain growth, repair, and all vital processes and to furnish energy for all activity of the organism." This is pretty straightforward and properly scientistic, but the abstract language has slightly sinister overtones. There is nothing in it, after all, that would preclude having the juicier parts of Aunt Sophie or Felix the cat for lunch. And the subordinate dictionary description tends to confirm this implication: "... esp., parts of the bodies of animals and plants consumed by animals."

This line of thought about food was taken to its ultimate extreme by Ernest Becker. In The Denial of Death, he discusses the human condition as being a function of "appetite and ingenuity." And he refers to all animal life on our planet as a "gory spectacle" in which organisms are constantly struggling to feed on each other, on the one hand chewing up any flesh they can get hold of, and on the other hand leaving behind a trail of "fuming waste excrement." A similar but less embellished view was offered by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary. He defined "edible" as "Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm."

The point at issue here is simply that a good case can be made for the argument that, where human eating habits are concerned, "anything goes." But, of course, in practice it doesn't; we may be omnivorous, but we do draw the line here and there. Just where we draw the line varies between societies, as well as between cultural groups and individuals within any society; the diverse meanings of food can be appreciated simply by scanning regional, social class, and ethnic differences in cuisine. But it becomes painfully clear in hardship situations when food is in short supply. In his book on the sociology of cooking, Cooking, Cuisine and Class, Jack Goody describes an incident that occurred while he was a prisoner of war during World War II. The prisoners were always hungry, and although they lived on limited rations and Red Cross parcels, they would nevertheless scrounge and save up food items so they could celebrate special occasions with a hearty meal. One Christmas, Goody and a friend were invited to a meal prepared by other prisoners. It consisted of an anonymous but tasty meat stew. Goody thought the prisoners had bribed one of the guards to bring in a rabbit but, after the meal was over, was told by his proud host that the stew was made of cat meat. Instead of feeling disturbed at the news that he had just been guilty of what he called "quasi cannibalism," Goody congratulated his host for having found a new way to supplement their diet. He then returned to his own quarters and suggested to those he lived with that they try to get a cat for their Christmas dinner. They were appalled at the idea and refused to have anything to do with it.

Another prisoner of war, Bernard Clavell (who would become the best-selling author of Shogun and other novels) was held by the Japanese during World War II. His roman à clef about life in the camp, King Rat, describes a systematic trade in the rats that prisoners killed and ate. By an odd coincidence—what Jungian theorists might call a "synchronicity"—I recently found that there is at least one place in the world where cooked rats are a restaurant specialty. An article by an American journalist working in China describes restaurants in the village of Luogang where customers can browse through a selection of caged rats and choose the ones they wish to have killed and cooked for their dinners. These restaurants also offer a range of cats and snakes.

Violations of our conventional food norms or taboos do not stop at household pets or rodents. In severe starvation situations, especially when prolonged suffering or abuse has reduced people to a state of demoralization, cannibalism may occur. In the U.S., there is the well-known story of pioneers in the Donner party wagon train, some of whom turned to eating body parts of their dead companions when snowbound in the mountains of California. Less well known but more horrific is the cannibalism that set in among some of the half million Germans and Italians captured by the Soviet army after the battle for Stalingrad in 1943. According to the testimony of survivors gathered by the historian William Craig, the Soviets could not cope with this massive number of prisoners, so the prisoners were sent on forced marches in freezing weather and herded together in improvised camps with little or no food or shelter. Under these conditions, a few of the prisoners, crazed by hunger and cold, turned to cannibalism. At first, the cannibals took only the arms or legs of the dead, eating them raw, but later they formed groups and attacked the bodies of men who were not yet dead. The situation became so horrific that other prisoners organized vigilante squads to wipe out the cannibals.

Our visceral revulsion at stories of people consuming their pets, or worse, human flesh, is powerful evidence of the degree to which we internalize food norms. Rather than violate these norms, many people will accept death. And our response to the opposite extreme of voluntary starvation offers similarly strong evidence for the power of socially conditioned food norms. Just as cannibalism poses a frightening threat to any group in which it occurs—if this taboo can be violated, nothing is safe!—so too does the deliberate renunciation of food, as in a hunger strike or in the pathology of anorexia. Our visceral reactions to this may be less intense than those triggered by cannibalism, but insofar as people deliberately reject food, they are rejecting a fundamental shared value of the community. And by doing so, they threaten the ties that hold that community together. Conversely, it is through the sharing of food that people demonstrate their support and acceptance of communal ties. One of the unmistakable and often unconscious tactics of teenagers in Western society who are trying to establish a sense of identity apart from their parents frequently is played out at the dinner table when they begin to reject or criticize familiar family food items. If we are indeed what we eat, then what we refuse to eat, we are not! The stubborn refusal of food can be a profound negation. It is not surprising, therefore, that hunger strikers will be force fed, anorexics forced into therapy, and even dying elderly patients trying to refuse food to end their suffering fed intravenously.

When viewed in this context, food can also begin to be understood as a primary medium for the exercise of social power. Consider, for a moment, the child facing an unfamiliar food for the first time, or an adult encountering a strange cuisine. If they are to satisfy their hunger and the demands of the social situation, which usually include some pressure to conform, they must endure the anxiety of tasting and swallowing an uncertain, perhaps alien and therefore threatening, substance. Children frequently respond with spontaneous resistance by spitting things out. Most adults, however, will typically pretend enjoyment even if their visceral reactions are negative, lest they offend their hosts. The procedures and instruments by which a novel food must be eaten can evoke a similar experience of intimidation. Many of us have suffered embarrassed frustration before our first lobster, artichoke, or effort to eat with chopsticks. (And then, of course, once we have mastered the required skills, we usually look down on the struggling novice with amused superiority.) Ultimately, the hungry person has little or no recourse against the forms of social control that may be imposed as a condition against satisfying that hunger. Food can be such an effective vehicle of social control that it is routinely used as the chief reward or reinforcer when training our dogs, cats, and, too often, children.

Apart from the limits set by the two "forbidden" extremes of cannibalism and voluntary starvation, the definitions and meanings of acceptable food items vary across a wide range of cultural practices. At bottom, however, there is a general psychological dynamic, or call it simply a fundamental type of magical thinking, that characterizes the way different organic materials have come to be accepted as edible. Anthropological evidence shows that, in all primitive human groups, seasonal variations in plant life and animal behaviors were thought to be governed by mysterious forces under the full or partial control of sundry gods, goddesses, and spirits. And according to all the myths and rituals associated with primitive human food activities, the whims, wishes, and arbitrary actions of these metaphysical beings dictated both the availability of certain plants or animals and their suitability for human consumption.

Virtually all the basic foods we eat today—the cereal grains, fruits, vegetables, meats, and fishes—have a mythic, sacred pedigree. Sacred because, for our primitive ancestors, to consume something either given by, or stolen from, the gods was to participate in the cosmic mysteries controlled by those gods. As anthropologists have noted, for many primitives, eating is a "communion with the sacred." The names of many staple foods carry traces of their metaphysical origin myths. The term "cereals," for example, is derived from the Greek myth of the goddess Ceres, whose daughter, Persephone, was stolen by Pluto, god of the underworld, and required to sleep with him beneath the earth each winter. As Ceres searched the underworld for her daughter, she scattered behind her gifts in the form of seeds, which, like her daughter, could emerge only in the spring and summer.

Our word for rice is derived from the ancient Greek oriza, which meant something like "originally from Asia," where in many places the general term for food is "rice." The Hindi word for rice, dhanya, translates roughly as "supporter of human beings." Rice has several origin myths. In South Asia, the goddess Kwan Yin is supposed to have dribbled her breast milk over barren grasses, which then yielded white rice. In Japan, legend has it that an undernourished priest discovered rice plants by following a mouse. And throughout Asia, rice is a mythic symbol of fertility, one prominently featured at traditional weddings. The widespread custom of throwing rice at newly married couples is thought to be derived from this ancient belief.

Then there is corn. Long known to the pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas, corn (maize) was not only the staple food of the Aztecs, Mayans, and other, more obscure groups, but also the basis on which many of their cultural practices and religious rituals were organized. There are many origin myths for corn, and most of them, like the Amazon Indian legend of a star coming to Earth in the form of a woman to teach men how to plant the cereal, involve a female protagonist. An Ecuadorean myth has it that a parrot turned into a woman, who then gave men corn seeds, whereas according to a rather sexist North American Indian story, corn first grew out of a furrow created when a mysterious woman instructed a man to drag her by the hair across an open field.

The presence of females as central enabling figures in so many food origin myths is no accident. Archaeological and anthropological research indicates that it was utterly clear to our prehistoric ancestors that women were not merely the bearers of new life but also the embodiment of nourishment and nurturance. Arbitrary as such myths may seem today, their emphasis on women as the progenitors of food persists in contemporary brand names such as Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, and Sara Lee. Indeed, the French still distinguish between "high" cuisine and everyday cooking by referring to them, respectively, as cuisine gastronomique and cuisine de la femme ("of the woman"). But the role of women, or female figures, in food myths is not always benign. One of the best-known mythic stories in Western civilization appears in the Old Testament: it is Eve who yields to the temptation of the forbidden apple and so gets all of us exiled from the Garden of Eden. And then there are the stories of witches with their poisonous apples and kettles full of nasty brews. For their part, male figures take on a central mythic role in connection with animal foods. According to the analyses of Central American tribal lore by Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Raw and the Cooked, it was the jaguar, which could take the form of a man, that first provided bows and arrows to male hunters, as well as the fire used to roast meat.


Excerpted from How We Eat by LEON RAPPOPORT. Copyright © 2003 Leon Rappoport. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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.

Meet the Author

Leon Rappoport, is a professor specializing in personality and social psychology at Kansas State University. His research studies on food cognition have appeared in numerous journals, including "The American Behavioral Scientist" and "Appetite." He is the author of "The Holocaust and the Crisis of Human Behavior," "Personality Development," and "Zen Running." He lives in Manhattan, Kansas.

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