Temples of Meat & the Foodie’s Heretical Taste for the Forbidden

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October 31, 2013 by Beatrice Marovich

The November 4th issue of The New Yorker is the food issue. Dana Goodyear’s piece “Beastly Appetites” (lamentably behind the subscriber’s pay wall) is all about forbidden flesh. It’s a bit gruesome, at points, so if you’re vegan or vegetarian, and can’t get to it, the pay wall might just serve as a form of protection, here. Goodyear starts the piece with the 2009 undercover operation – lead by Charles Hambleton (producer of “The Cove”) and vegan activist Crystal Galbraith – to expose Santa Monica sushi restaurant The Hump for a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (illegally serving whale meat). She ends the piece, in conversation with restaurateur Hugue Dufour, owner of the M.Wells Dinette at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. Dufour also happens to be the guy who controversially served horse meat bologna at Brooklyn’s Great Googa Mooga in 2012 (the foreboding image, above, is from the Hamageddon pig roaster, at the Great Googa Mooga).

Goodyear’s piece is framed as an investigation of how “the animals we love too much to eat” appear to shape mainstream (and, thus, fringe or elite) dietary habits. If, in other words, a mainstream American culture values, or identifies with, whales and horses too much to eat them, this creates a taboo on their consumption. What Goodyear spends the most time detailing, however, is how this taboo then creates and feeds other appetites: an appetite for subversion, to taste what has been forbidden. What I ultimately find most interesting, in this piece, is the way religious language (and the thrilling, subversive, rhetoric of heresy) animates this discussion. Given that we’re dealing with taboo (and the lure of forbidden flesh), how could such discourse be avoided? Looking a bit more closely at the function of charged religious terms, here, might also be instructive. It might give us a different kind of insight into motives, and perhaps even possible outcomes of this taste for the forbidden. 

Foodies (to use a blanket term) have, notoriously, responded to the ills created by the American industrialization of the diet by aiming for what’s in the fringes, what’s been left out of mainstream consumption. While this may have an ethical potential (diversifying hungers and, thus, potentially advocating for greater biodiversity in food production), ethical consumption does not seem to be at the heart of these hungers for what’s at the fringe. Dufour does tell Goodyear that, “For me, eating other animals, including horses, is a responsible thing to do.” It’s like, he says, “recycling a dead animal.” He is not the only person Goodyear interviews who invokes an almost apocalyptic future – in which no current meat options are available – arguing for the need to diversify hungers, as a kind of preparation. But Dufour also dreams about serving his customers lion meat. In no possible world does developing a taste for lion meat seem like a way to prepare American consumers for some sort of bleak environmental future. Instead, this seems more like a simpler attempt to launch an attack on mainstream habits.

What’s driving the taste for the forbidden in the foodie chefs that Goodyear speaks with is not the vegetarian or vegan “taboo” against meat eating. They don’t seem to be staging a reaction to (for instance) claims that the American factory farm industry is driving unsustainable consumption habits, and that this should drive us to restructure our habits. This is, instead, the area of overlap between foodies and vegans. Rather, the orthodoxy that these foodies are resisting is what Goodyear refers to as the “trinity” of beef-chicken-pork. The holy trinity of the American meat-eating diet, the trinity of acceptable meats (which, notably, includes a form of meat that is taboo for observant Jews and Muslims). “Maybe the whole foodie counter-culture is a reaction to the oppression of just a few things to eat,” Dufour speculates.

That a term like the trinity calls up the orthodoxy of Catholic doctrine, in the face of Protestant protest, is likely no accident. This paradigmatic act of resistance seems to be evoked, here, for its potentially subversive appeal. This is a strategic resistance that might, also, call to mind the bootlegger’s rejection of the Puritan dogmatism behind prohibition. And Dufour takes the metaphor of resisting the oppressions of orthodoxy a bit further, still. He describes his next business enterprise (the M. Wells Steakhouse), as a “temple of meat”. He describes a place where all foods are “crawling and live” until he cooks them, where absolutely everything (from the most exotic animal to the most exotic cut from the most familiar animal) will be on the plate. I can’t help but notice that his choice of terms evokes a place of worship (the temple) that is decidedly not the more Catholic church, cathedral, or basilica. Instead, his choice of term evokes a figure that was cast into the shadows by a more Catholic discourse: the temple, the place of “pagan” worship and strange “pagan” sacrifices. If his steakhouse is, indeed, a “temple” of meat this threatens to be something nightmarish for the orthodox American meat-eating culture that still idealizes the holy trinity of beef-chicken-pork.

Behind this resistance to, or subversion of, meat-eating orthodoxy is the macho heroism of what Carol Adams has called the “sexual politics of meat”. This, at least for me, is rather easy to spot. There is a certain kind of power and potency to the rhetoric of resistance, and the subversion of orthodoxy. Perhaps this is part of the appeal for many foodies: this subversion of mainstream meat-eating presents itself as a “strong”, or muscular, alternative to the dominance of bad American dietary habits. It seems like a ballsy way to stage an intervention.

While this critique of the holy trinity of orthodox American meat-eating seems to evoke religious categories or discourses, what is actually missing behind the rhetoric is a recognition or investigation of the ways in which the more iron-clad orthodoxies of religious institutions have functioned to change (and failed to change) dietary habit. It may well be the case the that the rise and fall of orthodox eating habits have much less to do with the muscularity or eros of subversive alternatives and much more to do with economic or environmental expediencies.

Goodyear actually mentions conflicts between the Catholic Church and locals in Germany and Sweden, over ritual horse eating. Apparently, it was tied to Odin worship. The Catholic ban on horse, however, eventually seems to have won out in most places, except for Iceland (which, “made exemption of the ban a condition of conversion”). Could this success have had anything to do with the fact that horse meat tends not to be efficiently produced? As Goodyear mentions, horses eat far more grass than cows, and metabolize it much more quickly. How much did the eventual (relative) success of this regional Catholic ban on horse meat have to do with the fact that it did not seem economically expedient to locals, anyhow?

At the back of my mind, now, is Marvin Harris’ old essay “The Abominable Pig”, which argued that the taboo on pork may have initially hinged on the environmental and economic feasibility of raising pigs. To simplify: it was easy to enforce the ban on pork (and spread religions which evaded pork) in dry climates where pigs were taxing on the environment and difficult and costly to raise, anyhow. The spread of Islam, as Harris argues, faced a different challenge in European regions where pigs had long been raised in an economically  and environmentally expedient manner. Whether or not his argument is ultimately useful or even accurate, it’s certainly the case that religious traditions have been limited, and shaped, by their own resistance or adaptation to local customs and habits (which have often, themselves, been shaped by local economic and environmental circumstances). The polygamy-averse Christian tradition, for instance, has historically had difficulty spreading in regions where polygamy is an old custom.

What does all of this have to do with the foodie’s heretical taste for the forbidden? Well, on the one hand, for those who are concerned about the fetishization of rare meats, or the desire to violate mainstream dietary taboos with something more ravenously carnivorous, perhaps it will be the case that such practices (those, at least, that rely on sourcing or production that is decidedly not economically expedient) stand little chance of subverting the current mainstream, such that they become mainstream themselves. Perhaps it will even be the case that the orthodoxies of the American diet stand ready to be shaped by new economic or environmental expediencies. Perhaps it will become so obvious that the factory farm system is not economically or environmentally expedient, and this will provoke a shift in the figures of the holy trinity: tofu-kale-tahini. Or whatever.

For the time being, however, the old trinity of beef-chicken-pork seems to be standing strong. Muscular though the rhetoric of the foodie’s fervor for forbidden flesh may be, it is probably a good deal more fragile than it presents itself. The ability it has, to unseat the orthodoxies it resists, seems rather thin. And, as long as the relentless production of beef-chicken-pork continues to appear the most economically expedient option, it seems likely that this orthodoxy will resist any shifts that cannot unseat its pretensions to economic good sense.

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