Saturday, August 06, 2005

what's that blue thing...DOing here?

Continuing on the theme of food. There is a legend in my household about the Blue Soup. Brent encountered the Soup back in high school, in Russia, as an exchange student. He doesn't know what made it blue. He remembers it vividly because, naturally, he really, really didn't want to eat it.

(Incidentally, our Ukrainian friends are mystified as to the possible culinary identity of the Blue Soup. They seem a little skeptical, despite Brent's earnest protests, that such a thing exists.)

My first time to venture down to the local government-run cafeteria down the street in China had me perusing a line of dishes which, for me, had no name and no immediately identifying factors. Pointing randomly I chose 3 dishes and sat down. The only thing on my tray I could be sure of was the rice. It turns out one of the things I had chosen was cow stomach, helpfully ID'd for me by my Australian companion, wise in the ways of the cafeteria after a year in China. It had a decent flavor, but the texture was unpleasant. I ate the peppers. And all of my rice.

The real problem was when I couldn't even decipher whether a dish was vegetable, or meat. The first time I saw Qie zi Bao I felt completely uninspired. This is a delicious eggplant dish, in case you're wondering, but unless you know it's eggplant, it looks like a nest of dead caterpillars in brown sauce.

This is not gratuitous mocking of other cultures' cuisines. My point is that, when you can't identify for yourself that a thing properly belongs in the category "food" then you simply do not want to eat it. It seems unnatural to do so and despite your best intentions and sincere desire to be courteous, you experience a strong revulsion and a desire to run away and forget that you ever saw that blue thing on the table.

(This is, I think, part of the horror of cannibalism; human beings do not belong in the category "food." I posted a short musing on this a while back at a few voices.)

What's really interesting to me is how strongly we feel about this. It's wrong to eat dog, it's gross to eat pig's ears. It's not just that we feel "this isn't for me." Our guts get twisted up and our world gets tilted a little bit when we consider eating the uneatable. And yet, the category of "food" is indisputably socially learned and formed. If it weren't, there would be no ex-pat cravings and no ex-pat food inhibitions. This category which is so obviously cultural-specific is somehow, in our minds and in our actions, transmuted into a natural/unnatural paradigm.

Perhaps, you may say to yourself, that's not true. We don't say people are "unnatural" if they eat pig's ears or dog. We say that's gross, or cruel. But let me point out that "gross" and "cruel" are not aesthetic pronouncements. They're not expressing a matter of taste. At core, they are moral judgments. And this is what I mean by saying that this matter is elevated to the natural/unnatural; when we make a judgment about practices which don't fit our category, we don't simply shrug and say to ourselves, "Oh. apparently some people like to eat donkey meat, while that simply doesn't tempt me at all." No, instead we feel repulsed. Not just by the unidentifiable Thing on the table, but by the people consuming it as well; we feel it strongly, viscerally, and express it in terms of moral condemnation.

You can, however, get over this. It takes some effort and repeated exposure to weird eating habits. You have to hang out regularly with people who eat Blue Soup, pig's ears, chicken feet, cow stomach, dog and donkey meat. You have to learn that regardless of these supposedly barbarous and repellent habits, these people are essentially just like you, and are doing what comes "naturally"--they are eating what they consider to be proper food.

The final lesson comes in the form of watching our home-video of our Chinese students attempting to eat some of our cherished sharp cheddar. Some of them managed to gag it down. Others raced each other for the kitchen sink to spit up. One student seemed to go into a mute Zen trance in order to gain the inner strength to swallow.

Brent and I enjoyed the spectacle immensely. They had just attempted to serve us frogs, after all. I don't mean like cutesy little Frenchy frog legs, either. Things come whole in China.

They were quite good, actually.

***this is also posted over at A Few Voices. For those of you that read both blogs, sorry for the redundancy.***


MOM said...

I also think food is an interesting topic to explore. It is such a daily need that its importance to us can't be denied. Think of all the allusions to eating and drinking in the Bible. Particularly the admonition to "hunger and thirst after righteousness". And yes...the aspect of eating another sentient being is repulsive. It's one of the more major conflicts of good and evil in The Sparrow.

And what IS the blue soup???

JTB said...

I was fascinated by that aspect of The Sparrow. Also by the fact that implicitly Russell denies a theory of universal instinctive morality--as clearly neither sentient races in the story felt any moral repugnance/horror the way the humans did at the thought of eating other sentient beings. Often in other sci fi stories interstellar wars with alien races are accompanied with visions of human beings being herded & cultivated for food--even War of the Worlds has this element present. It seems to be the ultimate proof that the aliens are the Enemy--in need of no regard other than hate and fear and extermination.

I think eating is a very intimate activity, although we don't often think of it that way. What we consume and how we consume it is not an issue we spend a lot of time reflecting on typically, but it certainly says something profound about us as human beings.

Finally--and this is clearer in the context this post occurs in on think that this whole question about what is and isn't natural to eat as food sheds some real light on other contexts in which the categories "natural" and "unnatural" are invoked.

JTB said...

PS. Brent says the Blue Soup tasted quite cucumber-ish. This is the only thing he remembers besides the color & repressing his gag reflex. So....????