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.***