Gourmets will find "Consuming Passions" chock full of ingenious observations. Connoisseurs of culture will appreciate its serious anthropological analysis. Those who just plain like to eat can indulge in a smorgasbord of anecdotes.
"We will eat the way we are as a scoiety." the anthropologist authors claim.
Their book should be enough to satisfy anyone's craving to know how eating affects rites of passage, sex, vocabulary, religion, gift-giving, taboos and other aspects of human existene. We learn about the eating environments of vaired cultures, from the skull-filled plazas of Aztec cannibals to processed and plastic North American supermarkets. We are prepped about the biology of eating -- what happens to our bodies after we dine on steak and pie a la mode, why we feel hungry after a meal in a Chinese restaurant, and why it's more than the wishful thinking of Jewish mothers that chicken soup helps cure colds and fevers.
Peter Farb and George Armelagos have no patience for ethnocentric eaters, such as those Americans who order hamburgers and French fries throughout Europe. They show the irrationality of many of our supposedly logical eating patterns and the rationality of what we see as taboo. For instance, the Bemba of Africa, while they are short of food, use beer as a major source of sustenance. Foreigners' condemnation of this habit is unjustified, say the authors, because "the sorghum from which it is made provides a number of B vitamins in which the rest of the diet is deficient, as well as a number of important minerals." That North Americans and Europeans are repulsed by other cultures that eat insects Farb and Armelagos find "difficult to understand" because of the nutritional benefits of such edibles as locusts and fried termites. Our taboo against eating dogs is described as inconsistent, since we eventually eat calves, pigs and rabbits, which we often treat as pets, and "even more surprising than the status of the dog is the repugnance felt toward eating horsemeat."
There may be a few beefs about this book, but it provides numerous possibilities for interesting dinner discussion:
Take coffee and tea. As American colonists were raising a ruckus and throwing tea overboard. Our present penchant for coffee was being established. Meanwhile, the English (who were pouring milk into their tea) were lowering by large percentages their chances of getting cancer of the esophagus The tannin in tea endagers the esophagus, while the protein in milk reacts with and breaks down the tannin to prevent absorption, and the calcium in milk neutralizes its acidity.
Next time you attack a piece of chicken marengo, think of the battle of Marengo, in Italy, where Nepoleon ordered his cooks to make a festive dinner to celebrate his victory over the Austrians. The cooks had to hunt for food, and their scavenging produced a hen, three eggs, six crayfish, four tomatoes and a little garlic. The result -- chicken marengo -- suited the occasion because it incorporated fish, egg and fowl courses, which the French thought necessary for a feast.
Don't take too much pride in losing weight this summer. Eating increases body temperature, so appetites decrease in hot weather.
When you wish that someone would help with the dinner dishes, think jealously of the Shang royal palace, which housed 2,271 people to help with the serving and preparation of meals.
Our search for what we think is the "correct bite" -- where the top teeth extend over the bottom in a scissors-like action -- developed because we cut our food in small pieces and use forks or chopsticks. The teeth of hunter-gatherers would be an orthodontist's nightmare; their teeth meet edge to edge because of the clamplike way they use them.
The close relation between eating and sex may not be culturally appropriate dinner conversation (as Farb and Armelagos might note) but the connections are nonetheless worth mentioning, and can be saved for after-dinner discussion.
"Utna Ilkukabaka ?" to the aborigines of central Australia can mean "Have you eaten?" or "Have you had sexual intercourse?" In Sri Lanka, a Sinhalese woman will refer to her lover as the one she cooks for Aphro disiacs can be effective for several reasons. Some resemble human sexual organs in shape, others, such as "Spanish fly." produce 'acute irritation of the gastro-intestinal system and dilation of the blood vessels," which stimulate the genitals, and still others, such as exotic plants, may be alluring because of their rarity.
The use of champagne in seduction scenes is questioned, for whatever effectiveness it may have is probably due to the flattery of being offered an expensive commodity -- as well as possibly the titillation produced by the ejaculative pop as the bottle is opened."
The authors are more convincing when they aren't futzing with the fizz. Claims like the ones they make about why Jews avoid pork are far better substantiated. They suggest that this dietary law is based largely on the symbolism in the books of Moses -- not exclusively on hygienic grounds, as many people believe. Although the prohibition against eating pigs is mentioned only briefly in the Old Testament (because they "cheweth not the cud"), it was the Israelites' cultural goal of perfection that made consuming swine "simply an anomaly."
By the end of the book, are we convinced that a culture is what it eats? Do we get our just desserts? For one thing, we do come to realize how much of a preoccupation eating is among all cultures and that however diverse our specific habits, we all use food for more purposes than survival. Anthropologists might find "Consuming Passions" hard to digest, but for the everyday eater it is a solid meal.