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Forbidden Food: From Fried Tarantulas to Fido

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Fried tarantulas on display in a market in Beijing.

People are omnivores. We can eat practically anything, and collectively we pretty much do. Worldwide, the human diet encompasses everything from fried brains and fermented seal flipper to ant larvae, chicken feet, grasshoppers, guinea pig, giraffe, and kangaroo. In Japan, you can buy tuna eyeballs for dinner, packaged in plastic in the grocery store. Blood sausage, made from coagulated pig’s blood and deceptively known as black pudding, is a breakfast standard in Britain. (Henry VIII is said to have loved it.)

The Scots famously favor haggis, a mix of sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, simmered with oatmeal and onions in a sheep’s stomach; and the Norwegians are fans of lutefisk, dried cod soaked in lye that, properly prepared, has the squishy consistency of Jello. The Chinese and Koreans drink baby mice wine, a beverage made by dropping a dozen or so infant mice into a bottle of rice wine, then fermenting the concoction for twelve to fourteen months. The result, said to taste like raw gasoline, is touted for its health-giving properties.

The truth is, though, that while we can eat practically anything, in practice we don’t. Lutefisk isn’t everybody’s cup of tea; and even more unfamiliar foods—say, braised tarantulas, raw witchetty grubs, or vegemite—can make the uninitiated cringe and gag. Food acceptances vary wildly from region to region and culture to culture. Psychologists and anthropologists puzzle over the pseudo-Shakespearean question of what we choose to eat or not to eat. Why do we eat cows and pigs, for example, but not dogs and cats? And why not worms and rats?

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A patron prepares to eat a Chinese dinner that contains dog meat. Photograph by Parimal Satyal, Creative Commons 2.0

Pets: They’re What’s for Dinner

A partial answer, by anthrozoologist Hal Herzog, in his 2011 book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, is that we generally balk at eating creatures that we love, such as our household pets, or creatures that we can’t stand, such as rats, worms, and spiders. While such decisions may make emotional sense, though, they’re not necessarily rational. After all, why not eat Fido? After all, dogs, undeniably nutritious, have been on the human menu for thousands of years. Even presently dog-loving North America, for a good chunk of its history, viewed man’s best friend as food.

The Aztecs raised dogs—notably the Xoloitzcuintli, or Mexican hairless dog—for meat; and many North American Indian tribes ate dogs. Dog was a favorite of the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who bought them from the natives and ate upwards of 200 in the course of their trek to the Pacific Ocean. The Corps of Discovery pronounced dog delicious, and a welcome relief from elk. To their credit, however, they never thought of eating Seaman, Meriwether Lewis’s pet Newfoundland. At one point, when Seaman was kidnapped by an Indian tribe, an incensed Lewis sent three armed men to get him back.

Why We Don’t Eat Horses (Most of the Time)

The Seaman story is emblematic of our contradictory relationship with animals as food. Asia, which has a long history of eating dogs, still consumes 13 to 16 million dogs and four million cats each year. The Vietnamese kill and eat some five million dogs annually; and South Korea, whose citizens eat on average 12,000 tons of dog meat per year, is home to the National Dog Restaurant Association, whose mission is to promote the consumption of dog and dog products, among them dog-meat cookies, dog-meat ketchup, and dog-meat hamburger. On the other hand, in areas where pet-owning is on the rise, dog-eating is increasingly controversial. South Koreans these days are adopting dogs as pets, with the result that, according to Herzog, a recent poll showed that 55 percent of respondents now disapprove of eating them.

Eating Dogs

Related Video: In northern Benin, humans revere dogs for their loyalty and bravery, the very qualities people here hope to absorb when they kill and eat the animals. (Warning: Contains graphic images.)

Once you’ve bonded with a companion animal, it’s hard to envision tossing it in the stew pot. In 44 of America’s 50 states, it’s perfectly legal to eat a dog—but nobody does. We’re appalled at the thought. For this same reason, Jonathan Swift never made much headway with “A Modest Proposal” (1729), his satirical suggestion that the Irish solve their hunger problems by eating babies.

A similar cultural taboo applies, at least in some places, to horsemeat. While the English and Americans shy away from horse-eating (hippophagy), the French, Belgians, Italians, and Swedes happily consume horse in everything from horse sausage to horse ragout. Horsemeat became popular in Europe as an alternative food source during the recurrent famines of the 19th century—and even had a brief place on the American table during the meat-deprived years of World War II. The Japanese eat it raw, calling it “cherry blossom meat” for its rich red color.

Horse— if you can get past our socially constrained ick factor—has a lot of nutritional benefits. A serving of horsemeat has fewer calories and less fat than a comparable serving of beef tenderloin; it’s tender and—due to its high concentration of glycogen—it tastes slightly, pleasantly sweet. It makes sense to eat it, but Americans don’t. Psychologists guess that we’re simply too emotionally invested in horses. It just feels wrong to eat Trigger, Black Beauty, or Mr. Ed.

Chowing Down on Farm Animals

On the other hand, the majority of Americans do eat cows, pigs, and chickens. On average, each of us consumes about 200 pounds of meat per year, the result of the slaughter of some 35 million cattle, 116 million pigs, 20 billion chickens, and 270 million turkeys. The bulk of these lead short, miserable lives on factory farms and feedlots, in conditions which—if they were dogs—would land their owners in jail for animal abuse.

Pups Rescued From Dog Meat Farm Need Adoption

Related Video: Watch dogs rescued from a dog meat farm get a new shot at life. Learn about their incredible journey.

When it comes to livestock, however, most of us aren’t emotionally engaged. Cows, pigs, and chickens—despite charming appearances in children’s picture books – ordinarily don’t inspire the kind of love we feel for our cats and dogs. Eating them may engender a certain amount of moral discomfort, but not the squeamish aversion associated with a full-fledged cultural taboo.

Herzog describes our relationship with meat as a “battleground between the mind and the body.” Most of us don’t like the way most of our food animals are raised. At the same time, we evolved from a long line of meat-eaters, and a lot of us simply can’t resist sirloin steak or sizzling bacon. Often our beliefs and our behaviors don’t mesh. Meat-eating is a thorny moral conundrum, and Meriwether Lewis knew it.

“The want of bread I consider as trivial provided I get fat meat,” he wrote in his journal on January 5, 1806, “for as to the species of meat I am not very particular. The flesh of the dog, the horse and the wolf, having from habit become equally familiar with any other, and I have learned to think that if the chord be sufficiently strong, which binds the soul and body together, it does not so much matter about the materials which compose it.”

It makes a lot of sense: what difference does it make what we eat, provided we survive?

But you notice that he wouldn’t eat his dog. He only ate other people’s dogs.