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Anthropology of Taste

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Our food is safe, and we know it is food. There is no innate need to suspect broccoli or beef tongue. In general, people know that any food in the grocery store, whether they’ ve eaten it previously or not, will not kill them. And yet, Mennell writes ‘ that repugnance towards certain foods is universal, found in all cultures and throughout history’ (Mennell 1986). Why? As intelligent omnivores, wouldn’ t it make more sense to exploit all possible sources of food? Having grown up in a culture, we retain Franz Boas’ s ‘ “ Kulturbrille” , a set of cultural glasses that each of us wears, lenses that provide us with a means for perceiving the world around it, for interpreting the meaning of our social lives, and faming action in them’ (Monaghan 2000).

Therefore, we do not look at our food objectively, but as a cultural construct, with meanings reflecting both our life experiences as well as the history of the culture group in which we were raised. How strong is the power of culture? It can imbue good, nourishing food with such strong negative symbolic value that it becomes anathema, and human beings may willingly starve to death rather than contaminate themselves with it. In an extreme example, we have anorexia, wherein almost any sustenance at all is given a negative connotation.

Today, this ‘ is related to powerful contemporary messages about body image and dieting’ (Brumberg 1999) in our culture. While starving may seem counterintuitive to survival, ‘ Anorexics tend to think about food constantly (some may cook avidly, and feed others), but they hardly eat anything’ (Stacey 1994). The biological ideal that food is necessary for survival remains, but the cultural ideal, ‘ that equates thinness with power, attractiveness, and self-control’ (Stacey 1994) turns food into an obsessive symbol.

Control over eating habits becomes symbolic of a control over the self and reality. In the middle ages, ‘ it was not uncommon for women to fast as a way or proving their religious faith and demonstrating a holiness that could rise above needs of the flesh’ (Stacey 1994).

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