Food Taboos: It's All a Matter Of Taste

April 19, 2004

On TV: Taboo: Delicacies airs Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT in the United States and is available only on the National Geographic Channel.

Fancy a dish of poisonous fugu fish? How about rams' testicle pâté? Sheeps' heads and rotting shark are a particular treat. Or if it's an aphrodisiac one seeks—why not try a carefully prepared bull penis?

All of these foods are delicacies on menus around the world.

Food taboos and delicacies often arise from cultural and religious beliefs; one person's meat is another's poison. The humble hamburger, a mainstay of U.S. cuisine, is a forbidden food for Hindus. Pork is off the menu for many Jews and Muslims. More than 1,400 species of protein-packed insects are part of African, Asian, Australian, and Latin American cuisine, but one would be hard pressed to find these creepy crawlies at a U.S. restaurant (at least intentionally).

Two documentaries airing on the National Geographic Channel this week examine delicacies and taboo foods around the globe, revealing that what's good or bad is all a matter of taste.

"Food is often the subject of taboo or disgust because it is internalized. Any revulsion we have for the food is magnified by the thought it will become part of us," said Carole Counihan, an ethnographer at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Counihan studies the relationship between food, culture, and gender and is author of Around the Tuscan Table: Food, Family, and Gender in Twentieth Century Florence.

In New York rats are considered filthy creatures that consume human garbage, carry disease, and live in the sewers with human waste—eating one would be unthinkable. But in the West African nation of Togo, rats live a more wholesome existence in the forests and are sold in the village markets.

"[West African] rats are more like squirrels or something. They're not in an environment that's sort of filled with human filth," said Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Sheep's Head and Rotting Shark

Food symbolizes many aspects of everyday culture and is a vehicle for social relations.

In February the people of Iceland celebrate an old tradition called Thorrablot—a festival of feasts. The feast is comprised of some unusual delicacies: rams' testicles, sheep's heads, and rotting shark. Although these dishes strike most outsiders as vile, for Icelanders the feasts are potent ways to preserve their Viking heritage.

"The purpose of continuing to eat these foods makes the rituals real and distinguishes the festival culture from everyday life—it reinforces history," said Nan Rothschild, an archaeologist at Barnard College in New York.

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