Most of us have some aversions to specific foods. Maybe it was something you decided yourself or was taught by your family, culture, or religion, but in general, most people have a list of foods they do not eat and they are called food taboos.
When I decided to study anthropology something I realized immediately is how important food is to everyone around the world, and that we all have a culture around the food we eat, how we eat it, and so forth. I knew that if I were to leave America and travel elsewhere I might be faced with food I normally wouldn’t eat. I always thought to be respectful, I had to accept all food I was offered.
Just a few short years later I would be face to face (pun not intended haha) with cow head tacos and the decision to take a leap of faith or go to sleep hungry. I chose to go to sleep hungry. My aversion to eating eyes, tongue, cheeks, and more of a cow’s head was just too strong. I couldn’t fathom actually putting this in my mouth. I was incredibly embarrassed. The the locals immediately made jokes about the gringa who refused the meat, that she was “too good” for their food. This moment haunted me.
One day I decided I would go back to that taco truck and I would eat the cow tongue tacos. I used some liquid courage to get out of my own head and wow oh wow was I in for a surprise. I didn’t know a tongue could taste SO good.
This was the best thing that could have happened to me.
Firstly, I felt like I passed my anthropologist initiation ritual. I broke my own food taboos to share with the local culture in their customs. But also, I was suddenly out of my own head and able to become adventurous with food which came in handy for the years to come.
It is almost 7 years since I moved away from the US. Seven years of reflecting on new places while redefining what it means to still be American. One of the primary ways to learn about a new culture is through food. Through sharing meals with people from different cultures you will learn these things very quickly. You might learn about who prepares the meals and how? Where did the food come from? How are meals eaten? Does everyone get a fair share? What foods do you never notice at the table and why?
A food taboo is a cultural (“unwritten rule”), religious, or legal (law) prohibition against consuming specific foods. Like most cultural phenomena, food taboos vary around the world.
Food traditions, preferences, and restrictions exist throughout the world. While the Slovenes enjoy a horse burger now and then, an American generally wouldn’t dream of it.
Taboos are defined in various ways. They can be religious dietary restrictions like you find commonly in Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, a moral stance such as vegetarianism or environmentalism, a health stance avoiding processed foods, or even symbolic, evident in the American food taboo against eating eyeballs.
Some food taboos are only taboos during specific times of your life such as during pregnancy, a religious fasting (Lent, Ramadan), or even age or gender-dependent rules, yes I can keep going. Food taboos can help preserve certain resources, keep humans safe in case of food poisoning, and also aid in creating a shared identity.
I personally think that the driving force for the creation of American food taboos was to create a shared cultural identity which was especially important in the early colonial days.* I think that a combination of religious, scientific, moral, symbolic, and cultural identity came together and created a unique set of food taboos. They are unique because many of them you will not find at our southern neighbors in Mexico or with our ancestors in Europe.
The creation of some taboos seem to be a mystery to researchers. Some argue that these rules ensured human survival and others argue they are more arbitrary and in some instances they actually do more harm than good.
*My focus on this argument excludes research into Native American food taboos and their influence on this topic. This is merely a starting point of exploring how European immigrants settling in the early days of colonial America influenced our modern-day conceptions of what is okay to eat and what is not.
Food Taboos Around the World
While I have the opportunity, I wanted to share two food taboos that are found elsewhere to show how two foods commonly eaten by most Americans are taboo for others.
Judaism food taboos, or dietary restrictions, is the perfect example of food taboos because the rules are very specific and involve even the preparation and consumption of certain foods. There are many researchers who write extensively on this topic and much better than myself (Marvin Harris, Mary Douglas, or Christopher Hitchens).
Food that is okay to eat within the confines of Judaism is referred to as kosher and many of these rules are found in the Torah (the religious text of Judaism). For example, one of the most common rules is that if an animal has cloven hooves they should also “chew the cud” to be considered kosher. This means that cows are kosher but pigs are not. Pigs, camels, and hares are seen as “impure” and thus are not eaten.
The cows must endure a ritual slaughter (schochet). This ritual slaughter is meant to involve a painless death, followed by a process to remove the blood and other forbidden parts. Well, that is just not enough because another rule states that now that you have this kosher beef you are not allowed to consume it with dairy (yes, no cheese or bacon on your hamburger!).
Islam also prohibits the consumption of pigs simply stating in the Quran that it is haram (which means forbidden). Seven-day Adventists in America also follow kosher food rules so they also do not consume pork. Even the Ancient Egyptians did not allow the consumption of pork.
As you might already know, vegans abstain from consuming eggs. As well as there being strict rules in Islam and Judaism about which eggs can be eaten (no blood present). In Indonesia, pregnant women are to abstain from eating eggs as they will cause the baby to come late. In Nigeria it is said that if children eat eggs they will become thieves. Even in the US there are guidelines for pregnant women to not eat raw eggs because of salmonella. Many Hindus and Jains (an Indian religious group) also abstain from eating eggs.
American Food Taboos
Defining American food taboos has been difficult. Most writing on this topic is done by anthropologists in other parts of the world. But I did manage to create a list of some that I feel is a good start. This is not to say that every American has these foods taboo. We are a very diverse country with populations from all over the world. With this diversity brings variation, and defining a cohesive identity for a diverse population, well, it isn’t possible. It’s complicated.
Dogs and Cats (and sometimes rabbits!)
This food taboo is probably the most pronounced and practiced. In American culture, dogs and cats are seen as part of the family. We give them cute names, we let them sleep in our beds, and feed them our same food. Eating either of these creatures is most often not something an American would do.
On the other hand, in more places than one would think, it is socially and culturally acceptable to eat dogs or cats. Dog meat is consumed in Korea, Vietnam, China, Nigeria, Taiwan, parts of India (although illegal), some regions of Indonesia, and Thailand. Cats are eaten in some regions of China, Korea, Vietnam, Australia, and have been documented being consumed in parts of Europe during wartime.
If you examine European consumption of dogs you will see that for some countries it was deemed appropriate, especially during times of famine or war. For example, dog meat in Germany was very common even in the 20th century until it was banned in 1986.
There is a battle between whether cats and dogs are just pets or are they food. For Americans, I think it is quite simple. Cats and dogs are part of our family. We would not eat grandma so we are not too keen on eating Fluffy either.
I personally have never broken this food taboo, but I have also never been presented either as a dish. Would you eat either if you traveled to a country where it was the norm?
Rabbits are included on this list in spite of being a very standard food source for some. I think this comes down to personal preference. I didn’t even realize that rabbits were an American food taboo until I ate a very delicious one while living in Italy, and saw people’s reactions when I shared this information with them.
Horse meat is commonly eaten in places such as Kazakhstan, Italy, Belgium, Japan, Sweden, France, Germany, and Slovenia to name a few. It is forbidden in Judaism and some sects of Christianity.
Americans are not as interested in eating horse as their European counterparts. While it is only illegal in a couple of states, the last slaughterhouse used for horse meat closed in 2007. If you ask most Americans about eating horse they will respond quite disgusted, similarly to their British counterparts.
There are many arguments as to why horse meat became taboo for Americans. Some say that it was frowned upon by the Roman Catholic Church, while others say it is cheaper and more efficient to eat beef. I think by the time immigrants began to arrive in America that the horse was very valuable and became even more important than a pet as it was labor. Through this relationship and lacking the history of eating horse, (Native Americans also did not eat horse) Americans began to look to the meat with discomfort.
Insects are probably one of the most common food taboo for Americans. We are so opposed to eating them that we had shows like Fear Factor where you can win money just by eating them. You can go on YouTube and find endless videos of people eating insects, among other taboo foods, and just browse the comments to see the reactions of people.
For many other cultures eating insects is normal. It is estimated that 80% of the world eats bugs! Insects offer carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. In some areas of the world there is a lot of research around bugs as an alternative source of sustenance for humans.
I think of all of the taboos on the list this is my personal hard no. I’ve thought about it so many times and I just can’t bring myself to overcome that mental hurdle. I’d actually love to hear about others’ experiences trying insects in the comments!
Blood is one of my favorite food taboos. I find it fascinating how some cultures embrace and indulge in blood-based food and how others strictly prohibit it for religious and/or symbolic reasons. Blood is forbidden in Islam, Judaism, Greek Orthodox, and can be found in Christian texts, but it is not followed as strictly.
In other cultures, foods such as blood sausage, soup, and pancakes are commonly consumed. Blood can be used as a thickener in soups or even consumed raw in some instances. Blood sausage is actually quite popular around Europe especially as part of breakfast in the United Kingdom and Ireland (black or white pudding) and even in Slovenia as krvavica.
I was never brought up being told explicitly not to eat blood or blood-based foods but I always got the feeling that it was taboo. The first time that I recall indulging in blood sausage was via black pudding while living in northern England. I tried it but didn’t love it so I thought blood is not for me. Years later living in Slovenia, I actually really enjoy krvavica (blood sausage). When I mention this to friends or family back home they are often disgusted.
Offal is the interior organs of an animal and can include the liver, kidneys, brains, stomach, intestines, etc. Consuming organ meats in the US is not very common and exists usually as part of a regional dish (scrapple, menudo, Rocky Mountain oysters…) or if it’s liver or intestines for sausage casing.
Across Europe, offal is far more standard and can be found easily in grocery stores or on restaurant menus. This is probably the food taboo I have broken the most. After my initiation to cow tongue tacos I became more adventurous and would go on to try lamb brains and sautéed calf intestines in Italy, and haggis in Scotland. Also a kidney pie in England that I thought would be kidney beans but turned up to be a meat pie full of cut in half kidneys (yes imagine my horror!).
Eyes are considered offal but I want to list them separately. Eyes are very symbolic in American culture as we believe this is how you see “into someone’s soul”. Walking through an American grocery store you won’t see many sets of eyes in the meat or fish department. We prefer our food served without the head attached.
This was something I definitely needed to get over very quickly living in various countries around Europe and eyes were offered to me once, but I declined. I’m not bothered by having my fish or shrimp look at me as I am eating them but actually eating them is a different story and probably a food taboo I will keep.
Eating monkeys is very taboo in western culture and especially for Americans. I remember living in London and hearing about a black market of monkey meat and I would later learn also exists within the US. Many countries actually still consume monkeys including Liberia, Republic of Congo, Mexico, Cambodia, China, to name a few.
Boneless, Skinless, and Seedless
There is one thing that Americans seem to love and that is to have their meat boneless and skinless and their fruit seedless. In any store or restaurant, you will be (most likely) served your meat with no bones and no skin. Of course, exceptions exist like chicken wings, fried chicken, or ribs, but the stark difference between America and European countries is clear immediately.
My semi-embarrassing story about this is while I was living in Italy I was given grapes one day. I bit into the grape and immediately hit something hard that once it cracked open began to fill my mouth with a very bitter taste. I spit everything out and said, “there’s something in my grape”. Everyone laughed and explain it was a seed. I never had grapes with seeds in my entire life. I didn’t even know what they tasted like. This was a personal revelation in understanding my foodways and how they shaped my view of the world and food.
I have barely scratched the surface of food taboos. They expand to food taboos for children or pregnant women, rodents, raw meat, endangered animals, social classes, environmental or animal cruelty, etc. and probably a lot more. But I did want to open up a discussion about them and to hear how others feel about these unwritten cultural rules and their experiences with facing them.
How were American food taboos created?
Here is where I became very interested in this topic. How were American food taboos created? There is not a single answer, obviously. But I looked to academic research on the topic to try and learn more.
Jean Soler (2013) investigated the dietary restrictions of Ancient Hebrews to try and understand the basis of modern-day Judaism food taboos. Many have argued in the past that these rules were a reflection of the environment or because of the transmission of parasitic diseases, but Soler comes to different hypothesis; She suggests that these restrictions were designed to create a common identity for the soon to be Israelis. That these rules united Semitic tribes after their exodus from Egypt.
Defining yourself through the exclusion of foods is a very quick and easy way to create an identity (see: vegetarians or vegans). I think that the need to quickly create an American identity became so important to the early immigrants that these taboos developed.
There is another aspect of American dietary habits that I think was very influential in shaping many habits, fads, or taboos we see today. This began in the 16th century when noble, Florentin Thierriat, wrote that eating certain foods gave “[us] a more supple intelligence and sensibility” (Grieco 2013:307) this idea that food made us moral is very fascinating because it comes up again in the 1830s and ’40s in America.
A Protestant preacher, William Sylvester Graham (yes, namesake of graham crackers) argued that we should strive for moral purity through our food. At this time alcohol and meat were the core of American cuisine, and with a cholera pandemic in Europe, Graham promoted vegetarianism as a way to survive illness, to be healthy and moral. Graham used science, nature, and religion to support his arguments which were very popular with the people at that time (Levenstein 2013).
This obsession with being pure and moral through what we eat is evident today. Many of the food movements and fads that hit America have to do with eating “clean”, unprocessed (Graham was suspicious of any food that was altered from its natural condition), without gluten or sugar or meat, it is tireless to say the least. Many of these health fads sell Americans this idea that their life will be better if they eat these specific things, that it is the right thing to do.
These two ideas; creating a cohesive cultural identity and eating morally (and scientifically) would define American cuisine. The Industrial Revolution would set it on the path that we see today; lots of processed foods, frozen dinners, quick small lunches, skinless meat, seedless fruits, etc. and today we are seeing a push back to this via the farm to table movements. You can even make the argument that this is a call for returning to our roots.
This cultural identity as you can see is very complex. There are differences between the food consumed by the working class, middle class, and upper class. But food taboos oftentimes seem to transcend class, race, and gender and this is what unites us and others the rest.
Overcoming My Food Taboos
People have a need to show who they are through which products they are consuming and those they deem taboo; that our food defines us and our Americaness. This became very clear to me the day I tried a horse steak while living in Italy. It was delicious. I still dream about it to this day. I remember vividly, calling my parents and telling them about this horse I had and how it was so good. My mother immediately said how terrible it was that I ate a horse and that she was upset.
Since then I have shocked many with my openness to break American food taboos. But this doesn’t mean I am willing to break all of them. This reminds me of a chapter written by Miriam Chaiken called “No Heads, No Feet, No Monkeys, No Dogs” where she is faced with her own taboos abroad and how she decided to either indulge or resist. As a westerner, and especially as an anthropologist, you are taught to be respectful of the places you go and to not reject food offered to you. Well, sometimes that food might just hit your very personal and very strongly believed food taboos. I don’t think that I will ever try eyeballs or insects but I also don’t know what opportunities the world might bring me!
I am exploring what it means to be an American by exploring other cultures. The more I learn about new places, new dishes, new languages, the more I see what it means to be American and the more important it is to me. This sounds like I am experiencing some severe cognitive dissonance but through overcoming these food taboos I experience what it really means to break the unwritten rules.
It is probably not very common to sit home and think about food taboos and how it creates an American identity or at least contribute towards it but personally, as someone who has lived abroad for a very long time, I’m always questioning these ideas.
At this point of my life, I am glued together bits of everywhere I’ve lived. Even when I speak people do not recognize that I am American until I tell them. But also I became more proud of my American heritage. So why was I so eager to break these cultural food rules that unite us as one? Was I that anxious to be “just like a local” in my new homes? Or have I simply become more adventurous and open-minded about food all thanks to that delicious cow tongue tacos that showed me I have been missing out.
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The more I write about food and culture the more I find myself. I know this article was much longer and far more in-depth than it could have been but anyone can write a short list of food taboos and it’s been done before. I’d love to hear about your experiences with food taboos, please leave your ideas in the comments or even shoot me an email! Thank you for take the time to read this article and please share if you found it interesting. -Helene
Sources available online have been linked above but for those sited in text with the author can be found below.
Chaiken, Miriam. 2010 No Heads, No Feet, No Monkeys, No Dogs: The Evolution of Personal Food Taboos In Adventures in Eating: Anthropological Experiences in Dining From Around the World. Helen R. Haines and Clare A. Sammells, eds. Pp. Boulder: University Press of Colorado
Douglas, Mary. 1966 Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger.
Grieco, Allen J. 2013 Food and Social Classes in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy In Food: A Culinary History. Jean-Louis Flanderin and Massimo Montanari, eds. Pp. 302-312. New York: Columbia University Press.
Harris, Marvin. 1987 The Sacred Cow and The Abominable Pig: Riddles of Food and Culture. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Levenstein, Harvey A. 2013 The Perils of Abundance: Food, Health, and Morality in American History In Food: A Culinary History. Jean-Louis Flanderin and Massimo Montanari, eds. Pp. 516-529. New York: Columbia University Press.
Montanari, Massimo . 2013 Food Models and Cultural Identity In Food: A Culinary History. Jean-Louis Flanderin and Massimo Montanari, eds. Pp. 189-193. New York: Columbia University Press.
Soler, Jean. 2013 The Dietary Rules of the Ancient Hebrews In Food: A Culinary History. Jean-Louis Flanderin and Massimo Montanari, eds. Pp. 46-54. New York: Columbia University Press.