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Book Review : More Food for Thought

April 08, 1986|MARY DOUGLAS | Douglas is a visiting professor at Princeton University. Her most recent book is "Food and Social Order" (Russell Sage Foundation). and

Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture by Marvin Harris (Simon & Schuster: $17.95)

All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France From the Middle Ages to the Present by Stephen Mennell (Oxford: $24.95)

Stephen Mennell's book, "All Manners of Food," is about the history of eating habits in England and France over the last 500 years. Marvin Harris' "Good to Eat" ransacks the whole globe from prehistoric to present times to build an argument about edibility. In "Good to Eat," he opposes a "good to think" faction, which holds that food aversions depend on superstitions or symbolic associations that have nothing to do with biology and economics. Mennell is more interested in how people eat and less concerned with what foods they choose.

"All Manners of Food" is a useful check on discussions of what came first or of the connection between taste and social influences. For example, for anyone who thought that the French restaurant business emerged when the chefs of exiled nobility set up on their own account, it appears that Paris restaurants and English taverns ante-date the French Revolution. Following Norbert Elias, the author believes that in Europe the increase through the last five centuries of security and personal control has led food habits away from gross oscillations between orgy and fast to more regular and more abstemious habits.

This would contradict facts in the rest of the world where insecurity often goes with extreme fastidiousness. If Elias' dubious idea really does hold good for Europe, this gentle, meandering history does not provide the evidence.

Harris presents a thesis that he has been arguing for many years. Ecological constraints and opportunities together with human physiology account for which animals are judged edible at any particular time. Witty and cogent, the book is packed with surprises. It starts with physiology and digestive processes. Humans, like monkeys, chimpanzees and baboons, are by nature carnivorous; animal protein is more nutritious and helps tissue growth.

If any animal gets struck off the diet sheet, Harris assumes that it must be for a good ecological or economic reason. Any animal that is an efficient converter of plant foods into protein will be likely to end in the cooking pot, unless it is very costly to get, and specially if it competes with humans for scarce resources. When the ecological balance changes, edibility judgments get revised. Dog is judged bad to eat wherever it is useful for porterage or for hunting other meat supplies, as in North America and Greenland; it is judged good to eat in dense, meat-hungry countries that have no larger game to hunt, as in China and New Guinea.

Harris says nothing about why Hindus do not eat dog, but a lot about why the cow is forbidden food in India, for cost-effective reasons. The Indian breed of hardy zebu cattle does not demand pasture land; living off roadside weeds and stubble, it provides milk, butter and curds, and dung for fuel, draws the plow and when it falls down dead outcastes can eat it: To butcher it would be uneconomic.

Christianity used to forbid the eating of horseflesh. Since 1000 BC the judgment on the edibility of horses has swung back and forth according to how useful they are as mounts for travel or warfare. Americans have not always been hearty beef eaters and beef is not healthier food than pork, but beef has won out in the last 20 years on cost-effective grounds; anthrax from beef is more lethal than trichinosis from pork: The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not inspect pork for trichina parasites, and 4% of Americans have trichina worms in their muscles and mistake their trichinosis flare-ups for flu.

But Harris plays a hand that cannot lose. If the local food rules seem to go against the ecological balance, he hints that such a situation will not last.

It is mean to reproach a book that is such fun to read for trying to explain too much. Part of the fun is watching Harris adopting "good to think" arguments when his case looks shaky.

Nonetheless, this is a splendid book to give to your vegetarian aunt who wants you to give up meat-eating or to put in the hands of your doctor or dentist or anyone who tells you what is natural food for humans, and it is good food for anthropologists to think with, too.

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