Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Dark Side of Food

One of the most important concepts associated with food is that it is pretty much the only activity that we do daily. There's also shitting but that's the end result of eating.

We eat to live. Literally. Our bodies are just a mechanism by which food gets transformed into fuel for our brain.

Every other activity that we do daily is basically optional but not eating.

There are many consequences to this simple observation. We'll proceed from the relatively trivial to the relatively profound.

No, your mother's version of that dish is not the "best". It's not even "typical". It's probably even shit. Let's start with that.

It's just something you ate on a daily basis and hence established the basis on which you rest your (very shaky) foundation of food. You may even perpetuate that because it's the only thing that you know. If you want to break out of the arbitrariness of your birth, and it is extraordinarily hard to do so, then you must first accept this brutal fact.

Did you notice that the CC referred to your mother's cooking as "shit"?

Notice how the metaphor neatly connects to food. We work symbolically through food. Everything from "no free lunch" to "corny" to "sour grapes" to "dish fit for the gods" — Shakespeare made the last one up as he did also "salad days", "in a pickle" and "the milk of human kindness".

There are literally no languages that don't have wondrous phrases related to food. It's so elemental that it's taken for granted. Everything from "essere buono come il pane" ("to be as good as bread" = "as good as gold") to 羊頭狗肉 ("sheep's head, dog meat" = "false advertising".)

Since eating is literally the only mandatory activity that we do, it goes without surprise that it's the ideal mechanism of enforcing group conformity.

There are absolutely no religions in the world that don't have a mandatory taboo on some form of eating. Judaism has kosher laws, the various religions in India have strange forms of vegetarianism, Christianity imposed rules of eating on Fridays, etc.

Needless to say this is all bullshit. Humans are famously omnivore. What one group eschews another embraces. The Chinese would laugh at the Jews. The meat-eaters mock the vegetarians. Fish on Fridays? Please.

Notice the bullshit metaphor also works via food. The only thing worse than your own shit would be the shit of a bull.

These rules have nothing to do with food and everything to do with enforcing group identity. You define yourself not only by what you are but also but what you are not.

The group identity mechanism works via what the Japanese would call  内外 ("uchi-soto" = "inside-outside"). Follow the food rules and you're an insider. Don't and you will be brutally excommunicated.

Lest you think that this mechanism is "religious" in nature, the CC will be happy to pontificate.

Try arguing barbecue in the US. There's great barbecue everywhere from Virginia to South Carolina to Kentucky to Texas. However, none of these groups agree with each other. Everyone seems to think their own version is the "best" — an entirely laughable notion that any outsider (like the CC!) might care to disabuse them of. They're all great; they are just different.

So you see, your mother's version of that dish is not the "best". It's your own fierce form of enforcing identity. You are sticking by what little you know and even if your mother is a terrific cook, you are trying futilely to convince others that it is food fit for the gods.

The most famous example of this "food as identity" enforcement was the Spanish Reconquista — the re-establishment of Christian rule in Spain. The Arabs and the Jews were forced at sword-point to eat pork in public as proof of their "conversion" to Christianity. The Spanish then took their concept to the Philippines which had no particular ban on pork and hence turned the pig into a newly formed "religion".

The great ramen maker, Momofuku Ando, neatly also turned these religious identity rules to his advantage by casually observing that there was no religion in the world that didn't embrace the chicken. The first ramen noodle flavor was chicken. (He wasn't particularly interested in the vegetarians.)

Which brings us to the fact that vegetarianism is another example of an entirely post-facto-rationalized system erected on extraordinarily shaky foundations.

Humans are omnivorous. We will literally eat anything which you can plainly observe because what one country or ethnic group rejects, another will happily eat. Since they all can't be right and they're all equally human, it stands to reason that they all must be wrong.

Science backs it up in spades. We are omnivorous, and we definitely evolved because of our capacity to eat meat. Arthur Clarke famously points this out in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Kubrick gives this profound notion the utmost respect by filming it most memorably with a magnificent jump-cut.

We even have specialized meat receptors in our stomachs. Evolution at its finest. It gave us a powerful concentrated source of fuel and pushed our brains to much larger sizes.

Is there a point to this depressing discourse which is almost tailor-made to offend just about everyone? Why yes, there most certainly is.

If you really want to get to understand another culture, the ideal mechanism is through its food. Not only will you be wearing a different identity, it will make it far easier to discard your own. Discarding your identity is not for the weak. You will be left adrift and will be forced to fend on your own. The group enforcement mechanism will kick in dressed in full riot gear.

However, it's one of the few ways to throw off the arbitrariness of your birth (which you had no choice over) and get to enter into entirely new mindsets.

When phrased like that, you're looking at the greatest adventure in life. Needless to say, it's highly recommended.

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