This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Why These Animals?, first released on September 25, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
SOLEIL HO: Well, basically I got this question a lot when I was a kid and I didn’t really understand why people thought this. That they thought that it was something to ask me in particular. I just had no idea. Because we never even talked about eating dog at home so I didn’t—you know, I didn’t know.
NICOLA TWILLEY: That was Soleil Ho and she is talking about something that many of you will find sort of horrifying: eating dog.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Soleil grew up in Chicago and New York. Her family is Vietnamese. And as a kid she had no idea that people ate dog—her family didn’t, they never talked about it—and so when people asked her if her family ate dog, she was totally flummoxed.
TWILLEY: But today, she knows that some people do eat dog. And she also knows something more about why people asked her that question all the time—and what it means to answer it yes or no.
HO: Asian people, especially in the diasporas, we tend to just say no as a blanket statement, even though like we know that there are people in a lot of our countries who do eat dog. But it’s just so much simpler to say no.
GRABER: We are not going to be spending this whole episode on this question of whether or not it’s OK to eat dog, but it does raise an interesting bigger picture question: Why do we eat the animals we do eat?
TWILLEY: Or, more to the point, why don’t we eat all the animals we don’t eat.
GRABER: We, by the way—we’re Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, we are exploring how we chose which animal is for dinner—at least for those of us who eat animals. Horse? Rabbit? Guinea pig?
GRABER: Even hippopotamus. We’ll dig into it all.
GRABER: So there are a few things to figure out before we tackle the question of why we do or don’t eat specific animals. First of all, how many species are actually edible?
TWILLEY: To answer that, we called Hal Herzog. He’s a psychologist and the author of the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals.
HAL HERZOG: My inclination would be to say that nearly all animals are edible. I’m sure there are some that are not, but if you actually look at the number of types of animals that people have eaten it’s absolutely extraordinary. All the way from flamingos to crayfish to a meal that I had not too long ago which included jellyfish. So there’s an enormous variety of animals that we could potentially eat.
TWILLEY: But… we mostly don’t.
HERZOG: At least on a regular basis, we don’t eat even a small fraction of those animals.
PAUL ROZIN: We eat very few animals.
GRABER: Paul Rozin is a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
ROZIN: So we in the United States eat beef, cow, pig, and lamb. That’s about it from mammals.
TWILLEY: That’s three mammals out of about 4,000 different species.
ROZIN: That’s essentially zero, right.
GRABER: We eat chicken and turkey—that’s two birds out of thousands of bird species.
ROZIN: We don’t eat any amphibians. We don’t eat any reptiles. We eat a range of fish—maybe, I don’t know, 10 or 20 species out of thousands. We eat a few kinds of shellfish. We eat basically none of the animals that are around.
GRABER: Yes, we know, some of you listening do eat other species than the ones that Paul just listed. But these are the only animals that most people in the U.S. eat.
TWILLEY: So these few animals that we do eat—it actually seems like they’re kind of the special ones. But what’s so special about them? How did they get to be the ones we eat?
GRABER: Well, it could be that this makes sense rationally. We’ve chosen these animals because they’re the best food animals around—these are the ones we’ve chosen to domesticate.
TWILLEY: This is actually a well-known theory. It goes like this: there are something like half a dozen basic criteria that an animal has to fulfill to be a good candidate for domestication. It has to not be a picky eater, it has to breed at a young age and in captivity, it has to be docile and not skittish by nature, and it has to have a social hierarchy so that it can recognize humans as the boss.
GRABER: This is the theory—that cows and sheep and chickens met all of these criteria, and these were the ones that could be domesticated.
TWILLEY: So they were the candidates for dinner. And that’s why our ancestors were motivated to domesticate them.
GREGER LARSON: You know the question is always why did we domesticate the chicken or why did we domesticate cows. And the obvious answer to start is like, well, we clearly wanted—we were hunting them because we wanted to eat them and then we started domesticating them because we want to eat more of them.
GRABER: Greger Larson studies domestication—he’s a professor of evolutionary genomics at Oxford University.
TWILLEY: And so, as Greger explained, that’s the theory on why we we eat the animals we eat: we liked how their wild ancestors tasted, they fulfilled these half dozen criteria for domestication, end of story.
GRABER: For those of you who listen to Gastropod regularly, it might not surprise that we are now going to poke holes in this theory.
TWILLEY: Because that theory rests on an assumption.
GREGER LARSON: About the nature of our relationship between humans and animals and that because we eat them now, that means that’s why they came into a domesticated relationship with us.
GRABER: Greger and his colleague Naomi Sykes—she’s a professor of archaeology at the University of Exeter—they’ve been working together to try to test that assumption and tease out why we did in fact domesticate different species–the species we now eat with such abandon. Like chicken.
TWILLEY: Because they’re not convinced it was for food.
NAOMI SYKES: So in terms of the chicken for instance, because we eat chickens now, that’s all they’re for, right? Is for food—for meat and for eggs. The assumption is that that’s always what they’ve been used for. And all of the evidence that we’ve got at the moment suggests that’s not the case at all. Chickens were not domesticated for food. All the evidence that we have suggests that really they were domesticated for things like cockfighting and for divination and not for food at all.
GRABER: Greger and Naomi pointed out that to our ancient ancestors, animals were often representative of gods. We sacrificed animals to gods, animals embodied gods.
TWILLEY: Early humans painted animals, we sculpted animals. Especially the ones that we came into most contact with.
SYKES: Initially, when they first have a really close relationship with people, they’re seen as very, very special. So the last thing you’re going to do is want to eat it. You’re going to want to look at it and be amazed by it.
GRABER: So these animals might have looked special and amazing and worthy of a painting or worthy of being sacrificed. But they didn’t necessarily look like the best source of food.
LARSON: The initial chickens that were being brought into first the Levant and then into Europe and then into Britain were much scrawnier, and the amount of effort it would have taken to kill one and then de-feather it and then eviscerate it in order—it would just, it would have taken way too much time. The chickens that were running around then bear no relationship to the chickens we’re used to now. And there would have been much less incentive to eat them on the kind of scale that we’re used to.
TWILLEY: Greger says it’s a mistake to look at a meaty chicken today and assume that our ancestors could somehow imagine that the scrawny colorful birds they were interacting with could one day, with a few thousand years of selection, turn into that. He calls it a ‘presentist fallacy.’
LARSON: I mean how could you possibly know that what you were—how you were integrating and interacting with an animal would somehow lead to modern-day chickens. This is all accidents, it’s happenstance, it’s shifts in that selection pressure.
GRABER: Naomi says this chicken story is representative of domestication in general.
SYKES: In fact, the more we look into domestic animals, the more we find that actually these animals are never domesticated for food. That’s just something that we project onto the past because all we do is eat animals for meat. Whereas sheep, pigs—I don’t buy that any of them were domesticated just for food.
TWILLEY: Naomi’s mythbusting doesn’t stop there. It’s not just that these animals weren’t domesticated for food—it’s that domestication, as an intentional, human-led process, is also kind of a myth.
SYKES: I think that rather than just domesticating animals for food, we fed the animals and they started hanging out with us.
GRABER: So it wasn’t that they were providing food for us—we were providing food for them.
SYKES: You know, the sign ‘Do not feed the animals’ is there for a reason and it’s because we cannot stop ourselves feeding animals. It makes you feel that all is right with the world. And rather than actually latching onto these animals as a cheap source of protein, I think it’s the other way around—I think they come close to us.
TWILLEY: This theory is, to be clear, still a theory—Greger actually doesn’t think it’s the whole picture. Still, Naomi and Greger are collaborating to try to trace these more complex, surprising stories of our shifting relationship with animals.
GRABER: They’re using ancient bones and studying the types of cut marks on the bones. They’re looking at the ways that genes change over time and when traits associated with newly domesticated animals emerge.
TWILLEY: They look at iconography, and they also find clues buried in language.
LARSON: Male, female, juveniles, adults—we often use different words to describe this, whether it’s food or whether it’s hunted or whether it’s found in certain places and times. And so that record is a nice, almost kind of like an archaeological record but in the language, to see how people’s relationship with those animals are changing as well. So, by looking at all of those different scales through time and space and combining all of that data together, starts to give us an appreciation for that changing relationship.
TWILLEY: So Greger and Naomi are busy using all these tools to disprove our initial hypothesis about why we eat the animals we eat—that those are the ones we chose to domesticate because they tasted good and they fulfilled the criteria for domestication.
GRABER: So Greger and Naomi don’t think that we domesticated those particular animals because we wanted to eat them—but they also don’t even believe in those six criteria for domestication that Nicky laid out. Like that the animal has to be docile and reproduce in captivity and has to have a hierarchy to recognize us as boss, and so on. They think that maybe almost any animal could be domesticated under the right circumstances.
SYKES: So, the big argument has been you cannot domesticate gazelle, right. Gazelle are not predisposed to domestication.
TWILLEY: But Naomi told us there are communities in India that have pretty much domesticated the gazelle. They are close with them.
SYKES: So I think that any animal can be domesticated. It depends upon the relationship.
GRABER: But for the animals that we did domesticate and now eat in large numbers, Greger and Naomi are trying to figure out when that relationship changed. Like with chickens. When did we start eating them?
TWILLEY: At first, like Naomi said, our ancestors were marveling at these jungle fowls’ gorgeous feathers and using them for all kinds of spiritual rituals.
GRABER: And we’re feeding them and protecting them and making them feel super doted on.
TWILLEY: And all this love and attention means that what started out as just a few special birds eventually becomes a crowd.
SYKES: When they start to then breed and you get more of them, perhaps people might start thinking, oh, these numbers are quite high. And then maybe somebody eats one and then decides that it’s quite tasty. And then if there are enough of them around they lose their special status. And that’s when they become more food. So it’s about population density and sort of like familiarity breeding contempt really.
LARSON: So it’s the last step that you can have, is when you can start eating something, because now it’s kind of irrelevant.
GRABER: I have to say, this whole story was kind of shocking to me. We originally developed a close relationship with chickens because we thought they were maybe a link to the divine, and then only later we thought about nuggets?
TWILLEY: Nuggets are a presentist fallacy, Cynthia.
GRABER: As it turns out, our ancestors weren’t being remotely logical about this whole animals-for-food process. If they were, maybe they’d have chosen insects to farm instead.
TWILLEY: After all, insects have a lot going for them. They’re high in protein. Paul Rozin seems to think they taste good.
ROZIN: They’re not as good as steak but they’re pretty good. And they are very sustainable. Very easy to breed. They don’t take up much space.
GRABER: They’re even easy to slaughter.
ROZIN: And also you can just cool them. You know, they just go into torpor. So this is a torpor they don’t come out of. So they’re very efficient, they’re very good nutrition, they have animal protein.
TWILLEY: Farming insects would have been a much more rational choice than cows in a lot of ways. And it’s not even as though our ancestors just decided to ignore all those other factors—the nutrition, the sustainability, the yield, the ease of slaughter—in favor of just choosing the most tasty animals.
HERZOG: Deliciousness is a tough one. I don’t have a real good answer to that.
GRABER: I mean, are we positive that cows are among the three most delicious mammals in the world?
TWILLEY: We are not.
GRABER: In fact, Hal says that there was someone in the 1800s who dedicated himself to cataloguing all the animals that humans have found delicious throughout history and around the world. There were, unsurprisingly, far more than we eat today.
HERZOG: It’s a lovely little book published in 1859 called The Curiosities of Food: Or the Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained from the Animal Kingdom, written by Peter Lund Simmons. It’s quite an extraordinary book. It’s a catalogue of creatures that were eaten in different times in different countries. And we’re talking all the way from elephant toes to flamingo tongues and everything in between, including the myriad types of beetles and bugs, spiders, bats, aardvarks, virtually everything.
TWILLEY: Take those elephant toes, for example—Peter Lund Simmonds says they are a decadent luxury, especially when pickled in vinegar with cayenne. Or the blue-colored flesh of the toucan—apparently a most delicious morsel. Or how about the flesh of the manatee—white and delicate, with fat that tastes like sweet almonds.
GRABER: I have to admit I’m getting a little uncomfortable here. I am feeling really unsettled about the idea of eating elephants and manatees.
TWILLEY: Even Peter Lund Simmonds was a little uncomfortable with the concept of eating a manatee—he said that it’s hard to eat an animal that cuddles its young, like a manatee does.
GRABER: But this goes back to the main question we’re trying to get to the heart of. Why do we avoid eating certain animals? Why am I so uncomfortable with the idea of elephants and manatees as food?
TWILLEY: I am too, and I think it has to do with the fact that I know elephants are pretty smart, and they have super cool matriarchal societies, and they seem a little like us. That’s probably what was so disconcerting to Peter Lund Simmonds about manatees cuddling their young too. It seems almost human.
HERZOG: So clearly the more more closely you know species is related to us, you know—it is a factor in how we treat it, but it’s not the only factor. And certainly we think in our culture that the idea of eating, you know, a chimpanzee is horrifying, because it’s so similar to us. Where in other cultures they don’t think that way at all.
GRABER: Right, plenty of cultures do eat animals like chimpanzees and other apes. So it’s not a given that we avoid animals that are like us, or that are smart. We in the West say we don’t eat dogs because they’re smart, but what about pigs?
TWILLEY: The current thinking is that pigs have the intelligence of a three-year-old human, which is more than dogs. And what about octopus—I’ve seen video of them solving a Rubik’s Cube, which is something I have never been able to do myself. But I eat both pigs and octopus. So clearly a creature’s IQ is not the deciding factor for whether it’s edible.
GRABER: One of the things that occurred to me when I was trying to figure out why eating a manatee made me uncomfortable is maybe because it’s cute, as it’s cuddling its baby? And baby elephants are definitely adorable.
TWILLEY: I think grown-up elephants are quite cute too.
HERZOG: One of the biggest factors in terms of how do we categorize animals is how cute they are. And so for animals that have big eyes, you know, we think of as being basically like us in some ways because they trigger a very human instinct, the maternal instinct. It’s that big eyes are characteristic of human babies.
GRABER: But that said, have you seen a lamb? They’re adorable. I think cows are pretty cute, too.
TWILLEY: Or piglets! Piglets are cute and smart!
GRABER: Some people love to pet goats, and many people—myself included—love to eat them. So we don’t choose animals to eat based on how cute they are. Or how smart they are.
TWILLEY: But are there other reasons we might choose not to eat an animal. Like maybe we avoid ones that look gross? Because, in theory, if we Westerners were avoiding eating cute animals—which already seems kind of like it’s not true. But if it was, then maybe logically we should be huffing down their less attractive colleagues. Like worms or slugs.
GRABER: And I think we all know that Western eaters are not running to the nearest worm or slug farm to pick up dinner. In fact, Hal thinks ugliness makes Americans view animals as inedible.
HERZOG: I think that sliminess is certainly one of those factors—an alien appearance. And too many legs is definitely a factor.
HERZOG: Not enough legs is also a problem. And one of the most feared animals, of course, snakes—they in some ways have a space alien quality almost by not having any legs at all.
GRABER: So maybe there is something to this theory that we avoid certain animals just basically because they’re revolting to us—they’re disgusting.
TWILLEY: But what makes an animal disgusting?
ROZIN: It’s actually hard to define disgust. Disgust is thought of as an emotion. It’s a sort of a set of feelings and expressions and actions. The feeling is a sort of a revulsion, a little bit of nausea. The action is usually to withdraw.
TWILLEY: Paul Rozin is a world expert in disgust.
ROZIN: Well in English, not at all languages—in English it means bad taste. Dis is bad and gust is taste. And in some other languages it has that origin. And I believe and many people believe that it originates as a ‘get this out of my mouth.’
GRABER: That’s the literal and probably original meaning of the world. But disgust has gotten broader than that.
ROZIN: Because things that are often bad tasting, like say if you don’t like broccoli, or you don’t like beer, you don’t usually say they’re disgusting. You just say they taste bad. Whereas earthworms you’d say that’s disgusting. And you don’t even know if they taste bad, right, because you’ve never had them. So, disgust is built on this system that is the bad taste system. But it becomes independent of that. It’s a different kind of reaction.
TWILLEY: Paul gave us an example of this expanded meaning of disgust.
ROZIN: Nazis are disgusting. That’s something most people would say. But you’re not thinking of eating them. You’re just thinking of having anything to do with them. So it becomes generalized as we grow up from get this out of my mouth to get this out of my world—or, I sometimes say, get this out of my soul.
GRABER: And so now when we say a particular animal is disgusting, like Paul said, we usually don’t mean that it simply tastes bad. Like the earthworm example.
TWILLEY: Right—I don’t even know what an earthworm tastes like. Although I did make my brother eat one as a kid.
GRABER: And you did that because you thought it was disgusting, even though you’d never eaten it.
ROZIN: It’s a reaction to a food not because of its sensory properties as much as because of what it really is. What its nature is.
TWILLEY: And it turns out that there is a tiny shred of emotional logic to the idea that we shouldn’t eat animals that we find disgusting. Because disgust is tied to our biggest fear.
ROZIN: We say that there are other things that are biological things that somehow reminds us that we are animals, that—what properties we share with animals. So for example we share our guts with animals, our insides. And the feature that we share with animals that’s most concerning to us is death. Animals die and we die.
GRABER: Paul and his colleagues—their theory is that looking at a body part that’s recognizable at the dinner table—a heart, or a liver—maybe deep down, it triggers thoughts about our own mortality, and really, who wants to think about their mortality at the dinner table.
TWILLEY: That’s understandable at least. But, honestly, for the most part our disgust reaction—it isn’t logical and it isn’t really understandable
ROZIN: Disgust is an emotional response and it can clearly be irrational. So, for example, if you ask people why they won’t drink their favorite juice, if we drop a cockroach in—a dead cockroach in it and take it out quickly. They say I won’t drink that juice anymore. And we say why not? And they say usually, well, you know, cockroaches are disease vectors. I don’t know where the cockroach has been. I could get sick. And we say, OK, we’ll do it again with a sterilized cockroach. This cockroach is safer than your fork. OK, we drop it and take it out and ‘Ugh, I don’t want it.’ So in that sense it’s irrational, in the sense that there’s no danger associated with the sterilized cockroach.
GRABER: Bugs have become something that we think are just disgusting—that bigger meaning of disgusting. They’re intrinsically somehow bad and gross.
TWILLEY: And thus they pollute everything they touch.
GRABER: I know my discomfort with eating bugs isn’t logical, because I eat lobsters, and they’re basically just big bugs.
HERZOG: This gets to a really interesting issue that has to do with our relationship with the animals generally, and about human thinking generally. And it’s the question of how much our thinking is rational, as opposed to how much is is emotional and based on basically just what we might call gut feel.
TWILLEY: Frankly, so far this episode, the evidence is mounting that how we chose which animals to eat is not logical at all.
GRABER: And it’s not fixed forever, either. You can change what you eat, you can move a food from disgusting to not disgusting! It’s not easy, but it’s happened—even with animals people love, like horses and dogs.
HERZOG: What we perceive is tasty can can change quite dramatically. And sometimes fairly quickly.
GRABER: Hal has one example of a food that made a rather quick flip from disgusting to delicious in the West.
HERZOG: So for example when I was a kid, the idea of eating raw fish would just seem absolutely disgusting. And I never would have foreseen the idea that sushi would be one of the absolute delicacies on the menu at high-end restaurants. So eating raw fish to me is a real interesting example of a type of animal flesh that at one point is seen as being just repulsive, can become because of cultural change to be seen as a delicacy.
GRABER: Although my mom still thinks sushi is disgusting.
TWILLEY: Paul says this sushi example is actually a great demonstration of one of the most effective ways to make inedible flesh seem edible:
ROZIN: Basically if the people around you like it, if the people you respect like it, your heroes like it—that’s a good way to get to like it. And that’s what a lot of advertising is about, showing desirable people enjoying something.
GRABER: Sushi is one example of elites influencing what everyone else eat—and we have another fun one that’s too complicated to include in the episode, but we’ve saved it for our special supporter email!
TWILLEY: But there are other motivations that can pretty effectively make inedible animals look kind of tasty. It’s not all about keeping up with the Kardashians.
ROZIN: If you’re short of food, you’ll expand the number of foods you’re interested in. Including eating things that are at least mildly disgusting.
TWILLEY: This is something you see during famines and siege situations. But this short-term desperation can create long-term change.
GRABER: Naomi told us about her research into the history of horse meat as food. Horse is an animal that has flipped at least twice.
SYKES: So in Kazakhstan, where the horses were domesticated, they were definitely food. And actually throughout most of time wherever you have horses they are food. And in Britain they were food for a really long time. So this is again another project that we’re working on at the moment is looking at that shift. When did horses not become food? And again this goes back to religious beliefs. So it’s a Papal Edict. It’s an 8th-century law where they say actually, OK, guys we’re trying to convert everyone to Christianity and a good Christian person does not eat horse, so could we just snuff that out? And in fact everybody did stop eating horses, including the French.
GRABER: So nobody’s eating horses. They’ve been transformed in Europe from food to non-food, from delicious to something that would be disgusting to eat.
TWILLEY: But then in the late 1800s, there was a movement to re-introduce horse as food in Europe and America.
HARRIET RITVO: There were a lot of horses around, of course. They provided most of the transportation. And people thought it would be a cheap and available source of protein especially for the working classes
GRABER: Harriet Ritvo is a professor of history at MIT and she’s written extensively about human-animal relationships.
RITVO: I mean you know in extremis of course people do eat horses. I think as part of the response to rationing in the Second World War, the Harvard Faculty Club put horse meat on the menu. And when I was an undergraduate—much later I hasten to say—but when I was a senior my tutor as a reward for—I don’t know what, maybe my finishing my thesis or something. Anyway, he took me to lunch at the Faculty Club. And, decades later horse meat was still on the menu, although it has disappeared subsequently. And he encouraged me to order it. So I did.
TWILLEY: Just for the record, Harriet’s not a fan. But apart from the rarefied atmosphere of the Harvard Faculty Club, or during the shortages of war, horse didn’t really catch on again in Europe and America. Except for in France, where it’s still on the menu today. My French exchange in Lille fed it me for dinner on my first night there.
GRABER: Horse was easy to find in the grocery stores in French-speaking Switzerland, too, where I was an exchange student in my teens.
TWILLEY: Naomi says that what happened is that the French, in particular, were so hungry in the 1870s, when they were being besieged by the Prussians, that they actually fully embraced horse meat.
SYKES: So it’s due to their famine that kind of overruled the cultural associations and brought it back on the menu.
TWILLEY: Apparently the rest of us just weren’t hungry enough.
GRABER: OK. So, so far, we’ve come up with elite influence, religion, and famine for the trigger for flips. And then Hal told us a pretty recent story about an indigenous people named the Tharu in Nepal. An anthropologist was visiting in the late 1970s, and he observed that the Tharu slaughtered buffalo for their festivals, but they never ate them.
HERZOG: Buffalo were, for reasons nobody really knows, were tabooed in terms of eating them.
TWILLEY: This anthropologist finishes his fieldwork, goes home. And then he comes back twelve years later for a visit.
HERZOG: And he was sitting around with his friends, and they were drinking beer and playing cards. And they said are you hungry, would you like to get something to eat? And he said sure. And he was shocked to find out that they brought him a meal of buffalo. And he said wait a minute, you guys don’t eat buffalo. They said, oh, we changed our mind, we eat buffalo now.
GRABER: Hal says this anthropologist thought there might be two reasons for that change. First, it was a matter of economics—buffalo became cheaper, and more people could afford it.
TWILLEY: Secondly, Nepal had gone through some pretty big social and political changes in the twelve years he’d been away.
HERZOG: And he argued that the people were more free in their choices in life, including their choices of things to eat. And so to me this is a good example of how even deep-seated things like our preferences for food can change really rapidly under under certain circumstances
TWILLEY: Maybe it was the economics, maybe it was the social change, maybe it was a bit of both—or something else all together. We just don’t know.
GRABER: But Hal thinks these examples of moving food from yuck to dinner are the exception, rather than the rule.
HERZOG: For the most part we stick to the creatures that we’re familiar with. I think it’s difficult to change to change food preferences in general.
TWILLEY: There are certainly a lot of examples from history of people trying to expand the menu of animals we eat, and failing. Let’s go back to the late 1800s. This was a time when Western populations were growing really fast and people were worried about feeding everyone. And it was also a time when Westerners were busy exploiting their colonies for all sorts of resources. Like maybe edible ones too.
GRABER: There was a whole movement at the time to make species importation official. It was called acclimatization. And people in Europe, America, and Australia formed Acclimatization Societies.
RITVO: And acclimatization is the organized effort to transfer animals, also plants, that are considered to be desirable from one place to another.
TWILLEY: This was an era of bold explorers. And, as Harriet says, some of those explorers were explorers of meat.
RITVO: In the kind of high Victorian period, there was a sense on the one hand from the perspective of Europe—well, it would be entertaining to have zebras and kangaroos hopping around in the pasture, but also to import different kinds of deer and antelope to diversify the table.
GRABER: Those Victorian explorers were particularly excited about the largest antelope species in Africa called the eland.
RITVO: It is configured much more like a cow than the most antelopes are. People thought that’s a nice big animal and I want to eat it.
TWILLEY: They were excited. And so the British Acclimatization Society held a big dinner where the centerpiece was a leg of roast eland. And the press?
GRABER: The press did not eat it up.
TWILLEY: A contemporary report described the eland as ‘barbarous, offensive, and useless.’ Eventually the British Acclimatization Society fizzled out. And eland is still not on the menu in England today.
GRABER: All of these people who were trying to introduce new types of meat—they were kind of utopians. They had visions for how new animals would solve the needs of their fellow countrymen—animals like the hippopotamus.
TWILLEY: This is my favorite acclimatization story, in 1920s America. The plan was to turn the swampy parts of Louisiana into productive, meat-producing ranch land. Hippo ranches, specifically.
GRABER: There was a businessman and a local congressman behind the scheme. A New York Times editorial at the time said hippo brisket was delicious. They called it ‘lake cow bacon.’
TWILLEY: And of course, Americans do not eat Louisiana hippo for dinner today. In the end, this fabulous scheme—it just wasn’t practical.
GRABER: The two hippo entrepreneurs tried, but they couldn’t get the animals, they couldn’t work out the slaughterhouses, there’s no hippo supply chain. Which animals we eat—it’s not just about what we find palatable.
TWILLEY: Part of why we eat the animals we eat, at least nowadays, turns out to be because those are the ones our food system is set up to handle.
GRABER: So there’s a logic to that infrastructure issue. But still, as we’ve said, this question of what animals we do eat and which ones we wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole—Greger agrees that it really isn’t rational.
LARSON: I mean there’s a whole lot of arbitrariness and randomness in the way that these relationships play out. And it’s also about how those attitudes get baked into what you eat when you’re born and what is popular and what is not. I mean it becomes a ‘Sneetches with your stars on your belly’ situation, where what I eat now, if I start to think about it, it’s because that was what was on the table when I was growing up.
GRABER: For those of you who didn’t grow up reading Dr. Seuss, the Sneetches in his story, some had stars on their bellies, and some didn’t, and it was random. But the ones with stars discriminated against the ones who didn’t have stars. Greger’s point is that today and throughout history, we’ve used which animals we eat and which we don’t as a way to distinguish between us, and them.
TWILLEY: Think about the original Papal edict that banned horse eating in Europe—that horse meat is for heathens and good Christians don’t eat it. It’s us, and them. Look at the horror of my fellow Brits at French dining habits today. They eat horse—they even eat frogs. In fact, we call them frogs, and not necessarily in a super respectful way.
GRABER: Which brings us back to Soleil Ho, and the question she was always asked, growing up. Do you eat dog?
TWILLEY: Soleil is a journalist and host of two podcasts, Racist Sandwich and Popaganda. And she recently wrote an article for Taste called ‘Do you Eat Dog?’
GRABER: The implication of that question being—all Asians eat dog.
HO: And it is an image that really cashes in on these like ancient prejudices that the West has had against the East and its, like, inscrutability. And, you know, it’s like why would they do that? That’s insane. And that’s a question that’s been asked of the Orient for millennia.
GRABER: Like Soleil says, this discrimination, this racism against Asians from the West has been going on forever. In America, the idea that Asians ate dogs was really hammered home during the Filipino War at the turn of the century, around 1900.
HO: Eating dog was sort of the mark of, like, savagery. And so it was an easy sort of shorthand for insulting the enemy or just separating yourself from them. So it’s easier to, I don’t know, kill them.
TWILLEY: Easier to kill, but also easier to feel as though America was doing a good thing by invading the Philippines, and civilizing these savages.
HO: And then they won’t be eating dog, they won’t be like running around in loincloths, so and so. So it’s kind of been this very interesting political tool for imperialism and just for the project of racism in general.
GRABER: This was taken to a genuinely outrageous extreme in 1904, at the World’s Fair in St Louis.
TWILLEY: Again, it was a colonial era. And a staple of any good World’s Fair at the time was something called the Human Zoo, where Americans could queue up to gaze upon savages.
HO: And so at the St. Louis World’s Fair, there was a display of Igorot people from the Philippines. And there was a huge to-do about how they would slaughter a dog to eat every day. And you know that was written about in the papers. And people were really excited about it. And what was really interesting was newspapers would write about it but they would also mention—every time there was a dog or cat missing in in the city, they’d be like, oh, maybe it was those Filipinos.
GRABER: But it’s a century later now. We must have moved on from this obviously racist and xenophobic stereotype, right?
TWILLEY: I wish. Soleil pointed out that in 2016, a candidate for state senator in Oregon campaigned to reduce immigration because ‘these people eat dogs.’ In 2016, he’s saying this.
HO: They didn’t know how to go to the grocery store. They would just steal people’s pets and eat them. And that’s why we shouldn’t allow Somalis or Syrians into the U.S.
GRABER: If we’re not being totally clear, the sentiment behind this is racist. Like the law introduced in California in 1989, that said it’s illegal to eat pets for food. That was anti-Cambodian. But in general it’s just anti-immigrant, particularly anti-Asian sentiment.
HO: They don’t deserve to be on the world stage. They don’t deserve to have a seat at our table. Because they’re going to bring dog to dinner.
TWILLEY: This is obviously a stupid and offensive position. And it’s especially stupid because humans—including all our ancestors—have been eating dog for a very long time.
HERZOG: In North America, the first evidence of dog eating is from about 9,000 years ago when they found a petrified feces that clearly indicated that the individual who deposited the feces was was eating not only dogs, but dog brains.
GRABER: Hal says the Aztecs had special dog species they bred as food.
TWILLEY: According to Greger, this is the same story as with chickens. Dogs were special at first. And then we figured out farming
LARSON: And suddenly when they lose their value as hunting partners or as venerated members of your community, now they’re just kind of there and, OK, every so often we’ll just eat one.
GRABER: So, everyone ate dogs. But not anymore.
HERZOG: Well, in our culture the reasons why we don’t eat dog is because we love them. We’ve had, in the last 20 to 30 years, we have a phenomenon called the humanization of pets. And the humanization of pets is that we’re increasingly thinking of pets as as people. As members of our family.
TWILLEY: But people who think their dogs are people too—those are not the only people who have decided not to eat dog.
HERZOG: In other parts of the world people don’t eat dog because they are because they’re loathed. For example in parts of India and in parts of the Middle East people don’t eat dogs because they think dogs eat dogs corpses, because dogs eat feces, because dogs eat vomit, that dogs are unclean. So we have the same behavior—not eating dog—but for completely different reasons in different cultures.
GRABER: The end result is: today, not many cultures in the world eat dogs. But let’s get back to the question that plagued Soleil throughout her childhood. Did her family ever eat dog?
HO: My family is from South Vietnam and we would never eat dog. And so to be conflated with eating dog for them is a bit insulting. Because they’re like ‘No, we’re from the South not from the North.’
TWILLEY: So, but what that means is that some people do eat dog.
GRABER: Soleil didn’t know anyone in her own personal circle who ate dog, just that her family said that North Vietnamese did. So she asked around, and spoke to people who told her about dog eating in Korea, North Vietnam, some places in China.
TWILLEY: Including Andrea Nguyen.
HO: James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and all around rad person. And so she was someone that I knew would be able to talk about this because she’s been close to it and her family has a history of it.
GRABER: Andrea’s family grew up in North Vietnam. Her parents ate dog meat stew there.
HO: And what I found really evocative about her story was how she talked about growing up in Southern California and of course her family didn’t eat dog in America. But on rare occasions her mom would put on her Sunday finest and wrap a whole pork leg in newspaper and throw it into the fireplace to emulate dog meat, to make mock dog stew.
TWILLEY: Mock dog stew aside, today, as Soleil says, Andrea’s family doesn’t cook dog. Dog isn’t for sale as meat in the U.S., anyway. But even if it was for sale, they probably wouldn’t be eating it—because not eating dog is the trend. Even in the places where dog is seen as meat, the younger generation are increasingly Westernized. And it’s another of those aspirational stories like sushi: Westerners see dogs as pets, and so now, so do younger folks in China and Korea and Vietnam.
GRABER: So as we’ve just described, this dog story, like everything about the animals we do or don’t eat, it isn’t straightforward or totally logical. Some people don’t eat dogs because they hate them. Some people don’t eat dogs because they love them. Some cultures have some dogs as pets, and some dogs as food. Which was actually common throughout human history.
TWILLEY: But it’s not just dogs that are a source of this kind of conflict. Really, these kinds of rules and discrimination and arguments about what is edible—they apply to all animals at one point or another, in one place or another.
ROZIN: Meat not only is one of the favorite foods of humans, it’s the most tabooed food. So the fascinating thing about meat is that it’s a great source of ambivalence. It’s a loved food that we also have very strong negative feelings about.
GRABER: Paul says that meat is the most tabooed food—like how cows are taboo to many people in India, or pork and shellfish are taboo to Jews, or buffalo had been taboo to the Tharu. There aren’t nearly as many taboos around fruit and vegetables. And finally there is actually some genuine logic to this.
HERZOG: Humans are made of meat. And the animals that we eat contains pathogens that are potentially pathogenic to humans as well.
ROZIN: Because animals are like us, they harbor similar animals.
TWILLEY: Paul’s point is, most of us—many of us—eat meat, but we’re anxious about it. For a whole bunch of reasons to do with the fact that we are also meat. On the one hand, animals are more likely to trigger that emotional, irrational disgust response because they remind us of our animal nature—ultimately, our mortality.
GRABER: But more logically, in the past, animals were more likely to harbor pathogens—parasites, bacteria, viruses—that could also make other animals, like us, sick.
TWILLEY: Either way, meat is just more stressful. And the end result is that we tie ourselves in knots trying to make up stories about why it makes sense that we eat the animals we do.
GRABER: For instance, even people in Korea who do eat dog find a way to say these are the ones we eat and these are the ones we don’t, to make it seem rational.
HERZOG: But the dogs sold for meat for example are—they’re given a different linguistic category called ‘nureongi.’ and they are put in different colored cages, so they put them in cages that have sort of these pink bars and that also designates that there are meat dogs. And they also look a bit different. They look to me disconcertingly like Old Yeller.
TWILLEY: The end result is that you can tell yourself that the meat dogs are not like the pet dogs, and so it’s OK to eat them. When, in fact, the whole category of ‘pet’ is arbitrary.
GRABER: Like rabbits—some Americans and Europeans keep them as pets, but others eat them. Guinea pigs: in North America, they’re pets, in South America, they’re food.
TWILLEY: People all over the world play these kinds of mental games with their meat. When Paul was doing fieldwork in rural Mexico decades ago, he was in a village where people saw grasshoppers as meat. But only certain grasshoppers. Grasshoppers gathered from the field were edible; grasshoppers gathered from your house—disgusting. For no logical reason.
GRABER: A big part of why we create these categories is to make sure that some animals—the ones we want to eat—they’re distant from us. That way it’s OK for us to see them as somehow lesser—as food.
TWILLEY: Naomi told us that you can see this change play out in how we talk about chicken. When chickens started being only about food, that’s when you start getting chicken-related insults—you’re chicken, you’re a birdbrain. Chickens are no longer something to be admired, because we want to eat them—and we want to feel OK about that.
GRABER: Naomi started keeping chickens herself, and she saw this very phenomenon play out right at home.
SYKES: We hatched some eggs and ended up with a cockerel, Gunter, right. And he was just the best cockerel ever until he went cockadoodledoo for the first time and just became really aggressive and nasty. And my partner Richard decided that he needed to dispatch Gunter. But we don’t like killing things, like, what humans does? So it was really interesting observing Richard’s behavior for two weeks when he had decided that he was going to do it. I watched him go from like really liking Gunter to just, like, always vilifying him as, like, Gunter, you know he was crowing really loudly this morning. And he was using it in that same sort of cognitive dissonance so that he could bring himself to kill, and then as it turns out, eat Gunter. I think there’s still a pot of Gunter in the freezer.
TWILLEY: At this point, I am forced to conclude that none of this really makes any sense. And it seems as though every culture makes up its own stories that it tries to pretend make sense.
GRABER: But I do have one question we still haven’t addressed—why do some cultures eat more animals when Americans eat so few?
ROZIN: That’s a good question and we don’t really know the answer. But we can say looking around the cultures of the world, for example, the Chinese eat a lot more animals and more parts of animals. They don’t eat all animals but we don’t know what percent. So we are particularly—we’re of a particularly narrow choice in this country. We eat a lot of meat but we eat very little kinds of meat. So the answer is cultures vary enormously.
GRABER: Turns out there’s no logic to this, either.
TWILLEY: And really, in the end, you’ve got to make this decision for yourself. Or rely on your culture to make the rules, just to make life easier. But what this means is you really can’t judge others for which animals they chose to eat.
GRABER: There are a couple of moral issues that are important to me when it comes to animals. One, if the animal was farmed, was it treated well, was it raised as sustainably as possible? And two, if it’s wild, is it endangered or overexploited? Those are my big lines in the sand. That said, I have a pretty strong ick factor, and there are a lot of animals that would be really tough for me to eat. But I do recognize that it’s not necessarily for any logical reason.
LARSON: It’s phenomenal, really, how we are living with a legacy of more or less arbitrary decisions where it’s never about the animal. It’s all about how the animal is tied into cultural traditions and ways in which we are doing what the Joneses are doing, or being told not to do by the people above us, or wanting to follow what the elites are doing, or the elites deciding it’s no longer cool so they’re not doing it anymore. And all these things playing into our current perceptions of consumption, which then we reify as fixed, and this is the way it’s always been, and anybody who does something different than me is completely wrong and foreign and bizarre.
TWILLEY: Whew. Thanks this episode to caffeine and painkillers and chocolate—this was such a hard question to wrangle and we couldn’t have done it without you.
GRABER: Thanks also to Soleil Ho, Hal Herzog, Paul Rozin, Naomi Sykes, Greger Larson, and Harriet Ritvo. We have links, as usual, on our website, gastropod.com. You’ll want to check out their books and articles and research projects because there was a whole world we couldn’t cover.
TWILLEY: Although some of you will get some of those extra stories in your special supporters email—donate five bucks an episode and you could be among this lucky group.
GRABER: We’re back in a couple of weeks with a timely tale…
BRIAN DAVIS: Everything we make has been through a time machine in one form, shape, or another. Occasionally we use them to make things nature can’t. But yeah, no, we generally manipulate everything we make in one way shape or form or another.