Tag Archives: KPCC

Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?

What follows is the first in an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. 

Quandary

Why can’t I eat my dog?

Anthropological Explanation

Many forces conspire against the enterprising individual who fixes a side-long glance upon their household pet and thinks, “In a pinch…” The majority of these dissuasive forces are cultural, and therein lies their strength. There is a logic underpinning our taboo against eating pet animals, and it has to do with our close relationships with them, and the different categories these practices create.

You’ve no doubt noticed that certain animals are more “edible” than others. In the United States, most people think nothing of eating a hamburger, but grow queasy at the thought of horse meat having slipped into their ground beef, and positively livid at the idea that cat meat might grace someone’s plate. The reason is simple: we have a social aversion to mixing up different categories of animals. A taboo, if you will.

For anthropologists, taboos are a “repression of interstitial states produced by the application of discrete conceptual classes on the continuum of experience” (Valeri, p.63).

Animal-human relationships are arranged into these categories on an axis of “closeness.” The closer an animal is to humans in their cultural relationship, the less edible it becomes. Eating is a practice that creates lines of distinction between humans and animals that are not-human enough to become food. Because we have placed dogs firmly in the “pet” category, they cannot also be in the “food” category. This is why pets are taboo as a source of food: humans have formed such close bonds with them that they have become inedible. The inverse is true to a lesser extent: animals that are far from humans (exotic animals and pests) are less edible, but not quite as taboo as those closest to humans on the relationship spectrum.

Different cultures consider different animals close (and therefore inedible). Conversely, some cultures consider the animals Americans tend to think of as pets as a category of creature that is perfectly edible. It all depends on each culture’s relationships and practices with regards to each animal. Last September, a brief story appeared on KPCC about dogs from South Korean meat farms being “rescued” and brought to the United States for adoption. In this case, Americans were imposing their culturally-specific logic of animal-human relationship taxonomy onto a different culture.

Cultural norms constrain our every thought and action, and the taboo against eating the (potential/technical) food source in closest proximity to us is merely one of them. Most Americans–even enthusiastic carnivores!–likely take this comestible constraint as a given. They are “naturally” repulsed by the idea of boiling Fluffy for supper, if they’ve ever allowed themselves to consider it in the first place. (They should be repulsed; everyone knows Fluffy would be much tastier fried.) This blatant assault on American’s gastronomic freedom ensures that our taxonomy of animal-human relationships remains intact.

Originally published in my newsletter. This question sent me down a nostalgic rabbit hole of thesis notes, so count yourselves lucky there’s only one citation: “The Forest of Taboos” by Valerio Valeri.

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.
Submit your question by May 15 for a chance to win a free book!

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Filed under Animals, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Ode to Alan Rickman

“…the late Alan Rickman,” said the host of The Frame.

Hope is one of denial’s most powerful allies. Upon hearing these words on the radio, I was seized with the impulse to stop the car and fact-check, much as I had initially doubted the veracity of Monday’s news that David Bowie had passed away. But this passing was more personal. Or, to be more accurate, I’m a bigger fan of Alan Rickman. He first caught my notice in Galaxy Quest as my preferred type of comedy relief–self-effacing and intellectual–and quickly morphed into one of my secret celebrity crushes. Hearing, unexpectedly, that he had died actually made me feel something.

This past summer, I wrote an ode to Alan Rickman in the style of The Toast’s delightful “If X were you Y” series. Like most of my inexplicable infatuations with older actors, admitting to the depth of my fandom was embarrassing. But in light of Rickman’s passing, I’d like to share it as a sort of tribute.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend…

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would join you and your friends at karaoke, thrilling you all with renditions of 90’s hits sung two octaves lower than originally intended, inciting gales of giggles. After each number, he’d collapse beside you on the sticky bench and high-five whoever was up next.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, at least once a month he’d indulge in some top notch Hans-Gruber-from-Die Hard role play, delighting you with his sensual German accent. Sometimes he would even speak in German. Try as you might to control yourself, you would swoon. Repeatedly.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would let his hair go grey for keeps and encourage you to do the same…if that were what you wanted. Some days you would pretend you were living in the 70’s, spend an hour feathering each other’s silvery manes, and go out looking for a drum circle at a park or beach. You would be anachronistically dressed, because you’ve already spent a whole hour on your hairstyles, and really, how far can you be expected to take this whole personal grooming thing, anyway?

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would never deign to open a car door for you because he knows you are perfectly capable of operating them yourself. Unless of course your arms were full of groceries. But he would never let you carry all the groceries. Unless you had insisted.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would not expect you to praise his interpretation of Snape, because you would have made it clear from the get-go that your imagination’s interpretation of the book version of the character is sacrosanct, and to bring up the topic at all would be touching the third rail of your relationship, straining it to such a degree that it would be nigh impossible to recover. Impossible, you’d say! He would be whispering to you in a soothing voice right now to help bring you down from the act of thinking about the dire consequences of such a fraught discourse. Breathe. Breathe…

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, you would address each other formally over supper at your favorite greasy spoon (i.e., Mr. Rickman, Ms./Mr. [Your Last Name Here]), and chuckle at the absurdity of it all. You would do this quietly, so as not to distract the other diners from their meals.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would graciously accept your offer to pick up the check. You would return the favor, triggering an endless spiral of good-natured reciprocity. Neither of you would tire of this ritual. Because that’s how things work in a fantasy.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would understand and respect your need to not see him for several days at a time. You have many things to attend to and important people in your life, not all of whom are him.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, you would never have to ask to reenact the pillow talk scene from Snow Cake. He would always, always offer.

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Filed under Contemporary, Nostalgia, Television and Movies