Forbidden Foods

First City, New Delhi, December 2003

It all began in Eden. Food restrictions, that is. God said, “You may eat of all trees expect that one.” Eve disobeyed. So did Adam. And since then we have been inflicted with cultures and traditions that judge us by what we eat, and what we don’t eat. So we have non-vegetarians who think vegetarians are wimps, vegetarians who think non-vegetarians are cruel, and everyone who believes egg-eating vegetarians are simply confused. Things get more complex: non-vegetarians who don’t eat beef think they are superior to non-vegetarians who do. Vegetarians who eat onion and garlic are considered inferior to those who don’t. Food has over time clearly evolved into a positioning tool. What you eat, and what you don’t eat, the table you sit on, and the table you don’t, more often than not indicates your belief system and your self-image.

Mythic Trivia:
Did you know that the Forbidden Fruit in Eden was visualized as an apple by Christians,
as a pomegranate by Jews and as a banana by Arabs?

We would like to believe that eating is a rational act. That it is governed by the rules of hygiene and nutrition; but in most cases it is not. We eat because food is tasty. We eat because we are hungry. We eat because that is what our family told us to eat. And more importantly, we eat some things and don’t eat others because by doing so we reaffirm our links to a particular group. Chinese emperors were known to use food as tool to indicate station in society. Only feudal lords were allowed to eat beef. Mutton was for high-ranking ministers, pork for lower ministers, fish for generals and only vegetables for commoners. The reasons for religious dietary laws are often shrouded in mystery – with reasons ranging from hygiene to divine decree to unquestionable tradition. But they boil down to segregating the believers from the rest. It is popularly believed that Jewish dietary laws involving ‘kosher’ foods were instituted for health reason – because certain foods get spoilt easily, because one can get trichinosis from pork. If that were the case then these laws would have been abandoned with the advent of modern food processing. When one argues out all ‘rational reasons’ for kosher food, it becomes clear that the prime objective of these dietary laws was to help the Jewish Diaspora reassert their separateness, and retain their cultural identity through centuries of exile and persecution. Kosher means that which is fit or proper, and the rules determining kosher are complex. Only fish with fins and scales are kosher. Thus clams, shrimps, and crabs are nonkosher. Animals that chew the cud and have cloven hoofs are kosher. This makes pigs, horses, and camels nonkosher while goats, sheep and cows kosher. Milk must not be mixed with milk products, and so a kosher meal will not include the two items simultaneously; there must be a gap of a few hours (depending on how orthodox one is) between the two items. Blood is nonkosher. Eggs must be checked for blood spots. Hunted animals must not be eaten, as their blood has not been let out. Liver can be consumed only after it has been thoroughly processed to wash the blood out. Jesus was born in a Jewish family and no doubt followed the kosher dietary laws. During the last supper he equated wine as ‘his blood’ and offered it to his followers. Was this an act of breaking free from the Jewish fold since blood is nonkosher? That the Church did not impose any dietary restrictions, Jewish or otherwise, on its followers helped it break free from its Near Eastern origins and become a global religion that welcomed people from all walks of life into its fold. The absence of dietary restrictions was in keeping with the all-embracing ideology of Christianity. Anyone, who ate anything, could be Christian. The Church welcomed all. Little wonder then that Christianity grew in numbers and gradually became the dominant religion of Europe by the 10th century. Interestingly, for 400 years, a section of the Church practiced ‘Meatless Fridays’, especially during the month of Lent and definitely on Good Friday. It began during the reign of King Edward VI of England when there was an acute meat shortage and a crisis in the fish industry. Parliament, with backing from the Church of England, ordered people to replace meat meals on Fridays with a fish dish. Gradually all devout Catholics adopted the personal sacrifice – in memory of Christ’s supreme sacrifice – and made it mandatory. So much so that eventually tradition decreed that to consciously eat meat on Friday was sin. This continued until the 1960s when the ban was lifted as part of the papal drive to modernize the church. What began as a rational economic measure became a religious tradition because of the deeply symbolic nature of ‘Friday’ and ‘fish’. It would be naive to accept that the Church of England’s advice did not take into account the fact that Friday is the day associated with fertility and Christ’s resurrection and that fish, since the days of the early Church, has always represented Christ. While shunning meat and eating fish on Friday benefited society economically, it propped up spiritual beliefs too. For it was akin to partaking the body of the savior on the day of his supreme sacrifice, a kind of a household Eucharist. Like its origin, discontinuation of ‘Meatless Fridays’ was not the result of ‘reason’ but belief in the doctrine of papal infallibility. The 7th century saw the rise of Islam. With it came practices and taboos, some expressed through dietary laws, that helped Muslims distinguish themselves from other peoples of the book. To distinguish themselves from Christians, Muhammad forbade the consumption of pigs. To distinguish themselves from pork-shunning Jews, Muhammad forbade the consumption of wine, something that was part of the Jewish sacrament. The 20th century saw the rise of Nation of Islam amongst African Americans who wanted to establish for themselves a new identity that broke free from their past as the descendants of slaves. Like their Muslim brothers elsewhere in the world they shunned pork and wine, but they also shunned tobacco and a whole list of vegetables commonly consumed by their black brothers who were following Christianity, the religion of their enslavers. Over centuries, Hindus made an art of segregating people on the basis of food. The idea of ‘jati’ was reinforced by preventing people of different castes from eating together. This limited social interaction and reduced scope of inter-marriage. Today the idea of ‘jati’ is so rooted in Hindu consciousness, that a Hindu may convert to Christianity, Islam or Buddhism but he carries his caste-based prejudices into his new belief system. Any discussion of Hindu diet cannot avoid the ‘beef’ issue. Rationally speaking there is no particular reason for Hindus to shun beef. In fact, Vedic scriptures seem to suggest that in Vedic times, over 4000 years ago, eating beef, even horse, was part of ritual. Somewhere along the way, especially with the rise of Buddhism, Jainism and the Bhakti movement with their doctrine of non-violence, eating animals in general and the cow in particular became taboo in the Indian sub-continent. Ban on beef today has tragically less to do with protecting the cow and more to do with asserting one political ideology over others. Hundreds of reasons are given by the anti-beef lobby why cow slaughter must be banned and why beef must not be eaten. Each one looks quite rational. Hundreds of rational reasons are also given by those who are opposed to the projection of egg as a complete meal. Reasons are given why milk should not be consumed by humans, why Muslims don’t eat pork, why Jews will eat only ‘kosher’ meat. With some effort every food habit can be rationalized and made scientific. And yet ultimately, it is all about what you believe and what you don’t believe in. The food we eat may project things about us (that we are non-violent, that we are less polluted) but it does not necessarily influence our behavior. The non-garlic eating mother-in-law may believe in ‘protecting tiny creatures who live under the soil’ but that does not stop her in any way from harrassing her garlic-eating daughter-in-law for dowry. The non-beef eating politician can rouse mobs against beef-eating communities despite belief in the ‘holiness of cows’. Two nations may agree on why pork must be shunned, but that will not stop them from slaughtering each other in wars. As one sees the artificial nature of dietary laws – desperately rationalized by believers – and their inability to overpower primal instincts to dominate and be violent, one is drawn to the following verse from the Upanishad: “Everything in the universe is food.” We eat some. Some eat us.