Let's start off this series with a crowd-
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 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.
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.
Do you have a question about the culture we live in?
Ask an anthropologist!
Fair warning: I will be using this avatar long after it's trendy.
Submit your own question about a weird U.S. cultural practice for a chance to win a free book (scroll to the end of the newsletter for details). As a bonus, your question may be featured on my blog, or in this very newsletter.
Tune in next month to learn about the eerie group-think that governs applause...
Special Giveaway through May 15!
There are two ways to enter the drawing for this giveaway:
1. Submit a question to Why Can't I Eat My Dog
2. Get a friend to subscribe to this newsletter. (Make sure they contact me afterwards to let me know the email address of the person who referred them.) Both the referrer and the referee will be entered...
3. ...okay, three ways to enter (no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!) ~ the friends who subscribe at your behest will also be eligible to win.
You have from now until May 15 to enter the drawing using one of the three methods described above. Winners will be announced in the May edition of this newsletter. I'll be in touch with the two winners via email to work out delivery details.