originally published July 12, 2014
It was the same conversation, every time I’d stay over at a friend’s place when I was a kid. Inevitably my friend’s mother would learn that I was Jewish (I was one of two in my grade, so word traveled), and she’d ask, “Will you eat [bacon/ham/shrimp, etc.]?”.
I never understood it. I was never Jewish by faith, only by chance of birth, which meant I’d accept none of the dietary restrictions, however I’d inevitably inherit a natural comedic timing and the inexplicable desire to own a media outlet. But give up on bacon? On luscious shrimp creole? On devouring my meat and cheese off the same plate? That’s blasphemy.
But it isn’t only pork and crustacean meat that my ancestry was trained to avoid, and it isn’t only the Jews who are hell-bent on depriving themselves of these protein-rich nibbles of bliss. There are taboo food and drinks across the spectrum. Some – like bacon, obviously – are ludicrously unnecessary sacrifices of outmoded traditions. Others make a little more sense.
Pork is forbidden in Jewish, Islam and even Seventh-day Adventist Christians. Even the Phoenicians, Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians steered clear of munching on our little porcine friends, perhaps because they were dirty animals (they did like to feast on their own poop), or possibly because they were revered back then. Yet despite all those cultures waving away the opportunity to savor the unworldly pleasure contained in a rack of baby-backs, the USDA reports that pork is the most widely eaten meat substance around the globe.
Crustaceans are also big on the Jewish list of no-no menu items. That means no crab legs, no lobster, no pan-fried shrimp in garlic butter… I’ve got to stop writing these articles on an empty stomach. Even catfish is verboten. The reason these tasty little sea-creatures are taboo? They live in water but do not have fins or scales. That’s it. If it sounds ridiculous and arbitrary to you, you are not alone. It just seems so cruel.
There’s actually an enormous chunk of the African population who won’t dine on fish of any kind. It’s known as the ‘Cushitic Fish Taboo’, as many clans who speak Cushitic languages in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt and Tanzania won’t touch the stuff. The origin of this mandatory abstinence is unknown, but it strikes me as an odd notion, that the people of these nations should deprive themselves of any food. Aren’t they perpetually on the brink of starvation? Not a good place to be picky.
A number of native tribes in the southwestern United States, including the Navajo, Apache and Zuñi, won’t eat fish. Archeologists have noted that almost no fish bones were uncovered at any Norse sites in Greenland, suggesting those 11th-16th century explorers also forbade marine life consumption, despite the fact that there’s almost nothing else to eat on that desolate rock.
Jews have more to worry about than shellfish and pig-parts; we are also forbidden from noshing on eagle, osprey, vulture and ostrich, thanks to the sacred scribbles in Leviticus 11:13. Muslims can wolf down all the ostrich they’d like, but they can’t touch birds who hunt with claws and talons. Bats are on the list too – not kosher, not allowed under Sharia law. If I’m going to follow any kosher edict, I might stick with this one.
Guinea pigs aren’t allowed on any old serving plate either. Cuy, as they’re called in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, are considered a delicacy. Naturally there is a significant market for shipping guinea pig meat to North America, though it became a very public battle when the New York City Parks & Rec department clamped down on cuy being served at an Ecuadorian festival in 2004. Capybara, the guinea pig’s close cousin, is specifically exempted from the Catholic ban on eating meat during Lent, oddly enough. So no pork, no beef, no chicken, but you can gobble down some rodent-meat if you just can’t wait for your Easter turkey.
It’s common knowledge that cows are sacred among the Hindu faiths; even Hindus who do eat meat won’t touch their beloved bovines. They’ll happily spread a cow’s manure on their mud-hut walls for insulation or consume cow urine as a medicinal substance, but they won’t bite into a burger. This isn’t merely out of respect for a holy beast; cows are crucial to a family’s survival in agricultural India. Chinese Buddhists feel the same way, though they lean more toward discouraging the consumption of beef rather than banning it. In India, killing a cow, even for a life-saving steak, will get you tossed in prison.
Horses aren’t considered kosher food, despite its popularity in European supermarkets. Some Christians hold off on stomaching their stallions as well; Pope Gregory III called eating horses “a filthy and abominable custom” in 732. Iceland only accepted Christianity onto their shores with the strict provision that they’d still be allowed their edible equines. Horse remains a popular meat in Belgium, France, Spain and Switzerland. Even in Germany – though they’re also known for eating another kind of meat there.
Yes, my beloved Yoko, you too could be feast-fodder within the borders of Deutschland. Or you might have been a hundred years ago, when dog meat was a customary delicacy (it was finally outlawed in the 80’s). In fact, the suspicions about the German love for canine meatstuffs led Americans to be suspicious of Frankfurters being sold by German immigrants. This led to the coining of the term ‘hot dog’, or so the story goes. Of course dog meat is often linked with low-end Chinese restaurants in North America, though in truth those claims are mostly unsubstantiated.
Other foods that might spew loogies in the face of your particular faith:
- Frogs, crocodiles, alligators and snakes won’t get the blessing of any rabbi.
- Bears are out for Jews also, as are any predatory earth-bound animal for Muslims.
- Islamic folks love serving camel hump for a treat, but Jews won’t touch ‘em. Maybe this is how that whole tension between them got started.
- If you’re hungry for cat meat, you’ll find most of the world (outside of Guangdong, China apparently) will see your craving as disgusting. Cats are also nixed by kosher and Sharia laws.
- Insects aren’t kosher, and there are actually strict Jews who won’t touch broccoli or raspberries because they can’t be properly cleaned of bugs. So if you’re looking for an excuse not to eat broccoli, simply become an Orthodox Jew.
- Some followers of Jainism, an Indian religion, won’t touch root vegetables (carrots, potatoes, etc.) because they believe that yanking them out of the ground murders the plant. In certain sects of Buddhism and Hinduism, onions and garlic are out.
- Those who follow Yazidism (a Kurdish faith) won’t touch lettuce because some 13th century Yazidi saint was executed and allegedly pelted with lettuce.
- Humans… yeah, don’t eat humans. No one’s going to want to hang out with you if you eat humans.
The list of forbidden foods is longer and more elaborate than I’ve covered here. My belief has always been that if the food is safe and clean, and it’s not a common household pet or a member of your own species, dig in. Life’s too short to worry about angering the gods over lunch.