Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Power of Meat, a Matter of Taste

Is the value of power just a matter of taste?

Last year, China Daily reported on an article publshed in the Journal of Consumer Research titled "The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation."
While a big, juicy steak may indeed be culinary nirvana for many, your taste for beef could be based in part on expectation rather than reality...

On the assumption that meat is associated with social power in some peoples' minds, researchers rated study participants on what they call a Social Power Value Endorsement measure, to determine their preferences for meat and their cultural perceptions of it. Participants were then told they would taste either a beef sausage roll or a vegetarian roll...

"Participants who ate the vegetarian alternative did not rate the taste and aroma less favorably than those who ate the beef product...what influenced taste evaluation was what they thought they had eaten and whether that food symbolized values that they personally supported."
The authors conclude that taste is neither purely objective nor radically subjective, but culturally constituted.

This research should not be surprising to any vegan who has experienced first hand the cynisism of certain omnivorous humans when invited to try vegetarian food as well as the "I can't believe it's vegan" rsponses after they unknowingly consume something made with vegan intent.

As French Sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, writes in his groundbreaking work Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste," taste is reproduced and policed through consumption used to mark distinctions in social statusin order to protect andmaintain boundaries of identity. "Meat" is sometimes argued to be universally preferenced over plant-based foods, and while their may be some evolutionary/nutritional truth to such claims, scholars have noted that such a prefernce is far from "natural" (i.e. objective and inevitable).

Though Bourdieu does not discuss food preferences in much legnth, his thesis about taste and consumption reflecting social values and identities, often centering around the tastes of the "higher" classes, is very relevant to understanding "meat." For instance, Carol Adams (1990) in The Sexual Politics of Meat discusses how meat signifies male privilege as meat is almost always disproportionately distributed to men cross-culturally. Similarly, Nick Fiddes (1991) in Meat: A Natural Symbol are es that meat within the modern Western tradition has symbolized the domination and/or control over "nature," Man's superiority to all others. prior to the present study, Julia Twigg (1983) in "Vegetarianism and the Meaning of Meat" had all ready studied the associations between meat and power held by both those who preffered and abstained from consuming animal flesh.

The power of meat as a symbol of class and gender prestige has even been demonstrated in the Chilean food riot just over a century ago: Banjamin Orlove argues in "Meat and Stregnth: The Moral Economy of the Chilean Food Riot" that unlike previous food riots, this one wasnot a matter of lack of "food," but lack of red meat which was a food consumed to distinguish the nomadic peasants from secure blue collar working men. Finally, meat can be seen as a symbol of national and cultural superiority and a rationalization and means of colonization and imperilaism. As food historian Rachel Laudan argues in her conference paper "Power Cuisines, Dietary Determinism and Nutritional Crisis: The Origins of the Globalization of the Western Diet," meat is the pinnacle of a "power cuisine" in modern times, which has been globalized through trade and conquest.

Of course, much of our taste for power comes neither from innate taste nor from symbolic culture, but from the political economy/ecology of our society. Thus, we can partially explain how American taste's have "evolved" from pork to beef to chicken. Though that's not to deny the nutritionism of the time does not also dictate preference (take a look at the doubleling of chciekn consumption from the 1970s to the 1990s based on the recommendations to eat "lean meat").

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