Monday, December 14, 2009

Food for Thought

A student in my Darwin class last week asked an interesting one. Why is it that we have names for certain meats that hide their source? We use the words "beef," "veal," "pork," and "venison," for meat from animals we don't care to name, but for others, for example, chicken, turkey, fish, and shellfish, we are transparent about where the flesh comes from. The working hypothesis offered was that the linguistically obscured animals are higher mammals and we try to hide from ourselves the fact that we snack on our close relatives.

But then this is not true for other higher mammals that are eaten, e.g., buffalo, and it is true of a couple other non-mammalian meats, calamari and escargot. The explanation there seems to be that these sound more appetizing than squid and snails and that making them sound more sophisticated would be advantageous when they are actually slimy and squishy. But then we have no problems with oysters, muscles, and clams which seem similar.

We do use the term "caviar" for any fish eggs, not just the Russian sturgeon for which it is intended. But the term "roe" is out there too.

Why is it that we only do this for meats? Are there any vegetables that we rename to hide their source? It cannot be a dish that is named, but the ingredient. We do call dried grapes and plums, raisins and prunes but do not rename other dried fruits. But this seems on the recipe borderline since they are treated.

We call all edible fungi "mushrooms" when the mushroom is only the fruiting body of a fungus. But then that really is the part we primarily eat.

Are there non-meat ingredients that we linguistically shield? Why do we selectively hide the sources of certain foods?