Once, when I was teaching a university foodways class, a student recalled that while growing up whenever she or her siblings requested a chicken dish, Mom responded, “It’s not on your father’s diet.” That explanation satisfied them while they were young. Only when she was older did this young woman ask her mother, “Why isn’t chicken on Dad’s diet?”
Mom explained that when Dad was growing up in the country, he had to walk by the chicken slaughterhouse each day. The overwhelming stench and the terrified chicken squawks caused a lifetime aversion to chicken. This taboo was passed on to the man’s children without their ever knowing why.
Food memories are powerful. They stimulate many senses all at once: taste, smell, touch, sight. They become indelible. Because I was a sickly child, my parents wanted to build me up, so they hid two teaspoons of cod liver oil in my morning orange juice. When I tried to drink it, I gagged. To this day, I can never drink orange juice in the morning because those awful memories take over, and I can still smell and taste that malodorous fishy oil.
Sometimes food taboos are caused by individual bad experiences. Other times they are culturally based. Henry, one of my writing class students, related an experience he had in high school. On his way home one day, Henry stopped at a fast food restaurant and purchased two hamburgers before he impulsively stopped to visit the home of his new classmate, Harihar.
Although the family was eating supper, Harihar’s mother invited Henry to sit at the table with them. Henry told the mom that he had brought his own dinner. What a shock for Henry when Harihar’s family reacted with horror when they saw the hamburgers on their dinner table.
Harihar’s family was Hindu and eating beef was a primary food taboo. Harihar and his family couldn’t get over how thoughtless Henry was eating a religiously forbidden food in front of them. At the same time, Henry had no idea that beef was a tabooed food and he became embarrassed when Harihar’s mom explained this to him.
Stories abound about offending people from other cultures because of food taboos as well as other conflicting customs and beliefs. From time to time, I will relate more examples because one of my passions is understanding how cultural differences can cause people to misunderstand one another.
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who enjoys learning about cultural differences in customs and beliefs.