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A romp through food taboos
on September 13, 2004
This book is an informal exploration of food taboos, from apples to potatoes, pig flesh to human flesh. The book is organized into chapters featuring the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, pride, sloth, greed, blasphemy, and anger. Each chapter is comprised of short informative articles related to the relevant sinful theme that describe the social history of a food taboo. For example, in the chapter called "Lust," we learn how the apple came to be associated with Eve's forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Allen points out that apples were hardly common Middle Eastern fruit during Biblical times. They were, however, sacred to the Celts, and when Christians came into Celtic territory, they demonized the sacred fruit of the Celts by translating the Biblical word for the forbidden fruit, one whose botanical identify is not known for sure, as "apple." Allen states: "The Celts had associated apples with the glorious wisdom from the sun. By the time the Christians were done, scholars had assigned it to `the jurisdiction of Venus' and lust." Each chapter also includes several recipes featuring the foods under description. Some of the recipes are historical rather than in contemporary usage, but virtual all have been updated for modern kitchens and cooks. Sources are cited in extensive textual endnotes. There is also a bibliography and index.
Taboos of all kinds are often closely related with religious beliefs. Allen describes some common religious taboos relating to food, such as Jewish and Muslim avoidance of pork, and Hindu extreme reverence for cattle. One interesting point that Allen makes is that Christ was blatant in his practice of disregarding Jewish food laws, establishing a religion that is remarkably free of food taboos. Allen pokes fun at our modern diet practices, but he also makes some serious points, noting that "convenience foods are so unpleasant they make even work look good. They're also immensely profitable for the corporations who produce them...American workers now pay more money for worse food so they can hurry back to jobs they hate." In his conclusion, Allen observes "The point is that these archaic food taboos and rules, however preposterous and evil they may have at times been, also deepened our lives by imbuing our most common social gathering with meaning."
Occasionally, Allen plays fast and loose with details. For example, he has European peasants munching Macintoshes, but the Macintosh variety of apples was developed only in 1870 in New England. He also misses some major taboos- -of course in a book of this nature, we can't expect him to cover everything related to the topic. But when he describes garlic and religious injunctions against it, he never mentions avoidance by some Hindus of garlic and onions on the grounds that they are "intoxicating" or "over-stimulating". Such an omission is surprising, given the other information he provides both about Indian traditions and garlic. Allen's style of writing is informal--he writes to entertain as well as inform, making the book appeal to general readers rather than academic food historians. Since this is a book about breaking taboos, readers shouldn't be too taken aback at the kinds of topics Allen choose to delve into, but they might not want to consider this a read-aloud book for the whole family if small children are to participate.