The warm, cornmeal-batter smell of fresh fried catfish filled my father’s kitchen. The bubbling grease in the “Fry Daddy” in the corner just set the mood even better. Typical for dinner, my mom asked me, “What do you want to drink?”
“We’re having fish, you can’t have milk with fish.”
That statement immediately derailed our dinner plans and launched a lengthy discussion as to exactly why I couldn’t have milk with fish. In the end, I had to live with the answer, “just because, it’s not healthy.” It was only a few years later that my parents finally relented that there was no good reason for it. Eventually, my parents gave up on this taboo and the milk jug came out even on fish fry nights.
Later, I came to understand that, even though my family is far from Jewish, this was somehow most likely a holdover from the Kosher requirement to not serve meat and dairy for the same meal.
But really, where do you get these customs? No Pork? (Don’t take away my Bacon!) Specific rules for slaughtering of animals and draining of blood? Eggs for Easter?
Well, here are one man’s thoughts on the matter.
In times past, it was the job of the church to shepherd their flock through the trials and daily tribulations of life’s dangers. In a time when preservative methods, refrigeration and the like were all but non-existent, food quality was a great source of concern for health and wellbeing. Additionally, agriculture was in its young years and not nearly so well developed as today. Many of the best ideas for how to properly tend crops and herds were foreign to the cultures of the time.
And, what better way to get people to behave and follow a code or guideline, than to go ahead and make it the will or direction of God?
Hence was born, the religious restrictions on diet and food consumption.
The restrictions and customs span the world’s religions. Most notably, Judaism has the Kashrut, which defines which foods are “Kosher” and may be eaten (as well as how they must be prepared), but goes far beyond just that. In Islam, you find the Halal, detailing a very similar list of requirements. However, Buddhism and Hinduism have light, less formal requirements. Christianity meanwhile is rich with traditions of its own.
Would anyone believe that it is a coincidence that nearly every religion from the time preceding recorded history to modern times prescribes periods of fasting in the spring and/or the fall?
Fasting during those times serves to conserve food stores for lean months ahead (Fall) or conserves already depleted food stores before Spring crops are harvested. Additionally, the periods of fasting force the body to consume toxins built up in the system and allow organs a period of rest prior too or following time spent consuming a less healthy diet lacking vegetables and other nutrients.
There are agricultural concerns as well. Avoiding unnecessary meat consumption during the Spring helps insure that there is sufficient diversity in the herd for breeding and growth of the herd, as well as protecting mother’s to be from the slaughter.
Specific taboos were developed as well. In some cases, such as Pork, the reason for proscribing the food ‘seems’ clear to most. At a time when most meats were slow cooked over a spit, it was not guaranteed that Pork would reach the necessary temperature to kill the worms which cause the parasitic disease, Trichinosis. Rather than risk this, it was outlawed by the culture.
However, what seems fairly clear for most may not be so simple. An idea gaining popularity among anthropologists is that Pork was forbidden by Middle-Eastern cultures more for the fact that Pigs, in an arid climate, require a great deal of water, and that pigs left to roam free will consume grains and food products valuable to the human inhabitants of that region.
Agricultural basis for food taboos may be more widespread than originally thought too. It’s widely known that devout Hindu’s don’t eat beef. Is this due to the cow being “Sacred” in Hindu culture as most Westerners think? Or was it because in years past large herds were kept that contributed to deforestation and overgrazing, which further contributed to the loss of cultivated lands and growing deserts? Thereby forcing a reduction in herd sizes and making it unfeasible to consume cattle, which were still needed as beasts of burden.
Also, herd quality suffered over time. The tradition of the time was that the visit of an “honored” guest prompted the slaughter of the finest bull in the herd. The loss of this quality genetic material to the herd saw a steady decline in strength and stamina of the animals, making them less suited to the lifting and pulling duties required of them.
Of course, in other cases, the food associated with a particular holiday seems to be a mystery. As a kid, I loved coloring and hunting for Easter Eggs, and along with that, loved the boiled eggs and deviled eggs sure to come later, but, why eggs for Easter?
Well, when Christianity came along it was supplanting many older, less well-structured religions. However, in order to attain the buy-in of the common folk, certain holidays had to be preserved in part, if not in whole. Easter was converted from Ostara, a spring fertility holiday. Eggs, Bunnies, get it? Both are common symbols of fertility.
Sometimes it is necessary to make up a reason to eat a particular food for a Holiday. Every good Jewish child knows that Hanukka celebrates the one day’s worth of Olive Oil that burned for 8 days to light the eternal flame while more Olive Oil could be pressed and prepared. And to celebrate this, Jewish households the world over cook Potato Latke’s in Olive Oil.
Wait a minute…Potatoes? Potatoes come from the New World and were unknown to the Jewish people at the time of the miracle of the oil and for hundreds of years after. However, centuries later, at a time when new food substances were needed to ward off hunger and when it just so happened that the last of the Potato harvests were becoming available, Jewish people needed encouragement to embrace the Potato. Thus was introduced by the Temple, the Potato Latke, “traditional” Hannukah food.
Sometimes though, the foods you eat for your religion are just part of the religion. I can think of no other reason to have Matzo Meal inflicted on you, than a form of penance and remembrance for Passover and a people fleeing oppression and having no time for leavened bread.
Also, as time goes by, the more strange customs, alien to modern society, fall gradually into disfavor (but can still be found somewhere). Feel free to google, placentophagy.
Lastly, the next time you sit down to a traditional dinner or you gaze longingly on that one tasty looking item you can’t have (mmm, bacon), stop to ponder why it is the way it is. If you dig deep enough, you may find that the answers surprise you.
Greg Bullard has driven in all 48 contiguous U.S. States, Canada, Mexico and has been sure to stop for a bite to eat in everyone of those places. He’s almost half as charming as he thinks he is, not quite as conceited as he seems to be and did we mention, he loves food? Visit Greg’s website www.whatgregeats.com.
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