There's a show on French television that I love: Rendez-vous en Terre Inconnue, Rendezvous in an Unknown Land. The host of this astonishing program takes a French celebrity, a singer, actor, director or comedian, to an unknown destination (unveiled while they are sitting in the airplane) to spend two weeks with an unknown community, tribe or village of people in some far-off corner of the world, immersed in their daily life and lifestyle. The show allows us, the television audience, through the eyes and emotions of the celebrity, to discover and get to know a distant, indigenous people and their culture, one culture threatened by the encroaching modern world.
The show in its entirety is always fascinating, not only in the discovery of a people and a culture I am unfamiliar with, but each episode proves to me once again how alike we all are; each of these people visited, individuals, tribes, villages, no matter how far, how isolated or remote are basically all the same; we have more in common than not; we laugh at ourselves and each other, we joke and tease, love and care for our families, work, eat, celebrate and dream.
But what strikes me each time is the food. As the host and chosen celebrity sit down day after day, meal after meal to break bread, so to speak, with one group of individuals after the next, they are asked to share the traditional dishes, the home cooking, that their hosts eat day in and day out. Boiled goat gruel in Namibia, sheep head in Mongolia, raw reindeer meat or raw frozen fish in Siberia; or the lamb stew in which burning rocks are added to the pot to speed the cooking, again in Mongolia, hand-ground sorghum stewed with fish freshly caught from the river in Ethiopia or even larva in Papua, New Guinea. They watch as the Nyangatom and the Mongolian men drink fresh beef blood for strength or feed it to their children, who rarely see a fruit or vegetable, for the much-needed nutrients. These guests sit down at the table - or, more likely, on the ground - and partake, with only the slightest of hesitation, the food offered.
It is a sign of cultural awareness and acceptance that not all populations have the same traditions, customs or eating habits. If one wants to be totally immersed in, accepted into or understand a community, one must eat as they do; refusing to share a meal or turning down a specially prepared delicacy is often seen as the ultimate insult to one's hosts. Many Americans, or at least those that have little experience or understanding of the world, often make wide-sweeping assumptions about what is right or wrong, what is normal or abnormal, acceptable or unacceptable, and as the whole "our President ate dog" discussion recently highlighting the news pages proves, what others eat doesn't escape this scrutiny.
As I watched the last episode of this travel show, the recent to-do about President Obama dining on dog meat when a child in Indonesia, as if he had been gobbling down Fido the neighbor's pet, struck me as unenlightened and ludicrous. As soon as one travels the world, it becomes perfectly clear that, to put it crudely, one culture's pet is another culture's dinner - "quod ali cibus est aliis fuat acre venenum" (one man's meat is another man's poison). When I was visiting Nigeria many years ago, I knew of several expat families who had taken pet turtles in their gardens and were obliged to mark the shells with their family name or a large X in red paint or their pets risked being caught and ending up someone's dinner. I ate bush meat during my stay, an unknown animal hunted in the brush, killed and skinned by a group of men with less-than sterilized machetes and knives, as we waited in the car along the side of the road, something I would never have imagined eating before I travelled. My husband was offered a bowl of warm walnut oil by his hosts during a trip to Morocco, a sign of high respect, and expected to drink it as the others looked on.
As I listened to the utterly ignorant banter concerning dog eaten some thirty-odd years ago in a far-off country, I thought about my own early years living in France and the foods that were new to me, some of which, I had grown up learning, were not food at all. I found it rather disturbing and somewhat disgusting that the French dined on horsemeat. Mr. Ed, anyone? Rabbit is almost as common as chicken here, yet as an American the image of the poor little Easter bunny, bowtie and all, had long been ingrained in my brain. Blood sausage is well loved by the French, as are pig's feet and ears (yes, ears). (I once was an interpreter for a sausage-making class in a French cooking school; the professor told me that he normally begins the class with Blood Sausage, Boudin Noir, but never for the Americans who revolt at the sight of the blood.) In this most civilized country of gastronomic renown and pleasure, brains, kidneys, liver, pancreas, almost every part of the animal is a delicacy, not simply the steaks and ribs. Once fairly common fare, roosters crests are still occasionally eaten here in France and a friend recently told me that her grandfather had been served delicately poached rooster's testicles in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Personally, if given the choice, I'd rather have a good dog curry.
Depending upon where we live, even in America, just stepping outside our own front door will lead to new culinary discoveries; just venture into an adjacent neighborhood and you might very well find families sitting down to a meal of their own traditional dishes comprised of ingredients unknown or strange to you. Lutefisk--codfish preserved in lye - is a delicacy among Scandinavian-Americans and alligator is a favorite at most Florida seafood joints; everything from scrapple to tongue to tripe will be equally devoured or despised. Not so long ago, goat was considered nasty, indeed, something less-than-civilized cultures ate. Now it is the latest hot trend food. Wild boar and bison followed the same evolution. Should we really be judging people on what and how they eat in their own culture, at their own table? And this even in our own country, right in our own backyard...who's cringing now?
To the well-travelled and educated food lovers and adventurous eaters reading my words, this is no surprise and certainly nothing new. Food and what we eat, culturally and traditionally, should never label us, and should never be a reason to belittle or mock. It only shows the ignorance, bias or littleness of the one mocking. Or simply disrespect, which may trump the rest.
And the whole dog discussion, even now fading into political memory, makes one wonder how often Mitt Romney ate horsemeat during his lengthy stay in France.
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.