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Pet Sins October 2009

Double standards in evaluating European and Asian cuisine

Your article The 'Odds and Ends' of Food Animals - 'ethnocentric' ideas about cuisine? resonates with my experience. I too have noticed a double standard in white American perception of ethnic food. I was watching one of the morning news shows on a major news network in which they featured a Japanese pig's feet/ham hocks restaurant. The reporter, giving us the background for pig trotter cuisine, said that Chinese had traditionally ate pig's trotters or knuckles because they were too poor to afford to throw any part of the animal away. Now just how is that 'fact' related to the Japanese pig's feet restaurant, I do not know. Anyway, that's not the first time I've heard or read such a white American opinion on ham hock cuisine.

But among all the reviews I've read of ethnic German restaurants serving pig's feet and ham hocks, I've NEVER read one review attributing the German taste for pig's extremities to the the poverty and material deprivation of the German people. Now MAYBE it is true that in the past, people all over the world, including Europe, ate every part of the animal because they didn't want to waste their resources. So I'm not so much questioning whether individuals who believe that eating ham hocks is a sign of material deprivation are right or wrong (a case can be made either way) but rather why they don't apply the same standard to all ham-hock-eating cultures.

I've seen situations in which those same individuals, when told that Europeans traditionally ham hocks too, reversed their opinion of "ham hock eater = member of materially deprived culture", when they could just as easily have said, "Yes, Europeans too were poor in the past and had to be careful about what they throw away." Why? Because in their heads, they have already decided that "Europe=rich" and "Asia=poor", and when they found that this conflicted with their "ham hock eaters = poor" belief, they somehow chose to give up "ham hock eaters = poor" rather than "Europe = rich," when they could just as easily could have given up "Europe = rich."

To give a different perspective on the value of ham hocks, I was visiting an Asian country during the lunar new year. My host, an old man, complained that the market had run out of ham hocks for the new year. I asked him why he wouldn't settle for other cuts of pork. He said, "Well, the ham hocks are the tastiest part of the pig. Unfortunately, one pig only has four feet, and plenty of the rest of the pig. Since everyone wants to eat ham hocks for the holidays, pretty soon they're all sold out."

And no, it wasn't like he couldn't afford the rest of the pig. Ham hocks, being in demand, were more expensive. But the rest of the pig just wouldn't do for him ;-)

12 2008