Kitten photo: Art SiegelWhat garnishes a kitten best? One of the corners in the long-standing battles between cultural relativists and absolutists is the question of food consumption, or what the Princeton sociologist Michaela DeSoucey speaks of as “gullet politics.” Sometimes it is the smallest moments that serve to clarify debates that elsewhere are muddied and muddled.
Currently, a battle is stirring in California over shark fin. Should the state ban the sale and possession of shark fin, making the serving of shark fin soup illegal? Is this particular slurping cruel and unusual? While perhaps not quite as endangered as Libyan freedom fighters, sharks have their troubles in a world where Chinese masses and status-conscious foodies make common cause.
Shark fin soup is the pièce de résistance in many Chinese banquets, a sign that the host has the proper spirit of generosity. (Reader’s note: I have eaten shark fin soup once in Hong Kong and find the texture surprisingly compelling and the taste just fine).
But now a bill has been introduced into the California legislature to ban shark fin. Perhaps having given up on the state’s eternal budget crisis, legislators are searching to perform some public service. There are ripples of concern in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Shark fin is their cultural heritage. According to The New York Times, some see this as the “Chinese Exclusion Act in a bowl.” Might gefilte fish be next?
California is not the first state where cruelty to sharks has divided the community. Oregon and Washington are considering legislation, and Hawaii has passed such a law. Diners have until June 30 to have their fill of the soup in the banquet halls of Waikiki. Estimates claim that up to 73 million sharks are killed a year with 90 percent of the shark population decimated, an unintended consequence of the creation of a consumption-minded Chinese middle class. For many, the practice of shark finning, where fins are hacked off a live shark, which then dies slowly as it sinks slowly to the sea bottom, is a cruelty not to be tolerated. For others, it is central to a community.
Connoisseurs of food politics will immediately recall the battles over foie gras, including the controversial ban on serving fattened duck liver in Chicago in 2006 (the ban, widely mocked and ignored, has been overturned). Despite disturbing images of ducks being force-fed, gourmets chanted, “get government off our plates.” California has outlawed the production of foie gras in the state beginning in 2012. Only New York and Minnesota produce foie gras in the United States. The European Union permits the production of foie gras in five nations, notably France, where the delicacy is part of the culinary patrimony.
The debate over shark fin and foie gras has been contentious, but the debates do not end there. Fights emerge over other dishes such as milk-fed veal, ortolan, or, for that matter, baby kittens. OK, not the last of those, but wait!
DeSoucey refers to the existence of a form of identity politics that she terms “gastronationalism.” She means that nations (and smaller communities) see themselves reflected in their culinary choices, reflecting the idea of the French gourmand Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin that you are what you eat. Not you the individual, but as a member of a community.
The choice of consumption is frequently treated as closely tied to liberty. As one restaurateur commented in San Francisco’s Chinatown, “People come to America to enjoy freedom, including what is on the plate.”
In many ways I agree with his sentiment, and yet I find myself not entirely on board. Gustatory relativism has its virtues, and I wouldn’t like the first lady to impose upon me a diet of okra and lima beans, buttermilk, and well-done steak. Still, as representative bodies, elected legislators have the obligation to transform widely held values into policy, even if some choices are curbed. As an occasional libertarian, I just encourage them to do this as carefully as possible, and not too often. What is outlawed must be truly damnable. Recognizing the connection of food and culture, we should begin with modesty. So, first the process by which shark fins are gathered needs to be changed before a full ban is considered. Perhaps what is on the plate is not as protected as what is on the page, but we need to bow to the wise proverb, “De gustibus non disputandum.” Who can account for taste? Who should police it?
Limits properly exist, tied to a shared and robust consensus about cruelty and species preservation, but until then, please pass the pussy.