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"What's the matter with tabby cats?"
   Dr. Alan Mann, professor of anthropology, poses this question to a dozen students gathered one fall evening in a classroom at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He's not defending them as pets, but as a human food source. "I have pages of recipes for pussy cats," he goes on. "In the U.S. more than three million cats are put to sleep each year by the Humane Society. That's an estimated 30 million pounds of usable meat."
   With that deliberately provocative statement, Mann is not actually advocating feasting on felines, but urging a closer examination of what our society -- and others -- call food. "If We Are What We Eat, Then Why Aren't Cows Green?" was the aptly catchy title of his preceptorial offered last fall.
   The best way to plunge into such an inquiry, he has decided, is by posting a list of items and asking students to identify which qualify as human foods: Pizza and popcorn, obviously. Anchovies, sure, although as many people loathe them as love them. But urine and chicken bones and rats? Grass? Ants? Tabby cats? A definition is in order.
   One student comes up with a rough guideline that Mann agrees is on target: food is something that is edible, is digestible, and has nutritional value. Or in Mann's words, "a substance that is wholesome -- that is, ingestion of it won't kill you or make you violently ill, and second, that satisfies nutritional needs." It turns out that most of the items on Mann's list qualify as food, though they may not show up on the menu at Le Bec Fin. Cat food isn't the healthiest choice for humans, for example, because it contains too much fat. "But it's not bad food," Mann insists. Chicken bones can be ground up, or even munched on whole. Even urine could be considered food in the direst of circumstances. "A lot of people have survived by drinking urine."
   Ants also survive the cut, being a fine protein source. Mann talks of West African villages where "you can walk down the street and there are people sitting around with drums that have fire in them and on top are metal colanders [to] throw in several handfuls of termites. The termites sizzle and cook and pop in their own fat, and then you take a piece of newspaper and roll it into a cone and slip it up" -- Mann demonstrates with a sheet of paper, making a scooping motion -- "and you walk down the street and do your market shopping, and you're munching on these crispy, crunchy termites. It's really quite good."
   Grass gets disqualified, because humans can't digest the cellulose in it, and it will make them sick. Rats, city pigeons, and tabby cats, on the other hand, are wholesome enough. And yet who in the class eats them? "What's stopping us from considering perfectly good substances as food?" Mann asks.
   One student struggles to verbalize her aversion. "It's the whole psychological aspect. It's just, like, you encounter city pigeons, and you encounter rats. You have a whole perspective on them. Rats are nasty. I'm sure if you go somewhere else where there were, like, Eskimos or something, and you gave them city pigeons, they would eat it."
   Our society tends to see rats as dangerous and diseased, and therefore inedible, adds another student. "And with cats, we've been taught it's not humane to eat domesticated animals."
   We eat domesticated animals all the time, Mann counters. "Cattle and sheep are all domesticated; we just don't have them in our house." There are values we attach to this, he agrees. "I could name half a dozen societies where dogs are routinely raised as food. Cats have been eaten for centuries. They're not preferred foods, but they're considered to be quite excellent food choices when there are no other animals around."
   Our perception of what food is, Mann says, "comes automatically as part of our socialization." According to Mann, each society establishes a cuisine based on its resources and the limitations of its environment that will satisfy its members' dietary needs.
   As resources change, so do cuisines, he says. "If you go to the [American] supermarket today, you will confront an absolutely astonishing range of foods, foods that have never been gathered in one place at one time anywhere, at anytime on the planet": Grapes from California. Avocados from South Africa. Persimmons from the eastern Mediterranean. Tropical fruits from the Caribbean. "They're all, right now, in the supermarket." But for most of human history, and throughout most of the rest of the world, Mann says, resources have been incredibly limited. And that, in turn, has influenced each culture's cuisine. Definitely food for thought.


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Sidebar: Preceptorials, Spring 1999]

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