Berliner Currywurst at Ku'damm 195, Berlin, 2010
Bedouin Arabs have a pretty cool tradition related to food. It's called the salt bond. If you share your meal with someone, you become responsible for his welfare for three days – the time it takes for the salt from that meal to pass from his system. There are all kinds of ancillary traditions related to the salt bond. For example, if you approach a Bedouin camp, you will be invited to share a meal – and if you refuse, it's a signal that your intentions are hostile. That's bad news.
This speaks to something really fundamental to us as social mammals. Social mammals share their food with kin and friends, and refuse food to enemies. We grow close to people we eat with, and refusing someone's food or drink distances us from them. This shouldn't be news to anyone; for example, the erosion of family bonds has been partly attributed to families no longer dining together due to the pressures of work and the frantic pace of life.
Food taboos are a cultural riff on this dynamic. We often define "us" and "them" in terms of food. Garlic almost disappeared from the Finnish diet at one point, because it was labeled "Russian food." Back in 2003, the United States Congress relabeled French fries "freedom fries," as the French were mocked as cheese-eating surrender monkeys. One of Portugal's national dishes was supposedly invented by the Inquisition, to make sure Jewish converts to Christianity had really converted and weren't just faking it.1 A frum Jew refusing a cheeseburger is simultaneously reinforcing his identity as a frum Jew and his sense of community with other frum Jews, and distancing himself from frei Jews and gentiles. We are what we eat, not only physically, but also socially.
While there aren't any ironclad food taboos in Buddhist circles, there is a fair bit of pressure about two of them: vegetarianism and abstention from alcohol. The fifth precept is pretty unequivocal about booze. Vegetarianism isn't as deeply embedded in core Buddhist teachings, but it is a fairly logical outcome of following the first precept – the one about not killing. Nonetheless, many Buddhists are not vegetarians (the Dalai Lama, to mention one), and many others are not teetotallers (Leonard Cohen, to mention another).
However, the pressure is there, and in some circles it is as categorical as any food taboo. In fact, some of the most judgmental, unpleasant, and generally nasty Buddhist writing I've come across has been about promoting vegetarianism.
Those whose actions are evil are the ones who will fill the Hell of Great Heat, experiencing therein the fruits of their wickedness. It is there that they will boil for hundreds of thousands of years because of their wilful harm. Their own evil actions have thus become their enemies. When they gain release, they will flee, searching for a protector, a refuge, or help. But in the distance they will see packs of ravenous hounds, with jaws agape and teeth like sharpened diamonds, which race toward them and encircle them with their terrible baying. The denizens of hell will try to escape, but the hounds of hell will overtake and devour them whole: sinews and flesh, joint and bone, leaving nothing, not even a fragment the size of a mustard seed! Body and limbs will be completely eaten up. And this experience of being devoured by dogs will occur again and again. All this is said to be the result of killing living beings for the sake of enjoying their meat.There's more in that vein here.
— Saddharmasmrityupasthana Sutra
It's very important to pay attention to what we eat, and why. What we eat has consequences, for our health, for the health of the planet, for the well-being of plants and animals, and for identity matters – the way we relate to each other. As any such complex area, it's a game of push-me-pull-you: focusing on improving one thing might make other things worse. It's very seductive to try to cut through all this complexity with a simple solution. Yet going teetotal and vegan will have negative consequences as well. At worst, if you turn abstention from alcohol and meat into an -ism, it can turn you into a judgmental prick who really doesn't contribute all that much to the alleviation of suffering.
I have a general dislike for moral absolutes and categorical imperatives. I prefer to think of things in terms of preferences. I do have fairly strong preferences with regards to food and drink, some due to ethical concerns, others due to health concerns, yet others due to taste and the food taboos I've inherited from my culture.2 However, they don't stop me from sharing a meal, or enjoying the local food when I'm traveling, even if the meal doesn't exactly match my preferences.
Food taboos are dynamite. While they can be useful, there's a real risk of tipping them over into negative territory. The bond of salt is sacred, and we should not refuse it lightly.
1Porco à alentejana is a (very tasty) stew of shellfish and pork.
2For example, I don't eat terrestrial arthropods, but do eat aquatic ones. Crayfish, yum. Scorpion, yuck. Weird, huh?