Food abstinence: Leviticus and Marvin Harris

It always baffled me as a child growing up in very Catholic Pampanga that the entire holy season beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Easter Sunday was marked with all kinds of food prohibitions. And yet, the following month of May was always treated as a merry season of fiestas, in which these same prohibitions were completely reversed.

It did not make sense to me why it was all right to have a little meat every day of the week except Friday.  In my young mind I figured that maybe since Christ died on a Friday, abstinence from eating meat on that special day was a way of living the sacrifice he personified.  But then, if that was the case, I thought, a total fast would make better sense than simple meat abstinence.

I remember arguing with my mother as to the appropriateness of having eggs and milk, both of which were sourced from animals, but not the flesh of these animals.  I remember asking if the meat ban covered insects like the kamaro, a delicacy in my province.  Or the meat of turtles and lizards, which closely resembled chicken flesh in consistency and taste.

Later I realized that my questions were legitimate questions about the logic behind food abstinence and taboos.  In college, I encountered people who refused to touch pork or even smell it, yet did not have the same aversion to beef.  I met people who would eat chicken or goat meat but not pork or beef.  I met people who would not touch any meat without asking if it was “halal”, i.e., slaughtered and cleaned in a ritually lawful way.

Food beliefs and restrictions are typically woven into the rules of most religions, and they become markers of ethnic and group identity.  They are seen as a willful subjugation of appetites in favor of morals.  But anthropologists view them in a different way.  Most food interdictions, they say, evolved as consequences of ecological pressure in the homelands of the ancient religions.

“Cultures,” writes Marvin Harris in his book “Cannibals and Kings”, “tend to impose supernatural sanctions on the consumption of animal flesh when the ratio of communal benefits to costs associated with the use of a particular species deteriorates.”  Harris’s thesis belongs to the perspective called “cultural materialism”, which views aspects of culture, including religion, as practical adaptations to the exigencies of human survival.

“Animals that have high benefits and low costs,” says Harris, “but that become more costly later on, are the principal targets of supernatural sanctions.  The most severe restrictions tend to develop when a nutritionally valuable species not only becomes more expensive, but its continued use endangers the existing mode of subsistence.  The pig is such a species.”

There was a time when this lowly creature was domesticated everywhere for its meat because of its highly efficient conversion of carbohydrates into protein and fat.  “Remains of domesticated pig appear in the neolithic villages of Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Anatolia almost as early as those of sheep and goats.”  For as long as there were extensive forests in which pigs could be raised, pork remained very much a part of the diet of the early peoples of the Middle East.

But with population pressure and the intensification of farming and herding, forests were transformed into grasslands, and, before long, grasslands became deserts.  In these new circumstances, pigs could be raised only by supplementary feeding of grain, thus competing with human beings. Raising pigs became a costly and harmful human activity.  “The ecclesiastical prohibition recorded in Leviticus,” observes Harris, “had the merit of finality: by making even a harmless little bit of pig raising unclean, it helped put down the harmful temptation to raise a lot of pigs.”

By far the most comprehensive listing of clean and unclean food in any religion, Leviticus XI legislates in incredible detail the eating habits of the Israelites.  “Of all land animals these are the ones you may eat: any animal that has hoofs you may eat, provided it is cloven-footed and chews the cud.…Of the various creatures that live in the water, you may eat the following: whatever in the seas or in river waters has both fins and scales. The various winged insects that walk on all fours are loathsome for you.  But…you may eat those that have jointed legs for leaping on the ground: the various kinds of locusts, grasshoppers, katydids and crickets.”

Thousands of years separate us from the ancient Israelites, but the archaic taboos that regulated their eating habits remain encrusted in our religious beliefs and practices.  Violating them still provokes uneasiness and guilt even among commonsensical and secular people like myself.

One Friday evening last month, I was having dinner with my brother Ambo, a Catholic priest and a biblical scholar.  The cook had thoughtfully prepared an array of vegetable and fish dishes.  But thoughtlessly, I reached out for and opened a packet of pork cracklings.  Halfway through the meal, my brother suddenly remembered it was a Friday, the reason for the meatless fare we were having.  Instinctively, I felt like throwing up the chicharon that was already in my belly.  Like a small boy caught in the middle of a sin, I searched the face of the priest in front of me for a hint of mercy.  He just smiled and shook his head, and had some of the chicharon himself.


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