I was at a Chinese restaurant when I heard a white customer's musings on the beef tripe that had been placed on the table. He quoted his former anthropology professor as having said, "The number of animal parts a culture deems fit for consumption is an indication of the affluence of a culture." He believed that the more affluent a culture is, the more of an animal it can afford to throw away. American society, being more affluent than Chinese society, can afford not to eat the "odds and ends" of cows, that is, internal organs like gut and kidney, and extremities such as feet and ears.
I decided to get some other perspectives on the quote attributed to the anthropology professor. So I ran it by 2 of my good friends who happen to be African American - one was raised in the North, and the other in the South. I also ran the statement by another friend who happened to be Chinese. Here's their combined output on the matter:
Mr J, born and bred in the North, says, the statement about the number of animal parts considered edible being inversely related to a culture's affluence isn't even accurate. He pointed out that Europeans, including high society Europeans, have always used the internal organs of animals in their cooking, as well as other supposedly 'unwanted' parts like the feet of pigs. One example is sweetbreads, made from the thymus or pancreas of veal, young beef, lamb and pork.
Duck liver pate and goose liver pate (foie gras) are French delicacies and they don't come cheap. See http://www.bizac.net/bizac.htm for some prices.
The French also consume the brains, hearts, kidneys, thymus and pancreas of animals. See http://frenchfood.about.com/library/weekly/aa082202a.htm
The Germans use the feet and hocks of pigs in a great variety of recipes. Some examples are:
Beef tripe (a part of the cow's stomach), which certain white Americans raise an eyebrow at in Chinese restaurants, is also eaten in various part of Europe:
Well, I guess if we go by that anthropology professor's line of reasoning, the Germans, French, Irish and Greeks must be as 'poor' as the Chinese. Were the Chinese 'poor' anyway? Chinese medieval records indicate the animal parts considered 'not worth eating' by white Americans today were being eaten in China during the Middle Ages, a China which Ibn Battuta (a contemporary of Marco Polo who travelled even more widely than Marco Polo) described as one of the safest and wealthiest realms in the world. (Ibn Battuta also described Mali, in West Africa, as having one of the lowest crime rates he encountered.) China at that time was more technologically and culturally advanced than Europe. Which is beside the point, anyway, since both Europeans and Chinese seemed to consume the internal organs and extremities of lifestock with equal gusto.
So where did we get the idea about the tripe or certain other parts of a food animal being "inedible" anyway? I don't know. But what we know is that this idea seems to have existed among European Americans even if it did not exist in Europe. White slave masters in the American South considered pig's ears, pig's feet and pig's guts the "unwanted,odd" parts of the animal. Slave masters gave the slaves the parts of the animal they didn't want. However, the black slaves' practical creativity outshone the limited vision of their white masters and they created delicious dishes such as:
These dishes became an integral part of Southern cooking, and are enjoyed by blacks and whites alike.
Lady M, who grew up in the South, was incredulous that the white man could have said such a thing in public. She found the remark very offensive. Anyway, the idea that only poor folk have to "use every part of the animal" seems to have come out of the slave-holding South. The social and racial dynamics of that place and era are probably not what we would like to influence our sensibilities, if we are to move towards a future of equal respect for all 'races'.
And to my Chinese friends, the guts, feet and ears of pig are not "odds and ends" but rather, delicacies. Individual Chinese may prefer eating pig's trotters to eating "regular, boring pork". The French eat snails and frogs, and many white Americans consider French cuisine refined and classy. But when Chinese restaurants serve up frogs and sea slugs, some of the same white Americans consider it exotic or gross, a clear case of double standards.On the note of culinary similarities between cultures, the Swedish have elk blood soup, while Filipinos have a pig blood dish called dinuguan. Chinese and Vietnamese also consume clotted chicken, pig and duck blood (often served in cubes which have a texture similar to jello). The Czechs have beef tongue soup while the Koreans have beef tongue barbecue. As one can see, the kind of 'Asian food' that typically evokes a 'yuck' reaction on the part of Westerners do have their European counterparts. Yet the reaction of some people to the use of the *same* ingredients in international cuisine may vary according to their perception of the originating culture. Even anthropologists are not immune from ethnocentric judgements and racism.