“If God did not intend for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?”

The perks of being in a “Human Nutrition and Culture” class is that a bunch of great topics relating to food keep popping up in discussions. Meat consumption is an extremely intricate and variable topic among the cultural groups of the world – just to name a few interesting topics: cultures such as the Inuit live almost entirely off of animal products in a land with no vegetation, many major world religions ban the consumption of pork, a meal isn’t considered complete among Maasai without meat, and there is an arguable vegetarian trend that has been spreading throughout the United States in recent years.

For the purposes of a recent study, I looked at how meat consumption was viewed among different social classes in Medieval Europe and how this impacted their nutrition and health – and was surprised to find a modern day connection to how we identify different meats. (And if you are curious, the lower classes were actually healthier than higher classes because they ate more “cheap” foods such as vegetables and less “high-class” foods such as sugar. If only it were like that today).

Have you ever wondered why some meat is called the same thing as the animal it comes from and some have different names? Well… maybe not… but consider:

  • chicken is called chicken, turkey is turkey, fish is fish

However:

  • cow meat is called beef
  • calf is veal
  • sheep is mutton
  • pig is pork
  • deer is venison

The argument is often made that calling meat by other names such as beef and pork allows for people to psychologically distance themselves from the fact that they are actually eating a once-living creature. It’s easier to eat a steak when your mental image is not of an actual living cow but rather an abstract food term “beef”.

vs.

While this may be part of the explanation, it certainly doesn’t explain why we still call chickens chicken, which is one of the most eaten animals and hence should be the most likely to have a differential name for its consumption.

The difference actually comes from the Norman conquest of England and the resulting mixture of cultures and languages that occurred. When the Normans (French) took over England and it’s government, they became the elite and the nobles of the country. And they used their own words for their food – beouf, porc, and mouton. The commoners still kept the Anglo-Saxon names they used for the animals – cow, pig, and sheep.

Venison follows along this same pattern, as deer were considered royal property and legal only for nobles to consume.

The language differences may have come from a deliberate desire of the Normans to separate themselves from the commoners, or it may have been a natural response of each group to continue to use their native language.

Furthermore, the elites and nobles who used the French words only saw the meat and so called it by their French names, while the commoners who raised the animals – but were probably too poor to actually eat them – called the living animals by the Anglo-saxon names. Over time, as the languages and cultures mixed due to coexistence, both were incorporated into the common language because both developed different implications – beouf, beef, for the meat and cow for the living animal.

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“Food for thought”

I am currently in an anthropology class that focuses on how food perspectives, nutrition, and diets have shaped human evolution. It focuses on what we eat and why, and the cultural impacts of these beliefs. Naturally, the phrase “tastes like chicken” came into the discussion on day #1 and it piqued my curiosity about the origins of the phrase and whether it was actually true.

Fried Chicken

First off, the origins of the phrase seem to come from the late 19th century, when a European writer described eating a rat in China as having the consistency, texture, and taste of chicken. Since then, it has become a common, often comedic phrase, used to describe a variety of foods – sometimes describing things that actually taste like chicken, or something that is bland, or something that is exotic or strange.

My first instinct on the possible accuracy of this phrase, being an evolutionary anthropologist, was that perhaps all of the animals that supposedly taste like chicken originated from one common ancestor that tasted like chicken, or more accurately all things that taste like chicken actually taste like this common ancestor.

The flavor of meat can be based on the evolutionary origin of the animal, due to chemical make-up of the animal’s muscle tissues and other factors that influence taste. As it turns out, species descended from tetrapods tend to taste like chicken – i.e. birds and reptiles. Hoofed animals diverged from the tetrapod lineage, explaining why they have a different flavor than the rest of the animals we eat.

This is a phylogenetic tree, or visual representation of evolutionary history, of the species of animals that reportedly taste like chicken.  Note the divergence of the hoofed animals and the differing flavors of their descendants.

This is a phylogenetic tree, or visual representation of evolutionary history, of the species of animals that reportedly taste like chicken. Note the divergence of the hoofed animals and the differing flavors of their descendants.

This brings up the fun theory that because dinosaurs were the evolutionary predecessors of birds, they probably tasted like chicken too.

Tastes like Chicken

Of course, my explanation of the evolutionary theory of chicken flavor was promptly shot down by a friend majoring in biochemistry (you know who you are, buzzkill). He declared that the real reason that some things taste like other things is their glutamate content.

Flavors in meat are partially due to glutamate, an amino acid derivative that seems to contribute to the “savory” flavor of meats. Research shows that chicken has a lower glutamate content than many other meats, which results in the bland flavor that chicken can have, making it a more universally-comparable flavor.

While I agree with his explanation, I disagree with his disagreement of my theory. If studying anthropology has taught me anything, its that there is never just one simple answer to anything. So often, especially in the field of evolutionary biology or evolutionary anthropology, people are quick to judge one theory as being wrong or against their beliefs. But the important thing to remember about evolution is that it is not mutually exclusive of any other fact – instead it works with these facts to help explain how and why they came about.

Which leads me to the last point about this whole article – anything I have said here does not actually make much sense because different subspecies of chicken, age of chicken, cut of chicken, flavoring, cooking method, etc. can all have huge influences on flavor so there is really no way to say that something tastes like chicken when there is really no definitive “chicken flavor”. It’s all really just fun food for thought.

Even foods that say they taste like chicken don't really taste like I imagine chicken to be.

Even foods that say they taste like chicken don’t really taste like I imagine chicken to be.