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Forgotten food rites April 10th, 2016 by

Three decades ago in Europe, slaughtering and processing meat was still occasionally done on farm and in people’s homes, but recent food regulations have put an end to these practices and nowadays most Europeans have little idea of how animals are slaughtered.

Perhaps because Europeans have lost touch with the origins of the meat they eat, the way animals are slaughtered has become a highly sensitive debate. Reading the book “Food – A Culinary History” it dawns on me that the rhetoric used by right wing politicians to forbid ritual slaughter by Muslims in temporary slaughter houses (during EidalAdha, the annual Feast of Sacrifice) and without animals being stunned before slaughtering, is both hypocritical and based on false reasoning.

The politician argue that European values (rooted in Greek and Roman civilisation) are endangered by immigrants, and more recently by the desperate masses of refugees, many of whom adhere to Islam.

Forgotton food ritesHowever, meat eating in Greek and Roman society was not a daily business. In fact, meat was only eaten when it was obtained from a ritual slaughter. Even the meat that Romans bought in butcher shops was from public sacrifices. So rather than ritual slaughtering being an intrusion of foreign values undermining our values (as some claim), it is actually at the origin of Western civilisation. To make the (partial) ban of ritual slaughtering publicly more acceptable, right wing politicians cleverly hide behind animal welfare rhetoric.

A total ban on ritual slaughtering would be contradictory in a multi-cultural society. It would affect Muslims who slaughter animals according to dhabīḥah, per Islamic law, and Jews who for centuries have slaughtered certain animals and birds for food according to shechita, in line with Jewish dietary laws.

Both halal and kosher food embody values of respect to the animal’s welfare that go beyond the Western notions of food safety imposed on industrial slaughter houses. The rituals give a cultural value to the meat and create consumer awareness. Even today, devout Christians pray over their food at meal time. The Islamic prayers in the slaughter house evoke a similar respect and gratitude for the animal that provides food for humans.

In a Western society that has by and large lost its sense of rituals (of which sacrifices are part and parcel), public debates might benefit from more inputs of historians and social scientists, to help us to see things in perspective.

While the ancient Greek society was “culturally elastic”, to quote Edith Hall, intolerance seems to be on the rise in modern day Europe. Remembering Europe’s forgotten food rites might be a small step in the right direction to help the lawmakers and civil society become more sympathetic to people’s other rituals.

Literature cited

Dupont, Florence (1999) The Grammar of Roman Dining. In: Food. A Culinary History. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari (eds), pp. 113-127. Colombia University Press.

Hall, Edith (2016) Classics for the people – why we should all learn from the ancient Greeks.

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