Is this a meat destined for the dinner tables of the 21st Century? Eaten in parts of Italy, Korea, Madagascar, Spain and China, it’s allegedly tastier than chicken, rabbit or pigeon…and it’s available worldwide in vast quantities. The name of this super-food? Brace yourself. It’s cat.
Midway through an episode of Italian cooking show La Prova del Cuoco, celebrity chef Beppe Bigazzi began waxing lyrical about the joys of a nice big bowl of casseroled cat. Describing the dish as “quite tender” he gave tips on preparation (soak in springwater for 3 days) before predicting “now we’ll get letters from nature lovers”.
No kidding. One white-hot telephone switchboard later, Bigazzi has been indefinitely suspended from the show (despite claiming it was all a prank), and Italy’s Deputy Health Minister is calling for a criminal investigation. Is Bigazzi suitably contrite? Well, not so much. “In the 1930s and 1940s, when I was a boy, people certainly did eat cat in the countryside around Arezzo,” he explains.
Fighting a churning stomach and a rising sense of outrage? Me, too – but there’s an interesting, and valid, question here. In the blossoming world culture of the 21st Century, where will food taboos fit in?
Take cats. Our horror at popping puss in a pot is because for us, cats have crossed that invisible cultural line between wild animals and domestic companions. They’re part of our lives in a way that lifts them out of our food chain. Consequently, while it’s often technically legal to consume cat meat, doing so breaches a number of animal cruelty laws and lands the chef in prison (the challenge facing Bigazzi right now). And that’s mild compared to the public reaction to stories like this.
It’s clearly, obviously wrong to eat cats, right? But a Hindu would say exactly the same thing about beef, as they regard the cow as a sacred animal. The Somali (recently famous for their piracy) don’t eat fish. Even staunchly meat-eating England, Australia and the U.S. have a mild taboo against eating offal. How about escargot, anyone? Wherever you look, we flinch at different things.
Across the world as a whole, “wrong” is anything but obvious. And this allows shock-jock TV chefs to go in search of dishes that will thrill their audiences with ratings-winning revulsion.
Sometimes food taboos make perfect sense, and sometimes they’re no-nos laced with hypocrisy. We’re inconsistent. That’s often the way we roll. But when the world needs feeding, should we be trying to put a lid on our indignation – or is it about time we turned up the heat on the culinary wrongdoers?