The Nacirema and Cheese Ravioli

The social act of eating is part of how we become human, as much as speaking and taking care of ourselves. Learning to eat is learning to become human. (Richard Wilk)

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson (who may or may not have been influenced Horace Miner’s work).

As soon as Ann told me she was planning to blog about the food habits of Neanderthals I knew exactly what I wanted to do for my Andy’s Corner contribution to the blog.  What could be more of an appropriate topic, coming on the heels of my last post dealing with esoteric cultural foods such as Icelandic lifrapylsa and Basque odolkia, than something about the cultural quirks of the Nacirema?

Horace Miner who published Body Ritual Among the Nacirema in 1956.

If you don’t already know about this tribal community, let me briefly bring you up to speed. The definitive ethnographic details of what we know about the Nacirema can be found in an academic paper written by Horace Miner and published in The American Anthropologist in 1956. Miner tells us that the Nacirema live in “the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles”. He describes some daily Nacirema rituals that would seem off-putting to most of us. His description of the daily “rituals of the mouth” is the best known part of his ethnography:

The Nacirema have an almost extreme horror and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Several times each day, the natives rub the insides of their mouths with a small bundle of hog bristles. Those who neglect the ritual are forced to visit the holy mouth man who, as punishment, digs holes in their teeth with sharp instruments. …

Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them… It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens they have imposed upon themselves.

Body Ritual Among the Nacirema has appeared in many introductory textbooks and received the most reprint permission requests of any article in the American Anthropologist. For many years this was the first reading I assigned to my sociology students. I asked then to write a short essay about what they learned from the article and used their essays to stimulate discussion about what we consider to be normal and abnormal behaviors in everyday life.

The kicker was that Miner’s account of the Nacerima was actually a clever satire on how anthropologists depicted “other” cultures as well was as an anthropological examination of our own American culture. As soon as readers figure out that Nacirema is “American” spelled backwards or that the Nacirema’s cultural hero known as Notgnihsaw is “Washington” spelled backwards the bizarre rituals described by Miner suddenly become familiar.

Over the years it never ceased to amaze me how seldom students caught the real meaning of Miner’s Nacirema. I always looked forward to the moment when I would dramatically turn to the chalkboard (remember those archaic pedagogical devices?) and write in bold letters “American“. I loved the audible groans and gasps from the students. Unfortunately the Internet ruined it all. With just a click of a mouse Wikipedia gives it away. The fun was gone. What a bummer!

Logo for the Disgusting Food Museum in Malmö, Sweden

But the fact remains that viewing American cultural practices from an outsider’s standpoint can be an enlightening exercise. If I were ever to return to the classroom, I would focus more on food-related cultural practices and in lieu of Miner’s article I would assign a recent New Yorker article by Jiayang Fan entitled The Gatekeepers Who Get to Decide What Food is Disgusting (the magazine print edition title is “Yuck“). Although her article starts with a discussion of some of the “bizarre” food items featured in the Disgusting Food Museum (located in Sweden) she is really trying to point out how cultural biases affect how we evaluate different kinds of food and those who eat the food.

I love her description of her first experience with a non-Chinese meal. It is so … Miner-esque:

… disgust did not leave a lasting mark on my psyche until 1992, when, at the age of eight, on a flight to America with my mother, I was served the first non-Chinese meal of my life. In a tinfoil-covered tray was what looked like a pile of dumplings, except that they were square. I picked one up and took a bite, expecting it to be filled with meat, and discovered a gooey, creamy substance inside. Surely this was a dessert. Why else would the squares be swimming in a thick white sauce? I was grossed out, but ate the whole meal, because I had never been permitted to do otherwise. For weeks afterward, the taste festered in my thoughts, goading my gag reflex.

And what was that disgusting dish that had grossed her out? I can just imagine myself turning to the blackboard and writing the answer to that question in bold letters – “cheese ravioli.”

The meal looked like a “pile of dumplings,” except that they were square and filled with a “gooey, creamy substance.” Yuck!!

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