Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why Human Cheese Stinks

This reader response to an earlier post about a restaurant in NYC where cheese made from human milk was being featured on the menu, does such a good job of explaining why our first reaction to things and ideas that challenge what we understand to be "normal" is so often visceral, that I thought it deserved to be aired at the forefront of this blog's on again-off again discussion of "other" food. Specifically, what Roblyn Rawlins (an Associate Professor of Sociology at The College of New Rochelle) is  attempting to explain is why so many of us  find the idea of cheese made from human milk to be repugnant. Of course, her hypothesis can be applied to any situation where we feel that we are being confronted by a situation where an "inappropriate" idea or thing is being offered for consumption. So cozy up with a cup of chica and read on.

I go with Mary Douglas and the structuralist anthropologists (backed up by cognitive psych) here. The basic argument is that there’s a serious mismatch between the amount of information that can be taken in by our senses and the capacity of our brains to process all that stuff. We simply cannot pay attention to all the information our senses collect at one time.

So to make sense of our experiences, we unconsciously rely on cognitive categories to sort all the stuff into manageable clumps. These categories are usually binary. So here we have the distinction between human and animal, flesh and meat, food and not-food.

Human: animal :: not-food : food.

For the categories to hold, we humans continually if not usually consciously work to maintain the boundaries between categories. And the categories generally work neatly and easily within cultures. Inevitably, though, human experience cannot always be contained neatly within the categories. Human milk transgresses the human = not-food conceptualization.

Things like human milk that slip between the nice and comforting sense-making categories really distress people on an unconscious level. So we repress this distressing knowledge -- the fact that human milk is food -- since we are committed to maintaining the conceptualization of humans as not-food. Repression never works completely, though, and the distress tends to bubble up, very often in nervous jokes and by experiences of distaste or revulsion.

Hence all the giggling when breast feeding is going on. Hence the distaste and revulsion. We’re pretty repressive in US culture on the public consumption of human milk and the ages of the eaters. The fact that most folks,  present company excepted [i.e. Bob dG ], speak of "breast milk" rather than "human milk" underscores my point.


Carrie said...

Interesting! Makes a lot of sense once you think about it.

I hadn't noticed how much giggling does take place when you think about breastmilk cheese - now that I think about it nearly everyone I've mentioned the story to has reacted with a nervous laugh or giggle. And lots of "ewwww" and "gross!".

Natalie Sztern said...

Imagine it in The Quickfire Challenge?!!

Tags said...

And how come you never hear of cow breast or sow breast but only breast of unmilkable animals like chicken, duck, or veal?

Carrie said...

You guys crack me up!

I am now wondering how many of my reactions are a result of conscious thought and how many are instinct or coping mechanisms designed by my subconscious. I'm not sure I want to know. LOL

the big sleep said...

I think this is a great concept. Revolutionize the dairy industry. Dairy farmers could cut the cost of land, cows, and feed, only to milk their employees.

One small step for man, one giant leap to accepting most people are just cattle.


Gary Allen said...

I suspect that part of the revulsion many feel about human milk comes (not to get all Freudian about it) from the memory of one of our first great disappointments: weaning.

It would be interesting to compare the reactions of those who were bottle-fed vs breast-fed as infants...

the big sleep said...

I don't think its the human aspect that's repulsive so much as what most people would consider milkable animals.

You don't see a big market for baboon milk or pigs.

Same goes for soft roes and prairie oysters, if you would eat mysterious seamen from who knows where, or drink your own urine for weight loss, then maybe human cheese is for you.

I'm put off by coffee beans found in the excrement of a cat.

If that's your thing, then good for you, I don't see a market In bizarre dairy.

But then again I like meat air cured for 8 months without refrigeration, but Im not going to be a charcuterie cannibal.

Jessika said...

Being an anthropologst (really!) I have read many books on the topics of well, human behaviour. There are some universal taboos as it goes, incest, murder and the eating of your fellow man (plus more). There are a few cultures that embrace eating pieces of flesh from diseased relatives. This is not in a matter of eating however but usually as a part of burial rituals. From there came the first reports of a human variant of mad cow disease or rather kuru.
It is or has been a matter of self conservation not to eat remains of your own species.

Jennie/Tikka said...

I would refine that statement just a bit to -

"Not MY food - because that's not MY mom."

The revulsion, in my mind, is in the idea of theft from someone needy. Powerful beef-eating adult taking weak infant's sole source of nutrition.

Its the literal acting out of "Taking (candy) from a baby."

Mom was supposed to stockpile that stuff in the fridge -- not turn it into the interesting item on the menu for total strangers.

IdahoRocks said...

I'm not a fan of Mary Douglas' and Levi-Strauss' binary categories but that doesn't mean I don't agree with you. As an anthropologist, I do understand that we all have cultural values and beliefs, re-inforced by our own cultures and internalized to the extent that the value/belief then motivates our individual behavior (the whole individual/culture functional analysis idea). Thus, human milk as cheese, like eating cats, is repulsive in the US because it's not considered by most of the culture to be edible food.

Of course, during WWII, British officers were taught to distinguish the difference between a cat and a rabbit carcass so that they didn't make the mistake of buying cat (cats were often interchanged for hare/rabbit during the war because without the head they look very much alike. The Germans called cats "roof rabbits," (Dachhasen) and ate them for the meat.

In other cultures males and females engaged in cannabilism. This often took place at a time of death, not because it was ceremonial but because it was culturally necessary. For example, eating the flesh of a dead relative might impart something of that person's character into the person eating their flesh. It might also have to do with gender practices so in Fore society, where kuru occurred, it was the women and children who were given the brains. Amongst the Korowai, cannabilism endured as part of their justice system. The Fijians ate their enemy to humilate him. The Tupinamba would actually fatten up their captured enemy before eating him.

So, back to human milk. Frankly, if made into cheese it must be awfully sweet, which is not what I look for in a cheese. Should it be sold? Well, I, for one, think that human babies should be fed breast milk not formula, so if we have enough extra for cheese, then some baby somewhere is being cheated.