Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sea Pigs

I promised myself when I started this that I would try my best to avoid anything outright offensive. Cheeky, yes. Outrageous, maybe. But just not outright offensive. I am actually a little bit proud of myself that I have made it all the way to the second post before hitting this low water mark (pun intended). But seriously, I am not actually really trying to offend here. But offend I will, I am sure. Again, for those of you who know me, this probably doesn't come as a huge shock. For those that don't, all I ask is that you bear with me. I'll try to make it all better in the end.

So, I found myself wondering why we don't eat dolphins. We seem to eat just about everything else in the sea, whether it tastes good or not. We eat it cooked, steamed, and raw. It has been posited that most Scottish food is based on a dare, but whoever came up with that theory missed the even larger dare that Icelandic folk have been involved in with their seafood. And, it's not like there is just one crazy dish, there are dozens. I won't go into huge detail, but one obvious example is Rotted Shark. Bury a shark in sand for six months and then serve cold. And don’t eat too much. It is easy to point overseas to consumption of strange foods, but right here in the U.S. people willingly eat eel and octopus. Many have assured me that it is delicious, but, having tried it, I am not so sure. But everyone in the U.S. seems to draw the lines at dolphins. It didn't seem logical.

Of course, it is hard to read anything about the movie The Cove, a film about dolphin slaughtering in Japan without being horrified. The methods used to catch the dolphins and then slaughtering resulting in the bay running red with blood are obviously horrifying. But it is not just the concept of slaughtering that seems to disturb most people – merely the concept of eating dolphins is enough to be offensive to me. But why? And the answer is not so obvious.

Here are some of the arguments I came up with.

It is inhumane to eat dolphins. This argument is really a non-starter. We, as dwellers in the 21st century have been made to feel bad about eating pretty much any meat. We’d like to believe that our food dies of old age after a nice life on an organic, free-range, eco-friendly commune with all sorts of enrichment activities to keep the animals happy until they give their lives willingly for our sustenance. Let’s be honest here- if the range were really that free, the chickens wouldn't come back. I wouldn't. Well, unless there was a really good buffet before the neck-wringing. But the reality is that we are made to feel guilty about pretty much everything we eat. But we still eat all the things we know we shouldn’t. There is a huge difference between what we like to think we do and what we actually do.

Dolphins are endangered. This argument fails on two points. First, it is not true – most common dolphin species aren’t endangered . Second, Americans don't really seem to care about endangered seafood. We eat it all the time. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great resource to use to help know what to avoid and what to eat. But, in all honesty, no matter how endangered the Chilean sea bass is, there is a small part of me that can't help but want to order it and damn the consequences. Fortunately for the Chilean sea bass, in almost all instances, the larger part of me that is incredibly cheap starts to look elsewhere on the menu for lower cost fare. So, just a fair warning - if you are picking up the tab, I will probably offend you on two counts. First, you will be a party to the further destruction of an overfished species. Second, I'm pretty much ordering the priciest thing on the menu.

Dolphins are mammals. Well, this one fails pretty easily. We eat plenty of mammals. I am sure cows would love for the mammal rule to be put into place.

Dolphins are higher mammals. Obviously, eating humans is something pretty much all of us avoid. Pretty much. But not all. It turns out that not eating humans is a pretty good practice, due to some nasty side effects . I would have to say next on the "do not eat" list would have to be chimpanzees. I'd throw gorillas on the list next, and then orang utans, and then a bunch of other higher primates. But it is not entirely obvious where to go next. Which mammal gets the next "get out of jail card”? It seems somewhat arbitrary.

Dolphins are crazy smart. Well, dolphins are crazy smart. They can do tricks. They can rescue stranded boaters. They can problem solve. But, as smart as they are, they rank below ferrets and minks. Which, although rarely served as a dish, sometimes end up as part of a stole. But, probably most damning, pigs often end up on the Animal Mensa list, and the distinction doesn’t really seem to be helping them.

And, to round out the last three: Dolphins are cute; dolphins communicate; dolphins frequently have names. Again, we fall back on the humble pig here. Pigs are cute, at least until they get too large. Dolphins whistle and click, pigs squeal. Flipper, meet Wilbur.

In the end, what it domes down to is that dolphins are called "dolphins". If dolphins were called something else, their consumption would be more palatable. It all comes down to marketing - rename the dolphin the "sea pig", and suddenly people would be rushing out to eat them. Most Americans love pork, or more precisely, bacon. We'll put bacon on anything. And when it's not handy to carry around a rasher of bacon to layer on top of all of our meals, we can carry around Bacon Salt. There are nine flavors available to date and it is also vegetarian and kosher. Think about that for a second. We love bacon so much that we want to make sure that the people who have vowed not to eat pork or even _any_ meat are not deprived of it's flavor.

The English have a long history of rebranding their meats. When was the last time you sat down for a nice big helping of cow. You didn't. We have a name for the animal, a name for the meat, and then all sorts of names for different cuts and servings of the meat. And cows are not the only example. We call the animal pigs or swine, but the meat pork. Bambi was a deer, but after the hunter is done with him, it's venison. We use all sorts of these methods to distance ourselves from our carnivorous natures. This naming tradition came to us during the hundreds of years when control of England passed back and forth with the French. Peasants raised the but the nobles ate the buef. We now have the English names for the animals (cow, pig, deer), but the French names for the meat (beef, pork, venison).

So, I am not asking you to rush out and catch yourself a dolphin, rebrand it a sea pig, and consume it in one sitting. I'm just asking you to let the concept of a sea pig to rattle around in your brain for a bit and to realize that a lot of the way that the world works is really based in large part on how we as individuals, as a community, and as a nation think that the world works. If you can change the way that you think and pass that change on to those around you, you can change the world. Plus, "sea pig" sounds funny.


Stacy said...

well, maybe that is why I couldn't leave a comment since I would have taken the happiness away from "first!"

Even if you called a dolphin a "sea pig" I wouldn't eat it, but then again I don't eat pig, or anything with flesh for that matter.

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

Until you actually confirm that dolphin tastes as good or even better than bacon your arguments are all irrelevant.

Todmund said...

@M.R. I already covered that point.. "But as far as the precision goes, it does not really matter. This is the Internet. It just has to sound precise. And it does. And it has to be roughly believable. And it is. So, following those rough principles, I can say pretty much whatever I want."

Or, to be more concise - I don't actually do the things I say. I just say them.

Unknown said...

I've been giving this a little more thought and I think it's unlikely that dolphins are that tasty...

The real scandal of The Cove isn't so much the dolphin slaughter but that the meat is then serripticiously funneled into the school lunch program.
Now...Japan is rather prideful in its consumption of whale meat ( inspite of an international ban on whaling. Yet they keep their dolphin consumption on the downlow, the qt, very hush-hush. There's either something very taboo about dolphin consumption or perhaps it's just not tasty (like whale meat) and thus not worthy of the international scorn. Furthermore, dolphin is served in school lunches. I'm certain that you were never served anything remotely tasty on a plastic segmented plate-tray by a woman in a hairnet while in school. School lunches do not taste good and if dolphin meat is reserved for school lunch...dolphin does not taste good.

Anonymous said...

Dophins do not look edible. They are too sleek.

Anonymous said...

I thought a sea pig was someone like Bruce Willis's character in the movie "Striking Distance."

Anonymous said...

Striking Distance was set on a river...not the sea. He was a river pig.

If they didn't want him to make waves...why'd they put him in the water?

Unknown said...

So I finally saw The Cove a few weeks ago and I finally learned why we don't eat that delicious pre-brined sea bacon you desperately crave. It's toxic! Dolphins are at the top of the food chain and thus are full of mercury. Some of the meat tested in the film was way, way, way above (500x if I'm remembering correctly) the government guidelines for allowable amounts of mercury in seafood (which some argue is too high anyway). So it's the birth defects and general reproductive dysfunction that necessitates not eating dolphin.

Anonymous said...

You are the man. Thanks for pointing out the fact that there is nothing wrong wit eating dolphins. They're the gang-raping thugs who kill their own young and murder porpoises for target-practice. More and more, the people are actually realizing that these animals are wild animals that are violent like most wild animals are, and when they feel like it, will kill in an instant. Flipper really did some damage to the psyche of the Western populations. It's a shame, really. Dolphin meat tastes just as good as any other meat when treated well, just like other meats do when they are treated well.

Anonymous said...