Tastes Like Pets: Horses, Llamas, and Burger King

Many of you are no doubt aware of the recent scandal involving horse meat found in Burger King hamburgers in the U.K.  It has been reported on in many media outlets, including NPR and the Guardian, and has resulted in Burger King dropping the supplier in question, an Irish company supplying meat from slaughterhouses in Poland.  If there were any lingering doubts about fast food as global industry, this should lay them to rest.

Despite the good nutritional quality of horse meat, the response has been outrage.  Apparently many who are willing to accept the industrial process for producing beef are not so generous if the meat comes from some other domesticated quadruped.  The reasons for this seem obvious to anthropologists, and were outlined long ago by Marshall Sahlins in his piece on the American taboo against eating dog meat.  He argues that the place of dogs as liminal, but very real, members of American households (a.k.a. “pets”) makes their consumption something akin to cannibalism, and thus subject to the same taboo.

Horses have a similar position as “pets” in our society, generally speaking.  While horses are not members of as many households, they are generally seen as upper-class pets, human companions, and beings with which humans have social relationships.  Thus they are seen by many Americans and Britons as off-limits as food.  (Of course, that cultural association is not universal by any means.)

This leads to some interesting situations.  When I was researching the consumption of llama meat in La Paz, Bolivia in 1993-1994, this topic was of great interest to people in the U.S.  I was asked, on many occasions,  whether llama meat tasted like horse meat.  This was a question I was never asked by Bolivians when telling them about my research, whether they had eaten llama or not.

I found this question odd, albeit telling, because those asking had invariably never tried either horse or llama meat.  So why ask if one food you haven’t tried tastes like another food you haven’t tried?  The association is entirely cultural.  Both animals are seen, by those in the U.S., as expensive four-legged pets.  Rather than asking the stereotypical question of whether llama tastes like chicken, the first thing that came to mind was the animal that fits into the same social relationship with people: the horse.

The unfortunate part is that I have never eaten horse meat (no objection to it, it’s just never come up) and so I have no idea whether llama tastes like horse or not.  I am forced to compare llama (favorably!) to beef and mutton.

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“Little Globalizations”

A lot of globalization literature focuses on what I would call “Big Globalizations.”  George Ritzer worries about the McDonaldization of Society while James Watson’s edited volume Golden Arches East shows how McDonalds has become localized throughout Asia.  Now, I love Watson’s book — I teach chapters from it in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class — but at the same time I find this fascination with what Daniel Miller calls “meta-commodities” such as McDonalds and Starbucks and Coca-Cola to be a bit… class marked.

Here is Bolivia, where there are no McDonalds and Coca-Cola is common but the most expensive of the soda options, such commodities are part of upper-class life.  Burger King (which there is in La Paz) is expensive by local standards; most Bolivians, I would hazard, have never eaten there.

Nevertheless, globalization can be seen everywhere.  These are the “little globalizations” of no-name brands and mom-and-pop owned stores, the connections forged without global marketing campaigns or U.S. reader brand recognition.  Here’s some examples from my wanderings today.

I start off at Cafe Terraza, an upscale coffee shop in Sopacachi.  They have wireless, as do many upper-end cafes in La Paz these days (quite a shift from 1993, when to my knowledge there was only one internet cafe in the whole city, in Calle Sagarnaga).  Two flat-screen TVs are going.  One is showing a retrospective compilation of runway fashion shows by Michael Kor, subtitled in Spanish.  The other is showing MTV, alternating between Spanish rock and US hits like Christina Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight” (with its overt bisexual DBSM imagery that would shock many Bolivians) and Beyonce’s “Why Don’t You Love Me?” (with its pin-up girl vision of 1950’s US domesticity, which is itself deeply culturally marked).

Leaving, I take a mini up to Calle Rodriguez.  The tape deck is playing 1980’s US rock hits from New Order and Boy George.  I pass billboards advertising another Sopacachi store, NIM, that sells “Hindu fashion” from India and Indonesia.

In Mercado Sopacachi, I am greeted by the familiar smells of the market, the tension in my hamstrings as I walk up cobblestone streets.  Women wearing indigenous polleras (originally based on Spanish colonial fashions) sell vegetables, fruits, fish, meats.  Women in western dress zip by in taxis carrying crates of eggs.  Stands sell American-style dog food by weight, even though most dogs in Bolivia fend for themselves.  Women sell ginseng powders, “Nuez de India” for weight loss, thumbdrives to use at those now-ubiquitous Internet cafes, pirated CDs and DVDs from everywhere, Northface jackets that are surely imported whether they are knockoffs or not.  Everyone seems to have a cell phone; the newspaper today is reporting that there are almost as many cell phones in Bolivia as people.

Restaurants offer cuisine from Italy (especially pizza), Spain (tapas), Argentina (steak), China (chifas), real Italian gelato, and “Api Happy,” a cafe-style place across from UMSA offering a hot drink typically found in market stalls, but at 4x the price.  My favorite is the Thai restaurant in the tourist district that incorporates the native Andean llama meat into some dishes.

I am only scratching the surface, of course.  But the sheer quantities of imported goods, tastes, knowledge, and interests is astounding — and all this in an area that is assumed by most in the U.S. to be on the very edges of globalization.  Clearly such assumptions are false, but part of that has to do with looking only at “Big Globalizations” (example: map of Starbucks and McDonalds “taking over the world”)

If we assume meta-commodities are the only index for global connections, we may miss the “Little Globalization” that are so integral to peoples’ lives.

Llama meat in La Paz’s tourist district, June 2010

This is, in part, a shameless plug for Helen Haines and my upcoming edited volume Adventures in Eating: Anthropological Experiences in Dining from Around the World. In it, anthropoloigists discuss frankly what it’s like to be offered unfamiliar foods and how we can turn that discomfort into methodologically useful data.  The book is aimed at interested foodies, undergraduate anthropology students, and those interested in field methods and the anthropology of food.

My own chapter in this volume focuses on chuño, a popular Andean preparation of potatoes that involves freeze-drying them.  As a foil to this example, I chose my old favorite, llama meat (the subject of my B.A. thesis and an article).  The over-arching question is: Why is llama meat offered at tourist restaurants, while the far more commonly consumed chuño generally is not?

Asado de llama with French fries, top and center. Yum!!

Llamas are native to the pre-Columbian Andes, were bred largely for their meat (they were one of the few domesticated meat sources in the pre-Columbian Andes, along with guinea pig — the subject of another chapter in the Adventures volume), and continue to be raised and consumed.  And yes, both llama and guinea pig are delicious.

Fillet of Llama is the first item on this menu board.

I continue to be fascinated by the fact that llama meat is so prominent in La Paz’s touristic areas, where restaurants offer it (often in English) to foreign diners, while llama is conspicuously absent in restaurants in most of the rest of the city (with a few exceptions).

Even touristic food marked as "ethnic" (here: Thai) may include the Andean llama.

To learn more, you will of course have to read the book (or wait, in vain, for the movie to come out).

As promised – Tourism Toys!

As I mentioned in a comment below, part of the on-going bicentennial celebrations here include kids’ meal toys at Pollos Copacabana celebrating various “touristic” places around La Paz. Notable is that the “tourists” are little pollitos (the chain’s mascot) and therefore should probably be read as paceños, not foreign tourists. This is important for several reasons:

1. The people buying these meals are likely middle to upper class Bolivians with some disposable income, allowing them to be tourists at home, so to speak

2. They’re interested in some of the same activities as “gringos” (aka biking to Coroico) but perhaps they don’t do it with *all* the gear.

3. Quite frankly, it does seem that tourism has dropped off substantially here. Sure, there are backpacker types wandering around Sagarnaga, but it seems far fewer than in years past (just my impression) and even there I’ve heard not a single other U.S. accent. Therefore, who can keep all the tourism operators afloat? Hopefully locals who have the time and desire to take day or weekend trips to “know” their department.

And now, without further ado, the toys:
Pollos Copacabana at Tiwanaku

Pollitos biking to Coroico

Power’s “Whispering in the Giant’s Ear,” reviewed

Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization by William Powers.  New York and London: Bloomsbury. 2006.  305 pp.

This book, written by a U.S. international aid worker, is a well-written, honest, warts-and-all look at Koel Kempff and other Bolivian national parks in a context of growing indigenous political power and the increasing interest of international corporations in “carbon sinks” in the Amazon.  The book’s timeframe covers Bolivia at the end of the Goni Presidency through the end of the Mesa Presidency, foreshadowing the rise of Evo Morales to power.  Powers is sympathetic to the political struggles of indigenous groups at that time, yet pragmatic about his role at the Fundacion Amigos de la Naturaleza (FAN).

Powers is not an anthropologist (although he is reading anthropologists and Bolivianists, including excellent works by Arturo Escobar, Kevin Healy, Leslie Gill, and Herbert Klein, — as well as, unfortunately, pseudo-folklorist Joseph Campbell).  Yet, he discusses many of the topics and themes that affect ethnographic fieldwork.

I was particularly touched by his on-going struggles to figure out how to be comfortable within widely divergent social circles: Bolivian NGO workers, Amazonian indigenous peoples, multi-millionaire ex-patriots, British Petroleum representatives.  I think most anthropologists would understand his anxiety as he decides where to take Salvador, an indigenous Amazonian Chiquitano leader who works with his NGO, for dinner in Santa Cruz.  People like Powers are not outside the local class structure, but they cross-cut it in ways that many Bolivians don’t or can’t.  Anthropologists are similar; they often move from poor rural houses with no water to city penthouses, from street fiestas to lavish embassy parties, from ex-patriot BBQs to university libraries.  Sometimes these gringos take Bolivians with them, and I can give a few examples from my own experience: I brought Tiwanakena assistants to work in a government archive in La Paz, welcomed rural visitors into my middle-class Sopacachi apartment, took rural Aymara to city hospitals and poor urban Aymara to movie theaters.  In Bolivia’s highly-stratified society, such movements were not unheard of (and certainly do not require gringos), but they could be uncomfortable.  I feel Powers captures this dynamic very well — the sense that not all public spaces are equally open to all members of society, and the tensions that emerge when people cross those invisible lines.

Powers also captures what I like to call “surreal Bolivia” — those moments where, at least as a gringo, something so… odd happens that it seems funny, deeply profound, and enlightening all at once.  Power’s account is littered with these moments: the local official who corners him to ask how he can be more like Bill Clinton (p. 198-199), scaring parrots (p. 169), U.S. embassy staff who can’t understand the connection between the War on Drugs and how Bolivians feel about the U.S. (p. 210), Power’s culture shock of returning to the U.S. to hyper-processed foods and hyper-materialism (p. 212-216).

There are also a few moments that might make an anthropologist cringe slightly.  Powers is very concerned with the category of indigenous people, not just as a legal or political category, but as a “real” group. When Salvador’s ethnicity is questioned in order to discredit his group’s claim to Amazonian land (p. 156), Powers seems genuinely disturbed.  Rather than see this as a legal ploy to justify the claims of loggers, he instead starts to pursue a “lost” group of indigenous people who are even more “indigenous” than the Chiquitano — the Guarasug’we. Later he gives us this strange analogy:

There’s a single tree, a hundred-year-old flowering tajibo, in the very center of BP’s Bolivia in Miniature…. As I touch its rough bark, I know that it is no longer the Guarasug’we tree tha holds up the world. It doesn’t emerge out of their animate earth or send its flowers into seven skies.  It grows out of and flourishes into globalization.  In a sense, the ground below out feet and the air we breathe have become global capitalism.  We live within Jamison’s “postmodern hyperspace,” where the great expansion of capitalism in our era internalizes the exterior world, just as the Epcot Center seeks to internalize its exterior, aspiring to be a total space, a complete world. Globalization absorbs traditional culture and wild nature and spews forth a heteronomy of fragments such as carbon ranches, green companies, and capitalist Indians.

But within this all-encompassing hyperspace there are struggles.  And looking at the tajibo tree in front of me, I get an idea.  Perhaps Salvador is a strangler fig, and the modernizing sultan Apollonius [another indigenous leader] a liana.  Both of these plants complete for the tajibo tree before me.  But whereas strangler figs, like all hemiepiphytes, begin within the tree canopy and work their way down to the soil, the thick, woody liana is a vine that starts in the soil and climbs up.  Both plants use the tree for structure, and both kill it, but in very different ways.  A group of lianas can eventually bring the tree crashing down under their weight; strangler figs take the suffocating tree into themselves, and, remarkably, the new organizsm retains the shape and verticality of the tree.

Bolivia’s protesting masses are not noble savages battling an evil corporate globalization.  Everything is tainted.  Salvador and hundreds of thousands of others come together as a strangler fig from within the branches of the ancient tree of indigenous culture and wild nature, shoot their roots down into the group of globalization, and use it to entomb the tree.  The new is shaped around the old, but it an entirely different species.  The strangler races against time with the lianas: the forces of monoculture and extinction that simultaneoulsly inch up the tree and threaten its collapse (pp. 230-231).

Powers recognizes that all humans have both individual goals and big dreams, and that the two come into conflict. Yet, he seems genuinely surprised that Salvador or other indigenous people might try to personally benefit from their political connections (including to him and FAN).  Underlying Power’s narrative is the sense that there really is something real and solid about indigeneity that is untouched or untouchable by the forces of capitalism.  But as Alcida Rita Ramos has warned (Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil, 1998), this “Hyperreal Indian” is always a political tool.  It is never an ethnographic description but instead used strategically to empower or disenfranchise groups labeled as “indigenous.”  Saying that “real” indigenous people should be isolated from capitalism provides a way to discredit claims made on ethnic grounds, because no group is totally isolated from capitalism today.

Yet, Powers recognizes that indigenous people are forced to speak a language the state can understand — one that mixes claims to unchanging ethnicity with real political action.  He quotes Salvador as saying “Blocking roads is the only language some people understand” (p. 250).  In the end, this book is worth reading not because Powers has a coherent theoretical stance, but rather because he allows the situation to be contradictory.  He is not afraid to show the complexities of life in Bolivia, even when they don’t fit into the narrative that he, himself, wants to write.  And in the end, it is that data which makes this book — or any other ethnography – useful.

Bolivia’s mom and kid friendly new law

La Razón reports that all working women with nursing infants up to six months of age have the right to bring their babies to work or school with them, nurse them in a comfortable room under “condiciones óptimas,” and to continue their work/study with their infants for this period of time. The motivation behind the law is to encourage breastfeeding and fight infant malnutrition. (Of course, as Clare pointed out, “working women” here tends to mean those who work in occupations in the Western mold – offices, lecture halls, clinics, etc.)

But this law goes much further than simply promoting infant health through breastfeeding. It makes a statement that the role and place of women, mothers, and children in Bolivian society is everywhere and anywhere. Babies this age can integrate quite unobtrusively into many settings – including offices and classrooms. In the U.S. there is still a strong taboo about breastfeeding in public (mom forums even have an acronym for this – NIP, for nursing in public – and there are frequent discussions regarding being made to feel uncomfortable while nursing, not being able to nurse, rude comments received, etc) and an even stronger one against integrating children into “professional” work environments such as offices or lecture halls.

In Bolivia, these taboos certainly exist for many women, who tend to be indigenous migrants to the city, mestizas, or middle-class professionals. This law goes a long way to making a statement on gender equality and the rights of children. Empowering women to work with their children, instead of struggling to find the elusive balance between childcare, work demands, providing for one’s family, and so on, recognizes that children are an important part of society and should not be hidden in private spaces. They and their mothers belong everywhere and should be respected as productive members of society (which here includes the women’s work of bearing, feeding, and raising children). The law also addresses the perception (prevalent in the U.S. as well as parts of Bolivia) that offices, waiting rooms, and lecture halls are (often) coded as “male” and “public” spaces, such that women need to “act professional” (e.g. like men) in order to fit in. Bringing nursing infants and their mothers into these spaces forces such attitudes (however subtly) to shift. Furthermore, the law is predicated on the assumption that women can and should be bothmothers and professionals of various kinds (professors, commercial vendors, shopkeepers, students, etc) simultaneously. One does not preclude the other and the relationship between these roles does not have to be so fraught with anxiety.

Who knows how effective legislation will be in promoting breastfeeding and how many women will feel comfortable to bring their children into their specific work environment. But it is a fantastic start. I certainly wish that I could have avoided the dreaded breastpump for six months and worked with my son in a carrier or napping next to me in an office.

Let’s hope that the U.S. follows Bolivia’s lead on this one.

Here’s to a happy and healthy Mother’s Day for everyone.

Victor Hugo Cardenas and the “indigenous movement”

El Duderino has posted an interesting defense of Victor Hugo Cardenas’ expulsion from the province of Omasuyus.  While I don’t agree with his conclusions, he does present both historical and legal background of the situation to put it in context.  He believes that President Morales is not, and should not, be the central focus here — rather, community leaders who made the decision to oust Cardenas are fully responsible for their own actions. At the same time, he seems to think this event should not be a major concern:

Does the attack, as suggested at Gringo Tambo, evoke a “worrisome trend” in Bolivian politics of violent intimidation of political opponents, making the analogy of Morales to Mugabe less hyperbolic? No. If other incidents like this were to occur, yes. Of course we know that the opposite is not true, MAS politicians have routinely been the subject of physical assault. That said, the government’s rejection of the attack is important to setting a necessary precedent, before a trend emerges. If Morales wanted to exploit the vicitimization of indigenous peoples in Bolivia to suppress political opponents, frankly, far worse would have already been visited upon Cardanes, Costas, Marinkovic, and the rest.

I disagree (Note: I didn’t write the post that he cites here, Kate did).  I think most of us at the GT agree that the comparison to Mugabe was polemical.  We are aware that indigenous communities do not follow the US Bill of Rights nor modernist capitalist ideals of private property, and that ownership in indigenous rural communities must have community consent in order to be recognized.

Nevertheless, democracy needs to accomodate space for political dissent, and this event brings that into question.  Democracy is not just a product but a process.  That process depends on allowing for multiple viewpoints, even when they are unpopular.

And while el Duderino decries the violence again Cardenas and his family, he is also quite clear about this:

Cardenas is a political traitor to the indigenous movement. … Bolivia’s indigenous communities have no reason to tolerate Cardenas‘ pretensions to speak on their behalf and they should not. He ought to be marginalized as a fraud and scam.

I’m not going to argue VHC’s case here, that’s not my purpose.  Instead, I want to argue that there is no single, unified indigenous movement in Bolivia, and never has been.  A brief look at history makes this clear.  Evo Morales has broad-based support from indigenous and non-indigenous people.  Felipe Quispe (another Aymara leader) and Evo Morales, while making strategic alliances, have never really had the same goals.  The Katarista movement had split into multiple factions long before VHC became Goni’s VP. And going back into Bolivia’s history, one can point to multiple incidences where indigenous groups have taken opposite political sides at particular political junctures.

Who is indigenous in Bolivia is a continuum, not a clear-cut category.  Unlike the US (where being Native America is a legal status, problematic in its own way, but clear in the eyes of the state), being indigenous in Bolivia is something that individuals can step out of (by moving, adopting different clothes and new professions — there are numerous ethnographic descriptions of this process) or into (in the case of many urban Aymara who have recently reclaimed indigenous cultural roots).  To imply that there is a single indigenous group, let alone movement, is to ignore the multiple identities, politics, divisions, and sheer diversity of Bolivians.

It is exactly this kind of reductionist argument, that divides Bolivians into neat categories of indigenous/non-indigenous, that we are trying to get away from here at the GT (despite our internal disagreements).  To assume that all indigenous people should agree with each other simply because they are indigenous — and that those who hold minority opinions are “traitors” — is to fail to recognize the Aymara as a diverse group with multiple histories, perspectives, politics, and beliefs.