In my non-foodblog life I spend most of my time with old films and the bible. Whereas the first of these two might appear in some other Wednesday reflection, the latter is going to play a part in today's. Also, as I could never get away with writing something this speculative and off-the-cuff in my professional writing, I am going to subject my blog readers to it. So, here goes my crazy theory.
An often axiomatic dietary belief in many Western cultures (especially in the last 40 or so years) is the presumption that when choosing food, the 'perfect' or 'most healthy' diet is one which is mostly or even wholly comprised of fruits, grains, and vegetables. I am not going to cite anything here, because a simple search with your favorite engine should provide plenty of examples. The food pyramid, general folk wisdom, and professional dietary advice all point to the predominance of these items in one's diet. A dietary 'cleanse' usually involves things like fruit juices, fruit, vegetables, and other sundries.
For the converse, fats, dairy (maybe aside from milk), and general animal products are usually given a fairly bad name, being relegated to the sidelines of a 'healthy diet,' as a near afterthought, as if people recognize the general necessity of eating meat, milk, butter, and other cholesterol-bearing items but wish that it was not so ('eat red meat rarely, or not at all').
I am also a firm believer that beliefs like these come from somewhere, and are not part of some 'natural' inclination present in rational humans. So...
Now, for the bible. I would also hold, despite the claims that fewer folks than ever in the modern west hold to a traditional belief in Christianity, that biblical idiom, allusion, and portraiture still hold a great deal of sway and influence a culture built on a general cultural assumption of theism of some sort. Have you ever used the following phrases: 'kiss of death'; 'Doubting Thomas'; 'Hallelujah'; 'Apple of my eye'; 'can a leopard change its spots?'; 'writing on the wall'; 'blind leading the blind'; 'rise and shine'? The list could go on considerably, but all of these have entered the English language as idiomatic phrases based on some biblical precedent.
All of this is to say that I think the first set of dietary beliefs (fruit/vegetable = good; meat/animal product = bad) might stem in some way from biblical precedent, however unconsciously it may be appropriated at this point. This precedent that I speak of is found in the very first chapters of the first book of both the Tanakh and Christian Bible, בראשית / Genesis.
"...the dread and fear of you shall be upon all the beasts of the field and all the fowl of the heavens, in all that crawls on the ground and in all the fish of the sea. In your hand they are given. All the stirring things that are alive, yours shall be for food, like the green plants, I have given all to you" - Genesis 9.2-3
For a bit of orientation, this bit is right after Noah has landed his impossible ark with every animal in the whole world on it. God is speaking to Noah and letting him and his family know that, in simple terms from this point forward, they will be allowed to kill and eat meat. Hence, prior to this, one can see that some kind of vegetarian diet has been followed, and further, that humans and animals were living in an idyllic, fear-free relationship. Specifically, in Genesis 2.16 and 3.2, the primeval couple are given a command regarding their diet ('you may eat from the trees of the garden').
Taking these statements together, I would posit that *one* influence on the dietary belief I outline above is a kind of concurrent belief in a return to an idyllic world, something like the Garden of Eden, where only plants were consumed, where one could ride a shark from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, and where only a later concession resulted in the killing and fear of animals present in the world we see today. Such is usually called an 'etiological myth,' or a story intended to explain why something is the way it is (see here and here for two more from other cultures). I think the picture of a 'sullied Eden' is a powerful myth, both for the biblical author, as well as today, in 2011.
Finally, your take-away. If you are a firm believer in the words of the bible communicating some kind of literal truth and know this story all to well, I suppose I have given you a pretty good reason to stop eating meat and become a vegan. There are certainly many gradients to one's position on religion and I won't outline them here, but I would at the very minimum ask you to try to ask yourself what lies behind your assumptions about entails a 'healthy' diet - is it a picture of an idyllic world that never existed? A world of useless shark teeth, tiger fangs, stomachs filled with hydrochloric acid, and rabbits with lightning-quick reflexes?
Crazy theory complete. Tomorrow will commence accordingly.