How to Eat an Elephant: the Anthropology of What We Eat

By Poncie Rutsch

With this post I hereby kickoff the great Science Journalism Blog for all ages! And what better way to commemorate this post than with a discussion of two things representing the apex of humanity: food and culture.

Obligatory elephant foreshadowing. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Randi Deuro
Obligatory elephant foreshadowing. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Randi Deuro

That’s right, I’m talking about a little topic in anthropology called culinary nationalism, meaning that a defining facet of any country’s pride and culture comes from its food. In America’s case, I think it also means every reason why we’re all overweight.

Jokes aside, though, culinary nationalism is more complicated than it sounds. Social anthropology is about traditions and community, so it only makes sense that sharing food would play a role here. But having a sense of national pride in a food – especially in a highly regionalized country like the United States – sounds like a recipe for disaster.

I caught up with Harvard’s Mary Steedly today, where she talked about her anthropology research in northern Sumatra. Steedly has been building an oral history of the region, focused specifically on 1945-1950 when Indonesia proclaimed its independence.

Steedly recognized that her interviewees mentioned food when they recalled momentous periods in this era. Before 1945, when Japan controlled Indonesia in a brutal occupation, her subjects remember watching Japanese soldiers feed the Indonesian rice to the pigs. Meanwhile, Indonesians ate birdseed and corn used for animal feed.

After World War II, the Dutch tried to repossess Indonesia, which it had controlled under colonial rule for about three hundred years prior to WWII. The resulting struggle lasted four years, and went through periods of face-to-face battle and guerilla warfare.

Although the Sumatrans that Steedly interviewed remember this era more fondly than the Japanese occupation, it was by no means easy. The Dutch cut off imported salt, so many remember with disgust eating saltless meat. Every citizen was expected to donate food to the Indonesian soldiers, who recall the rice being red, rather than white or yellow. The rice was allotted in small packets, wrapped in leaves. Banana leaves were scarce, and the substitute leaves dyed the rice inside red – hence, red rice.

All the salt the Indonesians weren't eating. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user McKay Savage.
All the salt the Indonesians weren’t eating. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user McKay Savage.

One woman remembers eating an elephant, not because it was better than eating beef, but because beef was scarce. To be clear, eating an elephant in Indonesia is not a common affair; the interviewee made it clear that while no one she knew went hungry, the elephant eating was out of mild desperation. She recalls the meat as tough and bitter, but also that they had to leave the meat far away from their homes. The elephant attracted flies more effectively than any cow they had slaughtered.

Part of what makes Indonesia a fascinating place for culinary nationalism is that each island has its own microcosm of culture. When Steedly told the story of the elephant to an interviewee from another island, the interviewee responded (roughly) “Different fields, different grasshoppers. There certainly are a lot of foods eaten in our nation!”

But what interests Steedly most is that an estimated 80% of Indonesians didn’t know the meaning of independence at the time. She reasons that they could not have known what nationalism was because they could only imagine what their nation looked like. Yet they still felt a strong sense of pride in their culture.

True, this may be the case in other countries. But at least for me, it’s a very different way of approaching what it means to be part of a community, let alone part of a country. What does it mean to be an American? Liberty, freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Also, hot dogs and pie on Independence Day. But the intellectual ideas are far more ingrained in my America than any sense of culture. Nationalism looks far better in retrospect.

What is American food, anyway? Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Pat Ossa.
What is American food, anyway? Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Pat Ossa.

Steedly’s research is a different approach to how people see their culture – a kind of grassroots approach that neither confirms nor contradicts the official history. She says that when her subjects talked about food, she knew an important memory was coming. Memory attaches most closely to the senses – smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound.

So how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, of course. But I think the same goes for how you consume science. Just make sure to leave everything you can’t digest today far away from your home…because then it can encourage new growth like fungus and bacteria!

But seriously, today’s take home message? Science is pervasive. Even when we think we’re merely fueling our bodies (more science!), we’re also defining history and human communities past and present.

On that note, it’s time for me to consume a very American ice cream sundae and ponder the founding fathers.


As a postscript to today’s post, one of the best parts of living in Boston is the ridiculous number of outlandishly smart people around researching mindboggling topics. Today’s post originated from a lecture series that I had (almost) no business attending…except that it was free to the public. Here at BUNS Science, we’ll be posting our top picks of the area’s events and lectures (science oriented, of course).

Today’s field trip is brought to you by the letter P and the number 14. P for Poncie, and 14 for when this kid finishes her master’s at BU. Twelve more weeks of class, kids!