The allure of forbidden foods

The story of Adam and Eve tells how Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat the fruit from a particular tree that God had forbidden them to eat. That story captures well how being ordered to refrain from eating something can make that food particularly alluring. This is especially the case when the ban seems arbitrary. After all, nobody wants to eat food that they are warned against as being poisonous and most people have no difficulty avoiding food that they are told is unhealthy or awful tasting. But being asked not to eat something that so many other people seem to eat and enjoy just because some religious leaders tell them not to makes the food particularly intriguing and must make them wonder what must it taste like. The very arbitrariness of these rules adds to the mystique of these foods and would make people curious about what could possibly happen if they tried it. And yet they usually refrain, out of a mix of obedience, loyalty to their family and community and religion, and fear of what might happen if they break a rule that was supposedly handed down by their god.

This is a problem particularly for Jews who have a huge number of dietary restrictions and whom I suspect must be curious about things that they are not allowed to even taste. One particular forbidden item that they share with Muslims is pork. Among pork products, bacon appears to be the big temptation, perhaps because it is so ubiquitous and the smell of frying bacon seems to be particularly appealing.

The short (nine-minute) documentary video below tells the story of a 90-year old Jewish woman who is Orthodox and has kept kosher all her life and then, at the age of 88, discovered the internet and was amazed at what she could find there in answer to her questions. She was particularly impressed with the fact that when she started to type a question into a search engine, she would be prompted with all manner of sentence completions, suggesting that other people were curious about things that she had not even considered. This took her down paths that quickly led her to become an unbeliever.

Razie Brownstone, 90, grew up with strict Jewish parents and a fear-mongering rabbi who told stories about sin and punishment to encourage good behaviour and instil a lifelong fear of God. In the acclaimed short documentary Bacon and God’s Wrath, Razie reflects on an adult life well lived, and especially her journey to becoming ‘an infidel’ in her later years with some help from ‘the Google’. The Canadian filmmaker Sol Friedman deploys some creative filmmaking techniques – including bringing animated life to the head of a pig’s carcass – to explore Razie’s complicated relationship with religion, and how she ultimately reached the conclusion that ‘faith is belief without evidence’. The film comes to a delicious climax with Razie trying bacon, a food forbidden to kosher Jews, for the first time in her life.

The video is nicely done. Razie seems like a really sweet lady.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    The Garden of Eden story is an odd example, in that the text of the Bible makes it clear that when YHWH warns Adam, he is lying,

    And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
    But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. -- Gen 2:16-17, KJV

    and when the snake encourages Eve, he is telling the truth.

    And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
    For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. -- Gen 3:4-5, KJV

    So what happened? Adam and Eve ate the fruit.
    Did they die that day? No. They lived for hundreds of years.
    Did they come to know good and evil? Yes.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    As Mark Twain pointed out somewhere, God made a big mistake in telling the humans not to eat the apple.

    He’d have solved two problems at once by telling them not to eat the snake.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    The fast food business in the USA is highly competitive. Have a glance at the “chicken sandwich wars” of the last 3 years for an example.
    Most of the major players (non-seafood specialist) offer a fish sandwich. But none of them are especially good or popular. How would they make a fish sandwich better? The same way they make everything better -- put bacon on it! There are other things they could do, regarding the quality of the fish, the sauces used, etc. but bacon is a very easy solution.
    So why do none of the major fast food players put bacon on their fish sandwiches? Because the only reason anyone buys their fish sandwiches is when they are avoiding ‘red meat’, which for Christians means maybe on Fridays in Lent.

  4. Holms says

    #1 Reg
    I think the christian counter to that point is: before they ate the fruit of that tree, Adam and Eve were immortal, with some disagreement over whether this meant immortal on earth or immortal in the sense that they had a guaranteed ticket to heaven when they died. By eating it, they lost the immortality they had.

    What I find most interesting about that tale is that God expected Adam and Eve to be good, despite creating them without knowledge of good and evil.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    @4: The Bible doesn’t say so, so those alleged Christians are just making stuff up and pretending it is the word of God. That is the definition of blasphemy.

  6. says

    Growing up with “no meat on Fridays” is nothing compared to some people’s experiences, but I definitely understand the religious fanaticism.

    I had catholic “parents”. They refused to eat pork yet still ate bacon, probably some form of rationalization. At least I grew up eating mutton which is delicious. Most people turn their noses up at the thought of it.

    If xians are so obsessed with the “snakes and apples” myth, why do they eat apples? That’s one that I’ve never understood.

  7. Holms says

    #6 intransitive
    As far as I can remember, the Bible does not specify what fruit of the tree of knowledge bore. Apples are the most common depiction, but the source only says ‘fruit’. Plenty of christians have been taken in by this depiction too.

  8. John Morales says

    Big difference between thinking some type of food is bad for you (healthwise) and thinking it’s forbidden to you by someone who rules your life.

    But that’s religion for you.

    You can’t eat milk and meat products at the same time, put them on the same dishes, or prepare or eat them with the same utensils. You also have to wait a certain amount of time to eat milk after meat and vice versa.

    Sounds weird, right?

    The basis: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21)

    Seems to me those Rabbis are the ultimate rule lawyers.

    Me: “So, why not boil it in another kid’s mother’s milk?”
    Religious person: “shut up!”

  9. lochaber says

    Intransitive @6, Holmes @7>

    I went to school/worked with a guy who was briefly a Catholic monk, and was still religious. I forget how it came up, but he told me something about the fruit wasn’t actually an apple, but it was more to do with the similarity of the Latin words for apple and evil.

    Ran into this, and it’s sorta similar, but slightly different from what I remember (but that was nearly twenty years ago, so likely my memory is faulty…)

  10. khms says

    The creationists like to claim that “before the fall, there was no death”. However, this assertion does not really seem to fit the rest of the story. Remember, there were two forbidden trees. And the second would make them immortal -- they were cast out to prevent them from eating from the second tree and becoming “like God”. That must necessarily mean that they were NOT immortal.

  11. anat says

    John Morales @8: There are actually reasons (however convoluted) for how that rule about kid in its mother’s milk became ‘can’t eat chicken and cheese with x hours of each other’. , One reasoning I know of has to do with the fact that the prohibition appears 3 times in Torah, which is taken to mean that 3 different aspects are forbidden, including any kind of enjoyment from dairy-meat combinations (some take that to mean requiring even pets to follow the prohibition). Then there is the principle of ‘building a fence around Torah’ -- that in order to be absolutely sure one is not breaking a rule one is required to create a large safety margin -- can you really be absolutely sure whose milk is in that carton? So just consider any milk as potentially the milk of the mother of the veal in your meal. Then there is the consideration of ‘mar’it ayin’ -- ‘what the eye sees’ -- you don’t want to confuse others in a way that might cause them to break a rule. If someone saw you eating a chicken cheeseburger, if they did not know the meat in the burger was chicken they might be confused about the rules and might end up eating a beef cheeseburger. (Which raises the question of how permissible are fake-meat cheeseburgers? They might be even more confusing?)

    In contrast, Karaites do not accept these interpretations and stick to merely avoiding the cooking of meat of an animal together with milk from its own mother.

  12. seachange says

    My comment is about that bacon. It wasn’t good looking or tasty looking to me. Of course her reaction is meh, because grebenes.

    I’m going to not bash Canada because I don’t know for a fact that all bacon there looks like that or gets cooked wrong.

  13. anat says

    A quick guide to Orthodox Jewish Kashrut: Kosher Food: The Kosher Primer. -- This applies to the US, in Israel there are some additional considerations regarding agricultural practices, tithing and so forth.

    Looks like there is no special concern regarding plant-based meat substitutes -- they are considered kosher pareve if made under supervision. (See here)

    BTW before becoming vegetarians neither my spouse nor myself cared much for bacon. Never got what the big deal was about.

  14. John Morales says

    anat, cheese is no more milk than olive oil is olives.

    So when rules about milk become rules about cheese, something’s gone a bit wacky.

    (I wouldn’t try to fry an omelette on olives)

    Anyway, on the topic.

    A taxonomy of forbidden foods would distinguish between those forbidden for cultural reasons ((organised) religion is a subset of culture) and those forbidden for health reasons. Obs, not the only distinguishing distinction, since others such as accessibility or affordability exist, but the salient one.

    (Organised religion is hard-core culture, brutally so)

  15. anat says

    I noticed the source I gave in #13 ignores the way fish are dealt with in the dairy/meat scheme. Fish are not considered meat, so may be eaten with dairy under kashrut (eg lox with cream cheese). But they are not completely pareve (ie neutral). While fish may be eaten in a mixed meal that has meat, fish may not be served or eaten with meat in the same course of the meal or from the same plate, there has to be some minimal separation between the two (according to my father, his father used to say a drink of wine is the best separation between fish and meat).

    A story to illustrate this point: Back when I was in grad school in Israel, my advisor’s sons came to campus for a visit and went to the main dining hall for lunch. One took the fish main course, the other took one of the meat courses. At their table they decided to share food. The kashrut supervisor noticed and shouted at them that they were breaking the kashrut rules. (Their mother argued back that if they sell both foods they shouldn’t be surprised that their customers mix them, and that he shouldn’t be interfering with what paying customers do with their food once it was bought.)

    My personal interpretation is that kashrut rules exist to make it difficult for observant Jews to socialize with others, and to encourage them to live in the same areas where they can always obtain supervised foods.

  16. anat says

    John Morales @14: I may have posted this in a previous thread. “An Important Part of Who I am”: The Predictors of Dietary Adherence among Weight-Loss, Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo, and Gluten-Free Dietary Groups

    The authors found that adherence to dietary restrictions is highest when people see the restriction as part of their social identity and ethics. Next highest is when they see it as a personal choice they made for a positive goal (such as improving health). Lowest adherence is when the restriction is viewed as necessitated to avoid symptoms or avoid weight gain.

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