Feb 11, 2008

Rats



There was an article last week in The Wall Street Journal (with accompanying video, above) about how, in light of the avian flu, the Vietnamese are eating more rats.

Cats and snakes are making it onto the menu too, but they don’t seem to have quite the same level of popularity as rats. And while some claim that rat tastes a lot like chicken, it is tough to make that leap of faith when, as the reporter notes, you’re munching on a “tiny rat drumstick.”

Now that you’ve completely lost your appetite, I’d like you to consider the cultural factors at play in our food choices and the way that marketing can effect them. Lobster was once considered poor man’s food and was a common menu item for New Englanders. Turtles, particularly in the form of turtle soup, were a highly sought after delicacy during the prior Gilded Age. (For those who couldn’t afford turtle there was even something called Mock Turtle Soup.)

Look at caviar. These tiny black fish eggs are likely the West’s most expensive food item. Yet given the choice between a bowl of M&Ms and a bowl of caviar, most Americans would choose the M&Ms. So what (other than scarcity) makes caviar so expensive?

Marketing.

Marketing helps create a perception of desirability that goes way beyond taste. There’s the sense of belonging, that your food choices make you part of a group. I mean if you boil fast food advertising down to its essence, the primary message is “eating our food makes people happy” with “happiness” defined different ways by different chains.

Take the whole notion of children eating food that’s different from adults as manifested by the “children’s menu” in countless American restaurants. This is a peculiarly post-war American idea, spurred on by marketing. Children in Third World countries do not, I assure you, get served a special menu of beige foods (chicken nuggets, French fries, macaroni and cheese) to spare their parents the hassle of forcing them to eat things they may not like.

The disconnect was crystallized (for me anyway) in Ratatouille, a movie, funny enough, about a cooking rat (as opposed to a cooked one.) There’s a somewhat pivotal scene where the forces of good overthrow the evil corporate chiefs who have plastered a beloved chef’s name on a line of frozen pizzas and burritos, and to celebrate, they set fire to the frozen entrees. This was baffling to most of the children in the audience, for whom frozen pizza is one of the four main food groups.

Which brings us back to rats and how the Vietnamese market them. The article tells us that in upscale restaurants, rat is an “off-menu” item, only available to those who ask and that its appearance on menus can sometimes create the perception that anything listed as “chicken” is in fact a former rodent or feline. But at less formal spots, rat is quite popular and much of the appeal is due to the fact that it is not potentially-avian-flu-carrying chicken. The Vietnamese believe rat to be quite healthful and no amount of Western-induced squeamishness has changed that. And since this is the Year of the Rat in the Chinese and Vietnamese calendars, many are hoping to capitalize on the marketing tie-in.

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