You are a guest at an elegant dinner party. You're seated with the other guests at an ornately set table. The room is warm, candle light flickers across crystal wine glasses, and the conversation is flowing freely. Mouthwatering smells of rich foods emanate from the kitchen. You haven't eaten all day, and your stomach is growling. Send the kids through a walkable neighbourhood on a treasure hunt this weekend.
At last, after what feels like hours, your friend who is hosting the party emerges from the kitchen with a steaming pot of savory stew. The aromas of meat, seasonings, and vegetables fill the room. You serve yourself a generous portion, and after eating several mouthfuls of tender meat, you ask your friend for the recipe.
“I'd be happy to tell you,” she replies. “You begin with five pounds of golden retriever meat, well marinated, and then . . .” Golden retriever? You probably freeze midbite as you consider her words: the meat in your mouth is from a dog. What now? Do you continue eating? Or are you revolted by the fact that there's a golden retriever on your plate, and you've just eaten some? Do you pick out the meat and eat the vegetables around it? If you are like most people (particularly in the Western world), when you hear that you've been eating a dog, your feelings would automatically change from pleasure to some degree of revulsion.
You might also become turned off by the vegetables in the stew, as if they were somehow tainted by the meat. But let's suppose that your friend laughs and says she was playing a practical joke. The meat isn't golden retriever, after all, but beef. How do you feel about your food now? Is your appetite fully restored? Do you resume eating with the same enthusiasm you had when you first began your meal? Chances are, even though you know that the stew on your plate is exactly the same food you were savoring just moments earlier, you would have some residual emotional discomfort, discomfort that might continue to affect you the next time you sit down to beef stew.
What's going on here? Why is it that certain foods cause such emotional reactions? How can a food, given one label, be considered highly palatable and that same food, given another, become virtually inedible? The stew's main ingredient—meat—didn't really change at all. It was animal flesh to begin with, and it remained that way. It just became—or seemed to, for a moment—meat from a different animal. Why is it that we have such radically different reactions to beef and dog meat? The answer to these questions can be summed up by a single word: perception. We react differently to different types of meat not because there is a physical difference between them, but because our perception of them is different.