Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Eating Dog in Korea: A Historical Perspective

Koreans have been known ... and culturally condemned ... by the west for eating dogs. For the western point-of-view, dog is not a menu item but is an animal culturally known as "man's best friend", an animal to share a house with, to walk with and even emote with. Such an animal viewed as a friend is not to tweek the appetite but rather inspires an upheaval of bile if such a notion is mentioned. And so, ethnocentrism rules western thoughts on the eastern practice of eating dog.

However, ethnocentrism results in cultural blinders to a history not shared between the west and the east. While the west has had access to a wider range of foods, particularly meats, westerners can afford to choose animals on a more heirarchical caste and label them as closer to humans and so to be regarded more affectionately by them. Koreans, on the other hand, had limited meat resources and all those resources could be beneficial for human survival if eaten. Dogs did have a function closer to humans than many other animals, but no matter its relative closeness to humans compared with other animals, in times of want the dog was a nutritional item, much like the cow is to westerners. Long ago the cow, by the way, was probably closest to humans due to it being essential for fieldwork and so of utmost practical use, unlike the dog which had little practical use in traditional Korean life. However, one practical use was for the mutt dog called the "동걔" or "shit dog", which was called to clean up the urination or poop of the baby for keeping the household compound clean.

From a farmer's perspective too, the dog was a necessary protein item [although I rather doubt that long ago Koreans thought of "protein" but rather referred to the "energy" that the dog meat provided]. The farmers worked long and hard in their fields from early spring preparing the crops to the late fall when they harvested them. Rice accompanied by some grains was the staple of the Korean diet and vegetables accented the meals. In the summer when the summer blazed the hottest, the lunar calendar allotted 3 days spaced by 10-14 days as the hottest days of summer - 초복, 증복 and 말복, basically first dog day, middle dog day and last dog day. Those were the days when the men, failing from their hard fieldwork, needed to boost their stamina [nearly synonymous with virility] and eating dog was a cultural way of doing so.

When the fall came with the harvest, Korean farmers were tired and in need of strength and "energy" for the winter. Without money and the inability to hunt wild game, dog was an available food item. The dog was also viewed as a very favorable food item for humans as dog meat was seen to be more similar with man's body than cow or pig meat. Even in the present day, eating dog is viewed as an energy-booster, particularly for men. People in the west with their culturally-acquired views on what is proper to eat need to be aware of a history that encourages alternative dietary habits based on people having an alternative history.

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