Not in public

After doing yard work on a day like today, with the temperature finally getting into the 80’s (a week after having to scrape ice off my windshield last Saturday), a cold treat like ice cream sounds very appealing. You’d think that anywhere that the temperature regularly gets up that high, an ice cream stand would get plenty of business.

But this week I listened to a story on NPR’s All Things Considered, telling about the challenges faced by Rwanda’s first and only ice cream shop.  People whose first experience of ice cream includes an ice cream headache or tooth pain may not associate it with pleasure as we do.

But a bigger obstacle may be the traditional taboo on eating in the street. Sure, you can enjoy ice cream indoors. But most of my early memories of ice cream are outdoors – running to get a treat from the Good Humor truck, enjoying the rare treat of a soft serve ice cream cone from an ice cream stand, trying to finish an ice cream sandwich before it melted at Kingswood Day (an annual event at the high school my father had attended). It seems like ice cream is made for enjoying outdoors.

Why, I wondered, would a culture develop a taboo against eating in the street? I know some cultures have taboos against eating certain kinds of foods, and there are customs about how to eat in polite society. But I had never heard of a tradition before about what is essentially eating in public.

Is it sort of a society-wide extension of what many parents teach their children: if you’re not going to share your food with everyone then don’t eat in front of them? If that were the case, though, it seems that such a taboo would be more common.

Apparently Rwanda is not unique in having such a taboo, though it doesn’t appear to be related to the parental directive I had in mind. In The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer wrote about taboos on eating and drinking. Thinking that the soul might escape through the mouth when it was open, some people developed customs restricting eating and drinking to the privacy of one’s home, in some cases making sure house was securely shut up to reduce the danger.

This may not reflect how the Rwandans view their own discomfort with eating in public, however. According to the NPR story, “Rwandan culture discourages the public display of personal needs. Not just hunger but also grief. Tears are acceptable only in specific mourning periods.”

Now that aspect of it does not sound so strange to us. We don’t restrict tears to specific mourning periods, but we certainly discourage them, other than immediately after the loss occurs, and especially in males. But that seems to have to do with our discomfort with expressions of grief specifically, not “display of personal needs.”

It’s interesting how very different the taboos are that develop in different cultures. Even if we can’t provide a logical explanation for what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior, our sense of its rightness or wrongness is often so visceral that it hardly seems to matter whether it is strictly rational. But to others – or to children who have not yet fully absorbed their cultures norms – they can seem arbitrary or simply silly.

Interestingly, one person recounts how “When I was a little boy, my friends and I used to wonder why our society had a taboo on nudity. To us, it seemed rather arbitrary. We could see no harm in it. We wondered if perhaps there were some societies on earth that had an eating taboo, where everyone had to eat in private. ”

I wonder what he would think if he listened to the story about Sweet Dreams.

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