- Cheap Meat: Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands
This book is an ethnographic study of the high social, political, and health costs of cheap meat—sheep bellies, usually called lamb flaps, which “move from First World pastures and pens in New Zealand and Australia, where white people rarely eat them, to Third World pots and plates in the Pacific Islands, where brown people frequently eat them—and in large amounts” (1). Some aspects of this project grew out of authors Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington’s studies of globalization as epitomized by Ramu Sugar Limited and its corporate parent, earlier published as Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture, and History (University of Chicago Press, 2004). On a similar scale, Cheap Meat entailed extensive observation in a number of sites, and interviews with producers, traders, consumers, and government officials. The focus in this book is on another facet of the globalization of foods.
Rather than slicing immediately into the flap over flaps, the authors take a measured approach in their first chapters, discussing the history of human consumption of meat and the social and religious values attached to it. Here, as elsewhere, they draw on their anthropological studies for apt examples, including the Kaluli cosmology that posits a mirror universe in which “humans in the Kaluli world appear as wild pigs to those in the other world, and vice versa” (17), and they quote Marvin Harris’s work on the historical desirability of fatty meat because of the energy it provided for hunting. Obesity rates in some Pacific Island nations are discussed in relation to the assertion that the trade in flaps “is not a simple matter of supply and demand,” but is instead, according to Gewertz and Errington, “a complex and political matter filled with connotations about comparability and worth” (23). The first chapter concludes with an examination of flaps and other foods as “totems,” potent objects that “serve to define groups and identities—both in and of themselves and in contrast to those of others” (25).
Next, the authors examine meat production and trade, first aided by interviews with sheep farmers, a meat producers’ union leader, and a legendary meat broker. The emphasis on working conditions, historical trends in meat sales, and the strategies of meat sellers in New Zealand (and, to some extent, Australia) helps set the stage for chapter 3’s examination of historical and contemporary practices of meat traders in their dealings with Pacific Island nations, both in the office and in the field. Errington and Gewertz compare these business people to anthropologists, as they “take pride in their ability to orient themselves in different sociocultural situations and to engage with a range of differently located people. And, like anthropologists, they enjoy telling vivid stories about the adventures they have had and the people they have met” (54). One trader admitted that [End Page 495] “he likes telling stories about how tough it is to do business in Papua New Guinea because it scares off prospective competitors” (67).
Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the history and health effects of the sale of flaps in Papua New Guinea. Aided by the researchers’ long-term connections to that country, this section of the book resonates with personal stories of Islanders, and with a sense of free access to information at many levels of the problem. Here, interviews with purchasers and sellers, aided by the fieldwork of assistants and the perspectives of a physician, help ground this study. “This trade,” the authors conclude, “is no simple manifestation of the free-market truth that meat never goes uneaten. Even if the price is right, the traffic in cheap, fatty meat is likely to be politically charged” (114).
Although attempts to curtail the trade of flaps in Papua New Guinea have met with little success, the picture is somewhat different in Fiji and Tonga...