Our days are witnessing an interesting process: along with the rise of vegetarianism, there is an increasing popularity of dishes made with raw meat or fish: steak tartare, beef carpaccio, Ethiopian kitfo, and Japanese sushi are among the dishes which one is more and more sure to find in restaurants, cook books, or gastronomic conversations. It is well known that steak tartare takes its name from the tradition that the nomadic people of that name used to tenderise meat by placing it under the saddles of their horses for a whole day. But that a savage habit of fierce warriors has turned into a fashionable bourgeois delicacy is paradoxical. A good subject to muse on, therefore.
In fact, the classic book of the great anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss Le cru et le cuit (1964) established the passage from the raw to the cooked as the moment where savage turned into civilized. He used comparative evidence from many cultures, but his idea was above all influenced by ancient Greek elaborations of the boundary between raw and cooked. The central institution of Greek civic and religious life, animal sacrifice, was a celebration of cookery. Greek sacrifice, as it was explained by another great French structuralist, Jean Pierre Vernant (Mythe et pensée chez les grecs, Paris 1965), is the institution which constitutes and gives cohesion to a social group like the polis (much like elections are in modern democracy). All citizens took part in the ritualized killing, cooking and eating of the sacrificial victims. And those who did not take part in sacrifice were considered as deviationist eccentrics and sometimes as hostile enemies. Vegetarians like the Pythagoreans who believed in reincarnation, for example, were mocked and even prosecuted.
Yet the polis was well aware that there were some instincts which it could not control, and decided to institucionalize occasional transgession. The most popular of all Greek gods, Dionysus, the god of wine, patronized two phenomenons opposed to ritual sacrifice: sparagmos, the tearing apart with bare hands, and omophagy, the eating of raw meat (my computer tells me to put an “h”: yet it comes from “omos”, raw: these PC’s are so ignorant in all things that matter, like etymology, aren’t they?). The wild devotees of Dionysus, posessed by his frenzy, would tear apart an animal –a bull, a lion, and perhaps sometimes a man– with bare hands and eat it raw. Nobody dared to approach the maenads while their divine madness dured, and citizens withdrew from their way once every two years, when their ecstatic festivals took place. The last and most famous of Greek tragedies, Euripides’ Bacchai, transmitted an immortal portrait of the destructive power of Dionysus. Whether these maenads really existed or whether they are a poetic recreation of countryside pique-niques is much debated. But their image has haunted Western imagination till very recently: witches were still prosecuted in the 19th century accused of murdering people and eating them raw. Donna Tartt in The Secret History (1992) wrote an excellent novel about a modern Bacchic festival, not good for the sleepless, which will be soon turned into a movie.
Today animals are killed outside the cities to avoid disturbing the sensitivity of their eaters. Religious sacrifice is heavily symbolized, and hunting is little more than a pastime for a few. Has the man who kills, the Homo Necans, disappeared for ever? In a fascinating book with that title, Walter Burkert says that Greek sacrifice results from hundreds of thousands of years of Paleolithical hunting. Have we buried in one century the habits and instincts of more than one thousand generations? I would like some genetist to tell us what science says about that, but experience, history, and plain common sense show that whenever man has thought that he had got over his animal instincts and had achieved perfection, that he was finally nothing but sapiens, catastrophe fell on him with Dionysiac fury.
So just as the Greeks let omophagy escape twice a year, perhaps it is advisable to indulge into it from time to time, and ask for a steak tartare (with or without egg). You can always justify it with the thought that you are paying due reverence to Dionysus. So do not forget to accompany it with some good wine.