The Politics of Dog, American Prospect

Posted January 1, 2002

Categories: Articles, Highlighted, Korea

The line dividing acceptable from unacceptable meat is sometimes a fine one. While vegetarians naturally reject meat of all kinds, the rest of America maintains some form of double standard — chicken but not crow, beef but not horse, venison but not reindeer, lamb but not mutton, legs and wings and rumps but not hearts or lungs or tongues. Some Americans are adventurous meat eaters who will cross the line and enthusiastically tuck into possum, ostrich, or alligator. One line in America, however, is inviolable. Anonymous livestock and wildlife are fair game, but pets are a different matter, and dog in particular remains the most potent meat taboo. Whenever I mention to my friends that I have eaten — and enjoyed — dog stew, they look at me with the sort of horror reserved for hangmen and white supremacists.

Such knee-jerk revulsion has taken a more organized form as animal-rights groups have focused their attention on one particular outpost of dog eating: Korea. Since she first challenged this subspecialty of Korean cuisine in 1988, French actress Brigitte Bardot is the celebrity most associated with the global campaign. Her allies have filled the Internet with reports that smack of “yellow peril,” boasting such titles as “Korea: The Sadistic Country” and “Korea’s Cruel Cuisine.” Recently, these Web sites have promoted the e-rumor that Koreans are raising meaty St. Bernards for their stews, a double taboo for Westerners — not mere dog stew but dogs-that-drool stew. Activists are challenging the very act (meat is murder), the animals targeted (a form of fratricide), the methods of slaughter (not a pretty sight), and the purported spread of the custom to the United States (where it is difficult to separate fact from urban myth).

The controversy has attracted a fair share of journalists, who have indulged their Orientalist biases by depicting Koreans in almost cannibalistic terms. This coverage has come in both highbrow (National Public Radio) and lowbrow (Fox) varieties. Of the all the media weighing in on the subject, however, perhaps only William Saletan in Slate has looked at the issue with any degree of impartiality. As the 2002 World Cup (which will take place in both Japan and South Korea in May and June) approaches journalists looking for “color” will likely be delivering many more dog stories stripped of cultural and political context.

From all the brouhaha, you might expect dog-soup restaurants on every corner in Korea. But dog meat is not, in fact, especially easy to find. While dog is usually listed as the fourth most popular meat in Korea after beef, pork, and chicken, the government banned sales of all “foods deemed unsightly” during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul so as not to give foreigners the wrong impression of Korean culture. Although some legislators are trying to overturn the ban and regulate the industry — an eminently sensible approach that should satisfy diners and activists alike — the government is unlikely to change the law with the World Cup around the corner.

Because dog meat is technically illegal in Korea, you’ll never find it on a menu per se. Instead, you have to keep a keen eye out for what is called poshintang, or “tonic soup.” Particularly popular in the summer, during the dog days of the Chinese calendar between July 19 and August 18, poshintang is alleged to make men more “vital.” Even putting a drop of the soup on your foot is supposed to make you stronger. Dog soup tends to attract men of a certain age, the same ones lapping up Viagra the world over.

But why are most fingers pointing at Korea? Dog is eaten in China, Taiwan, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Ghana, and the Congo, and by various indigenous peoples and desperately hungry Arctic explorers. Among the dog recipes in Calvin Schwabe’s landmark cookbook Unmentionable Cuisine, not a single one comes from Korea. In literature, the “dogeaters” in Jessica Hagedorn’s novel of the same name come from the Philippines while the dog narrator Almost Soup in Louise Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife is rescued from a pot on a Dakota reservation. Yet even before the World Cup brought increased attention to Korea, poshintang launched a thousand Internet diatribes, many of them American.

One reason is the relative obscurity of Korean food in the United States. There are Chinese restaurants in virtually every neighborhood from Gainesville to Anchorage. Japanese sushi can be found in the food courts of malls in landlocked states. Korean food may well be the next wave after Thai or Vietnamese, but for the time being it remains too “ethnic” for most Americans. It uses too many unusual ingredients, such as acorns, bracken, organ meats, bellflower roots, mung beans, dried fish, and pine needles. It is too spicy: Gochujang, hot red-pepper paste, has not yet caught on in a market that prefers jalapeño or Scotch bonnet. And ultimately Korean food is too pungent. Americans are so wary of the strong odor of Korean pickled cabbage (kimchi) that the Korean corporation Doosan is developing an odorless variety for the U.S. market. The pervasive American scorn for this pungency has prompted many Koreans to adopt an apologetic tone. My partner once sat down for dinner with Korean Americans in Detroit and ordered one of her favorite dishes, toenjang chigae, a fermented stew. Her hosts were shocked and delighted. “We never order that dish when we eat out here in America for fear of offending other diners,” they told her.

Other ethnic groups have experienced the same problem. At the turn of the twentieth century, when Italians were not yet considered “white,” their food was shunned for its liberal use of garlic and strong cheeses. Jewish and African-American preferences for certain parts of animals (pigs’ feet, derma, chitlins) were derided as backwards, often by status-conscious Jews and blacks. It took a century before Chinese-Americans became established enough for Chinese food to wend its way into the culinary mainstream. Indeed, it was once far more common for urban mythologizers to claim that Chinatown boasted no strays.

Criticism of people, particularly of new immigrants, often masquerades as criticism of cuisine. Bardot is notorious for her xenophobic attitudes and her support of French far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. As Frank Wu writes in his new book Yellow, the French actress “connects mistreatment of animals with an influx of non-Western peoples.” Bardot could not be more transparent about her feelings. “A cultured country does not allow its people to eat dogs,” she has said.

The prejudice is not simply cultural. Animal-rights activists are also suggesting that an industrialized country does not allow its people to eat dogs. The complaints against Korean dog eating began in earnest when the Olympics came to Korea, signaling its arrival on the international stage (just as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics heralded the new Japan). In 1996, scrutiny of Korea’s dog-eating practices intensified when the country joined the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the richest two dozen countries in the world. Membership in the charmed circle of industrialized nations requires adherence to standard economic practices. Are there cultural expectations that accompany membership as well, just as certain country clubs that finally accept Jews or African-Americans still expect the new members to comport themselves according to Waspish rules of decorum? Laos and Burma are not yet in the OECD club, so no one has bothered to launch any campaigns against their dog-eating practices.

Globalization has made diverse cuisines more available, especially in high-end markets. Tapas, rooibos, bacalao, tagines, mole, and adobo are circling the world as the barriers to food migration are falling. But not all foods are equal, and certain culinary practices among industrialized countries are on the wane. Consumption of whale meat in Japan has fallen precipitously since the Second World War. Cat, which was once eaten in parts of Spain, can no longer be found on the menu there. Smoked dog ham and dried dog meat were once popular in Switzerland but no longer. In globalization-speak, this might be called “harmonization”: Difference is tolerated only within certain parameters.

Because the French define and continue to refine haute cuisine, their unusual eating habits do not receive equivalent scrutiny. Not only is France famous for its escargots and grenouilles, but its menu also features lamproie, oursins, and aitances (lamprey, sea urchin gonads, and fish sperm). As the self-proclaimed center of the culinary world, the French have the cultural strength to resist any attempts to homogenize their tastes. The world, after all, travels to Paris to learn how to cook (à la cordon bleu) and how to eat (à la Michelin). If the French ate dog meat as readily as they eat horse meat, Korea would not be the target of so much hostility.

So it all boils down to snobbery. Poshintang is not haute cuisine. Even in Korea, where a bowl is quite expensive, dog soup exists at the margins, associated with older traditions, both culinary and medical. In its postwar struggle to make a place for itself at the global table, Korea has left poshintang behind. Countryside culture is popular in Seoul, with restaurants serving makkoli (rice liquor) and country-style pancakes, but it is a carefully sanitized version of the countryside, not unlike Cracker Barrel’s appropriation of down-home cooking in the United States. The poshintang restaurants, unregulated and unrepentant, provide a glimpse of an older Korea that has somehow managed to survive Japanese colonialism, World War II, the Korean War, several dictatorships, and the latest wave of globalization sweeping Korean culture. I ate poshintang in a small restaurant on a tiny side street in Seoul. Around the corner, on the main thoroughfare, young Koreans favored Dunkin’ Donuts, Japanese fast food, and Korean hamburger and pizza joints, all considerably hipper by Seoul standards than something associated with Chinese medicine and questionable slaughtering standards. In the long run, poshintang‘s greatest enemy is not Brigitte Bardot but Colonel Sanders.

The Korean response to the controversy is instructive. Many Koreans, even those who wouldn’t touch the stuff, defend dog soup against the onslaught of Westernization: It may not be good soup, but it is our soup. (Much of the anger expressed on the Internet is in Korean, but you can get the flavor of it at In the United States, meanwhile, Korean Americans have objected to media depictions of Koreans as somehow animalistic. They believe that there is plenty enough in Korean cuisine, from beef barbecue (bulgogi) to mixed vegetables and rice (bibimbap), to define identity without resorting to a defense of this minority preference, which is decidedly not part of Korean-American culture.

Both Koreans and Korean Americans, whatever their personal feelings about poshintang, came together recently to achieve a common goal: elicit an apology from Jay Leno. When judges at the Salt Lake City Olympics disqualified Korean speed skater Kim Dong-sung in the 1,500-meter final and awarded American Apolo Anton Ohno the gold medal, Leno joked on The Tonight Show that the disappointed Korean might have kicked his dog, then eaten it. Korean Americans were not happy with this feeble witticism. “We wanted to be productive and take a restrained approach,” said Songbae Lee, Washington director of the Korean American Coalition. “We wanted to educate Jay Leno about the Asian-American community.” Prominent Korean Americans participated in a conference call in which Leno said that he wouldn’t have told the joke if he could have predicted the reaction of the Korean American community.

Another, more combative strategy is also afoot. The MCIC Group — a Philadelphia law firm that is also heading up class-action lawsuits in cases involving Japanese slave labor during World War II and the U.S. Army killings of civilians at Nogun-ri in the Korean War — is demanding an apology and monetary damages from Leno and NBC. According to MCIC attorney Justin Kim, more than 50,000 Koreans have signed on as plaintiffs in the libel suit. Outsiders who think Koreans thin-skinned don’t understand han and Korean history. Han is a difficult-to-translate Korean word that means, roughly, a deeply felt sense of injustice. Koreans feel han about their divided peninsula or the experience of Japanese colonialism. Racist broadsides against poshintang bring up feelings of han in much the same way that the epithet “garlic-stinking” might enrage a certain generation of Italian-Americans.

But the eating of dog has always been a serious matter, even before Leno and Bardot entered the picture. According to scholar Frederick Simoons, author of the classic Eat Not This Flesh, the people of the Egyptian city Cynopolis long ago fought a civil war against their neighbors from Oxyrhynchus. Cynopolians, as you might guess from their name, worshipped dogs. Their neighbors ate them. Let’s hope that the current standoff between those who do and do not eat poshintang, between Leno and the 50,000 plaintiffs, between Koreans struggling to preserve their identity and a globalized world intent on harmonization, stops short of out-and-out conflict. In the best of all possible worlds, we should be able to have our dogs and occasionally eat them, too.

The American Prospect, May 13, 2002

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