When traditions go awry


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 Sick Societies is an interesting book, but in many ways it's scattershot. An anecdote out of context doesn't always illuminate whether or not a tradition is the cause of the "sickness," in this case botulism: 

The Inuit practice of eating seal blubber raw rather than cooking it has caused an untold number of deaths from botulism, as has eating cattle that have died of anthrax, something that occurred in various parts of the world.

Most of the other "sick" traditions mentioned in this book are those involving less acute miseries, such as ridiculously inconvenient food taboos or genital mutilation. It seemed to me kind of inconceivable that people would have a food tradition that would make them vulnerable one of the most deadly types of food poisoning. 

So when I came across this fascinating blog, Body Horrors, via Metafilter, I was excited to see a comprehensive post on the subject. Apparently the Inuit DO have some of the highest rates of botulism poisoning in the world and it is caused by traditional foods, but because they are not preparing them traditionally:

The researcher Nelson reported the preparation process quite evocatively in 1971:
“Meat is frequently kept for a considerable length of time and sometimes until it becomes semiputrid. This meat was kept in small underground pits, which the frozen subsoil rendered cold, but not cold enough to prevent the bluish fungus growth which completely covered the carcasses of the animals and the walls of the storerooms”.

The customary preparation process has since been modified from fermenting food in a buried clay pit, enclosed in a woven basket or sewn seal skin (known as a “poke”) for weeks or months at a time. Food is now stored in airtight, Western consumer goods such as plastic or glass jars, sealable plastic bags or even plastic buckets, and eaten shortly after in a week or month. Additionally, the food many be stored indoors, above ground or in the sun at milder, less optimal temperatures. This move towards storing meat in warmer, anaerobic settings for shorter lengths of time may expedite the fermentation process and, subsequently, enhance the risk of botulinum toxin production (5)....

Fermenting food is a delicate, complex process. As the Eskimo scholar Zona Spray notes, every step of the complex preparation process is carefully executed to ensure a highly acidic environment (3). She mentions that usually elders prepare such traditional foods and are better versed in the “oral history of health and sickness” than the younger generations. This strongly suggests that a failure to transmit traditional knowledge and customs may play an pivotal role in the use of different preservation materials and in skyrocketing incidences of botulism outbreaks in Alaska over the past 50 years (2)(5).


It's a good reminder that important aspects of traditions are often lost in translation to modernity.