Dining on ourselves might seem the ultimate taboo, with the most potential for dramatic shocks. There are countless cinematic cannibals from Hannibal Lecter through to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other films that far out-gross it in imagery, if not box office success. But what the furore over horsemeat shows is that our greatest food fear isn’t being compelled to eat something nauseating or taboo. It’s only finding out afterwards that you’ve done so. The deception sticks in the throat long after the food has been digested.
That’s why although there are many movie movements where a character discovers they’ve been food-winked into snacking on something stomach turning – notable examples being in Theatre of Blood (pet dog), The War of the Roses (pet dog again) and Diner (er, Mickey Rourke’s penis) – the absolute classic of culinary duplicity remains Soylent Green. Watched today it’s creaky and few are unaware of the ending. But it retains its power because it combines the widest possible deceit, fooling the entire population, with the biggest taboo – cannibalism.
The current concerns over horsemeat aren’t quite at that level, but they still involve huge numbers of people being deliberately misled into eating something that, however harmless, they would not have chosen to. While indigestion, indignation and anger are all understandable, a better main course of action might be to follow the lead of Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man. Thawed out in a future where everything, even the food, is safe but bland he manages to find somewhere underground where they still flip burgers. He orders one, and takes a mouthful. It’s then explained to him there are no cows down there and that he’s eating rat. Stallone hesitates for a moment, then takes another bite, saying: “It’s the best burger I’ve had in years.”