Here is a curious intellectual connection—a frivolous connection, some would say—that I made only recently.
The sight of an olive pit or the bones of a fish pushed to the edge of a dish—or even worse on the table—bothers me, whether on my plate or someone else’s; to my mind it should be in a separate container. It must always have been so for I remember having a bowl on the table for debris when the children were small; they called it the ‘bree bowl.’ I was never clear why it bothered me, for it went beyond mere tidiness.

Mary Douglas wrote Purity and Danger in the sixties to explain the famous so-called abominations of Leviticus. Scholars have always been puzzled by the dietary laws laid down in Leviticus, they seemed simply whimsical. Why could the locust be eaten and not the camel?

I quote random verses from chapter 11, the King James Bible.

3 Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.

4 Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but dividith not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

7 And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you.

21 Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth;

22 Even these of  them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.

29  [But] these . . .  shall be unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth; the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind ,

31 These are unclean to you among all that creep.

Their classifications seem eccentric, to say the least. Whatever else weasels do, they do not creep.

Douglas’ book is about ambiguity and categories. She says the Jews, adrift in the wilderness, looked to secure their relationship with God by way of the ceremony of  eating. The dietary laws had to be clear, and only by drawing rigid boundaries could this be made so. The way to clarify a category is to exclude the questionable . “When something is firmly classed as anomalous, the outlines of the set in which it is not a member is clarified.” The Israelites found purity in ironclad categories.

So, an olive pit at the edge of the plate can be seen as anomalous. It is no longer food; it has no formal existence. (Once in a dish reserved for such things it takes on the grandeur of identity:  it becomes the quasi-formal “debris.”) The category  “food” is satisfactorily re-defined, sharpened, clarified.

So: should I find an olive stone left on my plate while in a levitical state of mind  it behooves me to cry “Unclean! Unclean!”

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