By E.G.B.

Deborah Gewertz, the G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology, and her husband and research collaborator, Frederick Errington, were living and working in Papua New Guinea when friends asked them to bring lamb flaps to a church picnic. “We didn’t know what they were,” Gewertz says.

She learned quickly: “If a sheep were a pig,” she explains, “lamb flaps would be bacon.” Lamb flaps are sheep’s bellies, and the food is a staple in some of the poorest areas of the world. Among Pacific Islanders, the fatty byproduct has been taking the heat lately for high rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension. In fact, Fiji has banned the import.

Gewertz, who teaches a course on the anthropology of food, has noticed with interest that Pacific Islanders do not often blame other likely offenders—Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s, for example. She believes that lamb flaps are the scapegoat because Pacific Islanders know that whites will happily devour a Big Mac, but won’t eat a lamb flap.

Gewertz and Errington have spent the past year tracking the lamb flap from pasture to pot, much as author Michael Pollan traced the food chains of three meals in last year’s bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Along the way, Gewertz has heard many argue that Pacific Islanders should change their diets. “It’s much more complicated than that,” she says: Modernization, including Western-style education and urbanization, has made subsistence farming less appealing and less feasible in the Pacific Islands. Politics is also at play. Gewertz says that Tonga, for example, needs the backing of New Zealand or Australia, the top lamb-producing countries, in order to join the World Trade Organization, and therefore is unlikely to curb the lamb flap trade. Further complicating matters, lamb flaps are a cheap source of protein. And in the wake of the ban, the health of Fijians has yet to improve.

Gewertz and Errington have two papers in the works and have written two chapters of a book on the lamb flap industry. To be called Cheap Meat, the book will detail the intersecting lives of farmers, manufacturers and consumers, and will explore such topics as global trade, post-colonial relations and meat as a symbol of wealth.

Photo: Samuel Masinter '04