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The Curiosities of Food; or, A Study in Zoophagy

“The new dish resembled beef, with a decided flavour of venison, and…the fineness of the fibre and the delicacy of the fat were among its most striking characteristics.”

Eland_Venison_Dinner_SpectatorOn January 21, 1859, a group of zoologists and natural historians sat down to the Eland Dinner at the Albion Tavern. Professor Richard Owen presided over the affair. The diners’ consensus, quoted above, was reported in The Spectator the following day.  The article concludes, “although Eland venison may not be plentiful for some few years, we hope to see the time when this nutritious food will be brought within the reach of many thousands of persons who at this moment, perhaps, do not know of its existence.”

This unusual feast was part of a popular movement in the nineteenth century called zoophagy. The term refers to the practice of eating animals, though it generally connotes consumption of more exotic creatures. While such a practice may seem like the domain of epicureans and master chefs, feast attendees were more likely to be naturalists and zoologists.

Recreating the Flavors of the Colonies

The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of colonial expansion. Europeans would often venture to the colonies to make their fortune, encountering new flora, fauna, and foods. When they returned to Europe, they often missed these flavors and lamented the monotony of their own national cuisines. And those who’d never ventured afield were enthusiastic for new items. Meanwhile, the idea developed that local fauna were somehow deficient or impoverished, especially in comparison to the wild and unusual animals found in more remote locations.

Jardin_zoologique_Boulogne

Founded in 1860 by the Société d’acclimatation, the Jardin Zoologique of the Bois de Boulogne featured various flora and fauna not native to France.

The first acclimatization society was La Societe Zoologique d’Acclimatation, founded in Paris in 1854. The organization’s goal: to promote the importation and cultivation of exotic species for consumption. It won accolades for introducing the kangaroo, the Australian emu, the South African peetsi, and the Tibetan kiang. The concept quickly spread around the world,  and the organizations would come to embrace both the study of natural history and methodology for improving the success of introduced species. In some cases, introduction was too successful, as with possums in New Zealand, rabbits in Australia, and grey squirrels in Britain (yes, grey squirrels were introduced as a possible food source.)

The Adventurous Palates of the Buckland Clan

Frank Buckland proved the perfect leader for the acclimatization and zoophagy movement in London. He grew up in a home where zoophagy was simply the modus operandi. His father, William Buckland, was a famed naturalist and paleontologist who had a reputation for serving unusual meals–and for tasting just about anything. Mice, hedgehogs, puppies, and snails were all known to show up on the Buckland table–where leading naturalists and thinkers often dined. Owen passed an uneasy night after eating the the ostrich, while John Ruskin was disappointed to have missed the mouse. The senior Buckland once visited a cathedral whose claim to fame was on the floor: blood droplets, allegedly from the saints, had fallen there and never dried. He unabashedly licked the droplets and declared them to be nothing but bat urine!

Frank_BucklandThus is would come as a surprise to no one that Frank Buckland also enthusiastically embraced zoophagy. He once rode a (dead) crocodile around the pond in the Christ Church quadrangle, and at school he was known for cooking and eating the smaller animals he dissected. An Oxford classmate overheard him complaining that earwigs were “horribly bitter.” Buckland trained as a surgeon, sometimes human body parts for eel and trout. He also befriended employees at the Royal Zoological Garden-now the London Zoo–and they would contact him when an animal died, in case he wanted to eat it. Buckland also conducted his own culinary experiments, which weren’t alway tasty. He declared the flesh of a porpoise head, for instance, to taste like “broiled lamp wick.”

Though his behavior sounds bizarre and may even offend our modern sensibilities, Buckland was not considered outlandishly odd or possibly insane by his contemporaries. His was a generation morbidly concerned with the loss of agricultural land and the potential resulting loss of domestic food sources. And parallel to his unconventional dining choices, Buckland was also a preservationist. Starting in 1859, he devoted his life to fisheries, writing numerous papers on the topic and eventually earning the title of “Her Majesty’s Inspector of Salmon Fisheries.” Buckland also did much to raise awareness that pollution decreased fishery productivity.

Holothurian Echinoderms and Hippophagy

Given his propensity for eating unusual foods and his dedication to wildlife, it was natural that Buckland would come to lead the Society for the Acclimatisation of Animals in the United Kingdom. Soon the Society was staging elaborate feasts that undoubtedly would have made William Buckland beam with pride. At one meal, holothurian echinoderms–sea cucumbers–were served. Guests found the dish “strong in flavour,” and it “excited a divided opinion.” Other items on the menu were kangaroo, lamb, curassow, wild boar, and Syrian pig.

Canadian_Camp_Bornean_RhinoIn 1868, Britain was conducting a campaign to encourage the use of horses as a food source, called hippophagy. An all-horse banquet was served to 160 guests. But Buckland couldn’t get behind the idea; “In my humble opinion,” he said, “hippophagy has not the slightest chance of success in this country.”

By 1905, the practice of zoophagy had crossed the pond. That year, the Canadian Camp’s feast featured Bornean rhinoceros, now an endangered species. The organization’s members, who were all sportsmen, believed in their duty to “be the animal” and eat what they hunted. Thus their events often featured exotic game. But in this case, the animal wasn’t wild: it was a captive rhino from the Berlin Zoo. The carcass had been a gift from Prince Henry of Prussia.

Zoophagy for the Rest of Us

These elegant feasts were fancy affairs, limited to prominent scholars, scientists, and society members. But interest in zoophagy certainly wasn’t limited to the upper strata of society. Enter Peter Lund Simmonds, a friend and colleague of Buckland. Like Buckland, Simmonds was a popular science writer. Born in Denmark in 1814, he was adopted by a British naval family. Simmonds began his career in the merchant marines at the ripe old age of 12, and passed the early 1830’s he was a bookkeeper in Jamaica. Simmonds returned to England in 1834 to pursue a new direction: journalism. He started out as the editor and proprietor of The Garland, or Chichester, West Sussex, and East Hampshire Repository and went on to work at a series of periodicals.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Simmonds was quite interested in colonial improvement. In 1844, he started a new journal called Simmond’s Colonial Magazine and Foreign Miscellany, which he edited until around the end of 1848. The success of that periodical was undoubtedly predicated on the momentous expansion of the Victorian press during the period, largely driven by narratives of scientific discovery. Though Simmonds is not remembered as  a great figure of the time, the multiple editions of a number of his works indicates that he was quite a popular writer in his lifetime. Nevertheless, Simmonds died in 1897 relatively impoverished.

Simmonds_Curiosities_FoodBut Simmonds made one incredible contribution to zoophagy and to culinary history. The Curiosities of Food; Or, The Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained From the Animal Kingdom (1859) was published the same year as the Eland Dinner and brought zoophagy to a wide audience. Simmonds notes in the preface, “If animals could speak, as Aesop and other fabulists make them seem to do, they would declare man to be the most voracious animal in existence.  There is scarcely any living thing that flies in the air, swims in the sea, or moves on the land, that is not made to minister to his appetite in some region or another.”

“Curried narwhal skin can be tolerated, but not recommended.” (The Curiosities of Food)

The nineteenth century was a time of compilation and compendiums, and Simmonds set out to amass a great guide to global culinary habits–particularly regarding consumption of animals. He organized the work by the type of animals consumed, and the result is a mind bogglingly complete view of what people around the world ate in the mid-nineteenth century, and how they ate it.

Simmonds’ anecdotal writing makes for engaging and enlightening reading. He contemplates the pros and cons of hippophagy, explains how to prepare dishes like elephants’ feet and bears’ paws, and waxes poetic about the glories of eating passenger pigeon. As a time capsule of the era, The Curiosities of Food is absolutely invaluable; indeed, Alan Davidson used the volume as a primary resource for the Oxford Companion to Food. He says, “Curiosities is in all probability the first attempt to write a general worldwide survey of animal products.” The book has become a vital part of every culinary historian’s collection, and an interesting addition to the enthusiast’s personal library.

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This entry was posted on January 10, 2014 by in Food and Literature, History and tagged , , , , .
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