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Yet if we look back to the 1896 classic, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, we find the case of a 6-year-old girl who habitually consumed “slugs, beetles, cockroaches, spiders, and other repulsive insects.” At the time, her eating habits were characterized as a “depravity of appetite” and classed alongside clay-eating as symptomatic of mental disturbance. Though, in a sense, this girl could have been considered a culinary pioneer, we also know that many things kids shove in their mouths are undeniably dangerous.
How do children learn what does work and what doesn’t work as food? By being told, of course. Language is the handy medium whereby we transmit and store the results of our collective and dangerous experimentation. Language as a distinguishing feature of homo sapiens is also one of the reasons our species (unlike others) will eat things that, upon first taste, we instinctually spit out. You can see this in the individual context, as children are culturally acclimated into an enjoyment of spicy foods, coffee, alcohol, and other initially noxious substances. Despite the protestations of the gag reflex, young initiates are told these foods are “safe” and even good, and the acquiring of “acquired tastes” is an important signifier of membership in adult culture.
On a societal level, it’s similar-foods valued as hallmarks of higher civilization are never the simple “natural” foods, but are those involving a strange, sophisticated (and possibly revolting) process of production. Wine and cheese, for instance, produced by fermentation and curdling, are nothing more than the outcome of carefully controlled decay. Hindsight tells us that alcohol turned out to be a clever way to keep beverages free of bacteria, and cheese turned out to be a good way to preserve milk, but it must’ve been a fool of heroic proportions who first chose to down these rancid provisions.
Foolhardy behavior, accidents, and the acts of the “mentally deranged”-these appear to be the forces behind our evolving definition of “food.” It’s a bumbling process of mutation and mistake, sometimes dead-ending in hairballs and poison and other times advancing to wine and cheese. Darwin would call it natural selection, and Frank Buckland went ahead and took Darwin’s theory to its culinary extreme.
Hold That Tiger!
Frank Buckland was the son of William Buckland-the famously eccentric professor of geology and mineralogy at Oxford in the early to mid-1800s, and generally considered to be the father of modern paleontology. Trained as a surgeon, the younger Buckland, like his father, was a popular scientific author and lecturer. Serious scholars like to remember Frank as a proponent of fisheries, but it was not only fish that Frank’s appetites inclined toward. As founder of the “Society for Acclimatization of Animals in the United Kingdom,” Frank believed that exotic species should not merely be imported for display in zoos but should be judiciously selected, acclimated, domesticated-and eaten.
On his own estate, Buckland kept an edible menagerie and experimented in his kitchen with a variety of recipes and dishes including kangaroo, buffalo, crocodile, whole roast ostrich, giraffe, porpoise heads, mice on toast, elephant trunk soup, rhinoceros pie, slug soup, and earwigs.
It’s even said that upon returning from his travels and learning that the resident leopard at the London Zoo had expired, Buckland rushed to where it had been buried and disinterred the creature in order that he might perform a few culinary experiments with its meat. Of the hundreds of recipes he concocted, only two (stewed mole and bluebottle flies) were deemed inedible by this second-generation eccentric.
In addition to his menagerie, Buckland also kept a collection of relics including a lock of hair from Henry IV and the heel bone of the poet Ben Johnson. The most precious object in Buckland’s reliquary, however, was one bequeathed to him by his father, who had purchased it from a certain Lord Harcourt, who in turn had obtained it from Jacobin defilers of the royal tombs at St. Denis in Paris. This jewel in Buckland’s collection was the embalmed heart of the Sun King, Louis XIV.
Despite the immeasurable value of this relic, Buckland himself is said to have destroyed this precious object before the eyes of one very alarmed dinner guest, according to an 1886 article in Popular Science Monthly. Before disposing of this little bit of history, Buckland is said to have uttered these words, “I have eaten many strange things in my lifetime, but never before have I eaten the heart of a king,” and with that, Frank Buckland began eating away at Louis’ heart. Clearly, gustatory pleasure was not the aim in chewing up this leathery bit of mummified meat. So why had Frank suddenly gone cannibal? And why had he chosen to start with this immeasurably valuable and immeasurably unappetizing specimen?
Probably for much the same reasons the cannibals in Papua New Guinea eat the heart of a rival warrior-to acquire the dead man’s desirable qualities. Clearly the gesture was symbolic, and clearly Buckland was obsessed with enriching his gastronomic experience. And who in all the world came closer to living out the Epicurean ideal than Louis XIV? This method in Buckland’s madness, which might be lost on the typically noncannibalistic reader of Popular Science Monthly, would no doubt make perfect sense to the tribal practitioner of ritual cannibalism.
Playing with Our Food
Hopefully, Buckland’s spirit can guide you through Offbeat Food, reminding you of the essential symbolic potency of food, a power that can spill out over the most unlikely substances, turning the inedible into coveted morsels. Its terrific symbolic force can manifest itself in the desiccated heart of a long-dead monarch, but it can also inhabit a humble loaf of bread or a sculpture made of yak butter.
Is there really any objective definition for food? Can we let the physiologists strong-arm us into the definition of food as “nutritive substances consumed”? How can we let them so glibly exclude foodstuffs (i.e. chewing gum) that are obviously psychological rather than nutritive in function? Even if the physiologist were to back off and decide to offer a more humble definition of food, describing it negatively as “nontoxic substances consumed,” we can still raise a fuss, pointing to the vast spectrum of mild to lethal intoxicants enjoyed by various cultures throughout the world.
Throughout the ages and throughout the world, food has been used ritually to bring luck, work magic, bless marriages, bond neighbors, cure and improve the body, placate the dead, and affirm unity with the divine. With power like that, it’s only natural that civilizations should eventually develop an obsession with the form and details of food. It follows that societies would eventually devote intense scientific and artistic energies toward the preparation and presentation of food, and that mankind should eventually fixate on food as a decorative motif and metaphor, eventually anthropomorphizing food, creating animated personas for food, having sex with food, and building homes and driving cars that look like food.
Offbeat Food documents a few of the thousands of ways our species has and continues to play with its food. Smearing it around a plate is only the beginning.
1) DIVINE EATS
Fruits and Vegetables
Sidebar: Buddah Got Some Bad Pork
Grain and Bread
Sidebar: Manna Mania
The Religious Side of Cannibalism
Sidebar: Cannibal Joke
2) OMNIVOROUS ADVENTURES
Meal On A Leash
Sidebar: Old Fish, New Fish
Tastes Like Chicken
Sidebar: The Colorado Cannibal
Sidebar: Pack the Car! We're Going to the Snail Farm!
Snacks On Six Legs
Sidebar: Larvets & Bug Candy (Have Al Write?)
Right Animal, Wrong Part
Sidebar: Primer On British Cuisine
Dogs 'N Burgers
Sidebar: Fast & Faster
Flakes for Science
Military Industrial Gourmet
Sidebar: How Percy Spencer Blew Up an Egg
Fluff And Wobble
Sidebar: They Didn't Have Microwaves
Sidebar: We Don't Eat That Here
Rot Your Teeth
Sidebar: Candy Cancer Sticks
Ice Cream Shop
4) TOO GOOD TO EAT
Entertaining With Taste
Sidebar: Wedding Pies, Pyramids, and Cakes
Just Don't Bite It
Sidebar: Full-Throttle All-Beef Patty Preoccupation
Bigger Than Groceries
Sidebar: Bombshell in Burlap
5) CHEWING ON METAPHORS
Sidebar: Surrealist Recipes For Film
Comforts Of The Table
Sidebar: Let the Force Do the Dishes
Adults Play with Food Too
Sidebar: Throwing Pies, Making History
The Still Life Syndrome
Sidebar: He Painted Human Vegetables
The Bad Manners of the Avant-Garde
Pop Goes The Still Life
Sidebar: Cibo Matto
Your Imaginary Friends
Sidebar: Space Cadet's Breakfast
Breeding Betty Crockers
6) FOOD, SEX, DEATH . . . AND THEN?
Food As Fetish
Sidebar: Mystery of the Durian
Sidebar: Traditional Items for Epiphany Cakes
Sidebar: Lucky Foods for the Coming Year