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Yuk!

Unmentionable Cuisine

by Calvin W. Schwabe
University Press of Virginia, 476 pp., $20.00

In spite of my firm belief that I can eat anything my hosts choose to serve me, there are a few high-protein tidbits that I hope never to have to cope with, and almost all of them are discussed cheerfully in this extraordinary book. It is well published, with an excellent index and even better drawings of beasts and insects (as far as I can see unacknowledged), and one quick look will start the pages turning. Take “Field mice, roasted,” for instance. I hope to live until my due demise without having to be polite about them at table, but the recipe sounds sensible, at least if one lives in remote Mexico. And they could be washed down with nourishing draughts of Dog Wine, which in somewhat more remote China is a kind of fermented milk mixed with fresh dog meat before it starts to bubble.

Calvin Schwabe writes in a nonchalant teasing way, most of the time, and eases the transfixed reader gently from one strange proposition to another. He says of the sizzling tiny mice, for instance, “These are probably great as hors d’oeuvres with margaritas.” He does not smile, at least noticeably, when he gives a Laotian recipe for water beetles to be eaten as a hand-food: “Steam…then marinate in shrimp sauce…. These are believed to combat diarrhea, besides being enjoyed.” And when he outlines some such tipple as Dog Wine, he is less the mischievous poker-faced schoolboy than the dedicated anthropologist as he adds, “…after the novelty of acupuncture wears off, who knows what else we’ll discover from the Mysterious East?”

A few people whom I’ve subjected to his book, an acid test of their stomachs and perhaps their minds, have said flatly that they hope they never have to meet the man. I myself would like to, in spite of my awe of real fanatics, especially if they also happen to be world-famous scientists. This one’s steady and extremely serious belief is that we are shunning and actually destroying valuable sources of high protein because of our regional and religious prejudices. And our private as well as conditioned revulsions rise to the top when we read his maliciously calm directives about the preparation, in other cultures, of things we have always thought disgusting, without ever asking ourselves who told us to.

Moslems and Jews, for instance, do not eat pork. This was basically a realistic ordinance, one the first great health-officer Moses knew well, when he led his people for forty years across deserts where such pale tender meat would rot in minutes, if by chance a pig could have lived there long enough to be edible. And beef is forbidden to Hindus and Sikhs, because the cow is intrinsically sacred to their religious beliefs. Brahmins and Jains go even further in this intermixture of faith and cookery, and shun everything that even looks like red meat: watermelon, tomatoes. For the same reasons they forgo eating anything that might be used to make cooked meat more tempting, like garlic and spices.

In our own Christian cultures, we notice gradually relaxing taboos about meat on Friday and such-like. As in Moses’ laws, they were based on both common sense and political controls, and just as orthodox Jews can shrug off some of the ancient fears of contaminated foodstuffs in this day of instant packaged ice cubes, so we goyim smile more easily at medieval rules about fasting in the name of our Lord and our high blood pressure.

The hundreds of recipes in Calvin Schwabe’s somewhat incredible book are written more for armchair cooks than for average kitchen-mechanics. They call for “some fat,” “sections of boiled yams,” “a relish.” They often remind me of the Elizabethan direction on how to test when an oven is hot enough to bake a cake: have a kitchen maid hold her elbow there until it turns red…. Even so, they are fascinating teasers, in their seemingly loose-jointed way. And they go right on digging into our often unconscious minds, making us wonder why we think dried earthworms must be revolting, when we may look forward to a dish of snails.

All of us know people whose gustatory reflexes are unusually strong. One friend of mine feels his whole tongue fold back on itself and down his throat, so that he gags violently, if he is served any form of cooked tongue. This is his only known phobia, and he is thought of as a fin bec, and enjoys many of the soft parts of acceptable animals: brains, sweetbreads, and kidneys, and even liver and Rocky Mountain Oysters. (Schwabe remarks obliquely that “testicles as an item of diet…are traditionally reserved for men in some countries.”)

It is interesting that these side-products of our use of bovine flesh are given somewhat unpleasant names. In England they are called offal, and here our doctors refer sneeringly to them as “soft meats.” Such culinary semantics might make another fine fat book, if only Mr. Schwabe would tackle it!

In Japan I have been mildly repelled by the use (in translation of course) of the word “scum” for a kind of dense cheese-like custard served in a little cup. It is made from the skimmings of a broth containing soy flour, I think, and it is not unpleasant, but when it is called “scum” I do not like it. Underneath it is an even rarer and subtler tidbit made of the ovaries of live sea slugs. I accept this Lucullan offering as a true compliment, and am not repelled by my host’s proud description, but these reactions are contradictory.

Slugs are one of my few innate dislikes, although I am more tolerant of them as I mature. I have eaten them calmly, so as not to lose face, in several Spaces and Times. I would prefer not to do this again. The Japanese ovaries are very delicate, but the big sea slugs sliced and pickled down in the Rhone Delta in Provence are tough leathery slabs, impossibly rich and heavy. I feel fairly sure that I need not face them another time….

I hope, though, that I never have to prove my innate good manners by being offered broiled or stuffed or boiled eyes. I might not be able to stay polite and bland and in my assigned position at table. Mr. Schwabe says that cats’ eyes were served in the last century in China, and he gives a French recipe for stuffed calves’ eyes. Well, I’ve spent about twenty years in France, and the nearest I ever came to meeting an eye on the table was in 1930, when my penurious landlady presented her boarders with half a calf’s head, vinaigrette, and not a whole one. It lay palely on a white platter, and its one large sad faded eye looked upward, not at our human faces but far beyond us. We were not afraid, being young, and ate heartily, and it no doubt went out stripped and blind to the kitchen-slavey and her poubelle.

Schwabe remarks, on this subject of using eyes as a source of animal protein, “It would probably make excellent Hallowe’en party fare, and immediately establish the culinary reputation for any truly venturesome cook.” He can indeed play Till Eulenspiegel, with his wistful hints and teasing mockeries, but along with all this seeming nonchalance he is dead serious, and his peculiar book about the unmentionables, the taboos, the conditioned prejudices we all accept, is an important one. Anybody who on casually turning the pages says “yuk” should read on. Schwabe sums things up neatly in his last sentence: “How ironic it would be, in this scientific age, for mankind to starve largely because of a bunch of old wives’ tales, irrational beliefs, silly associations, and the lack of a sufficient spirit of culinary and gustatory adventure.”

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