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…

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