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Unmentionable Cuisine
By Daniel Maurer

One of my fondest high school memories involves eating a live cricket. The idea was to liven up a math presentation about a formula that used cricket chirps to determine temperature. The cricket tasted like a straw of hay dipped in carpenter’s glue, but it wasn’t the taste I recall so much as the horror of my classmates. I got a similar reaction in art class after chewing and swallowing a shard of glass. Years later, when I selected “eats glass” to be the only senior saying next to my yearbook picture, I immortalized myself as a “weird foodie”—a person obsessed with swallowing strange things.
For the restless person, eating unusual food— for instance a baby pigeon at New York City’s mecca of weird food, Congee Village— is the only way to experience the exciting and exotic while listening to his lunchmate complain about his job for the umpteenth time. Simple mastication becomes an escape and an adventure; an act of enlightenment and transgression; the culinary equivalent of foreign travel— a means of experiencing flavors that are at once comfortingly familiar yet wonderfully strange. Knowing the secret tastes of foods such as barbequed ovaries (or “balls on a string,” as they are called in Japan) makes you feel like someone whose lover does illicit and delightful things in bed (perhaps also with balls and a string)— you want to tell everyone about them, but when you do, you are met with a mixture of awe and revulsion. 
Calvin W. Schwabe knows this. His cultural history-cum-cookbook, Unmentionable Cuisine, defiantly opens with an epigraph quoting Frederick Swoone: “It makes no better sense to reject nutritious dogflesh, horseflesh, grasshoppers and termites as food than to reject beef or chicken flesh.” (Far be it from this reader to reject horseflesh— I became a “kicker eater,” as Yorkshiremen were disdainfully called, in Osaka, where I also feasted on whale sushi and sparrow skull.) The hefty tome gathers recipes from all over the world, including Ancient Roman dormice, Texas armadillo, squirrel ravioli (substitute kangaroo rats or jerboas if need be), crisp roasted termites (they’ll keep for a year), and guinea pig, which we are told provide 50 percent of all the animal protein eaten in Peru (Peruvians keep them under their floor boards, feeding them vegetable scraps until the day comes to “disarticulate their neck vertebrae.”)

As a New Yorker, I have eaten many of these foods before: ox tail, intestines, eel, and pig’s feet in countless Chinese or Puerto Rican restaurants; turtle soup in Harlem; skewered chicken hearts at a Japanese barbeque joint; strips of cured pig’s ear as bar food; cock’s combs and wild boar at a tapas bar; skate jerky in a sake den; ostrich and bison burgers at corner pubs; “kanga skewers” at an Aussie bar and emu carpaccio at the restaurant upstairs; peppered lamb testicles at a Russian takeout joint; blood sausage tacos from vending trucks; squab at a 5-star restaurant; sea urchin at a sushi joint; bee pollen and sea moss at a West Indian fast food place. I have purchased shark at the local fish market, an entire rabbit from a Portuguese butcher in New Jersey, and veal brains and beef heart at the supermarket in my Polish neighborhood. And I have seen people on the streets of Chinatown crowded around Rubbermaid buckets packed with hundreds of live frogs. But there are recipes in Unmentionable Cuisine that will raise the eyebrows (and stomach bile) of even the most hardened New Yorker: Fish sperm crepes, baked shins, deep-fried calf’s eyes, and “possum with ’taters” are all mentioned in Unmentionable Cuisine. One Ancient Roman recipe even calls for stuffing sea urchin gonads (“the poor man’s caviar”) into a sow’s nipples.
In addition to the recipes, Schwabe offers helpful preparation and serving advice. He tells us red ant chutney is often eaten with “alcoholic drinks,” which goes without saying given how drunk you’d have to be to eat ants (Ozzy Osbourne was certainly high when he snorted a line of them.) Likewise, we are told roasted field mice go great with margaritas. (While Mexicans like alcohol with their rodents, the French like it inside of them, cooking the “alcoholic rats” inhabiting wine cellars over a fire of broken wine barrels.) Also perfect for margaritas, we are told, are turkey testicles. “My neighbor and colleague Rosie Rosenwald is probably the world’s leading authority on turkey testicles,” Schwabe chirps before instructing us to “express the organ from its membrane by squeezing it as one would peel a Concord grape.” Indeed, at times we learn more about preparation than we want or need to know— how to kill and skin a rabbit (the instructions take up an entire page), how to clean a lamb’s head (make sure to brush its teeth), and how to distinguish good-tasting eggs from bad ones when plundering birds’ nests. When baking bats Samoan style, Schwabe says, avoid those behaving abnormally or flying in daylight, since they may be rabid (unfortunately he fails to tell us what “abnormal” bat behavior entails.)
The chapter most will turn to (or away from) first is “Dog and Cat Meat.” After trying to guilt trip the reader into cooking Garfield or Snoopy (“Some 3,500 puppies and kittens are born every hour in the United States, and the surplus among them represents at least 120 million pounds per year of potentially edible meat now being totally wasted”) and offering a world history of dogmeat eating, Schwabe charms us with an anecdote about a couple traveling in Hong Kong whose language difficulties caused their pet poodle to be cooked and served to them in a restaurant. Then come recipes for broiled puppy (Hawaii), puppies stuffed with rice (Burma), smoked dog (“a tremendous hit at cocktail parties” in the Philippines), and stir-fried dog (“eviscerate and clean a puppy,” the Chinese recipe deadpans). The Swiss recipe for dried dogmeat calls for hanging a dog carcass for 8 to 10 days, then packing the pieces in oak barrels for 14 days, then pressing it between two boards for 5 to 6 weeks, and finally hanging the pieces of meat for as much as four and a half months. 
Schwabe has a few recipes for cat people too. Although he admits that he failed to find a way to use the cat’s eyes that were sold in Cantonese food shops in the last century, he does come through with stewed cat recipes from Ghana and Spain. Disappointingly, Dragon, Phoenix and Tiger Soup doesn’t contain dragon meat, but provides your daily nutritional allowances of cat, cloud ear fungus, fish stomach, and snake meat. (Carb counters beware: Because the book was originally published in 1973, there is no mention of them in the nutritional information Schwabe provides for each animal.)
By the end of the cat and dog chapter, even the most hardened weird foodie begins to suspect that the author of Unmentionable Cuisine is unspeakably insane. It is not just because he says things like “hearts are conveniently made for stuffing” and “spinach goes unusually well with brains.” It is not just because he commands us to “split a pig’s head in two” and “bake the face.” There is also the matter of his painful puns: “The heart and lungs of an animal are called the pluck— but it really takes none at all to eat and enjoy them!” One pictures Schwabe winking and nudging this to his kids over dinner as they fantasize about plucking out his heart and lungs. Indeed he admits to including an Ancient Roman pig uterus recipe “for the cook who has successfully subjugated most of the family’s food prejudices and is interested in having his or her culinary reputation recognized.” (Whatever happened to impressing your kids by teaching them how to throw a curveball?) Schwabe’s party guests are similarly victimized: “at our family’s pre-Christmas caroling suppers each year, it amuses me to see how a whole cold poached tongue… may remain all evening virtually untouched, while the pot of tongue spread next to it will have to be refilled.”
Evidence of the author’s insanity mounts when we consider his recipes’ more remarkable first lines. An Argentine recipe begins with a Dali-esque vision: “An eviscerated lamb or kid (with the kidneys left in) is spread-eagled on a wrought-iron cross.” (Maybe Schwabe should lay off of the bourbon-soaked snake meat.) Indeed when we combine several of his recipes’ more curious opening lines we get what sounds either like a recipe for witch stew or like Jeffrey Dahmer’s to-do list: “Kill a chicken and collect its blood… Take a sheep’s head and a couple of sheep’s feet… Drive a stake into the nostrils of a lamb’s head and, holding it by this handle, burn off the wool over an open fire… Collect the blood of a sheep or goat in a bowl and stir it vigorously with some added salt to prevent clotting. Cut some of the liver, lungs, kidneys, heart, brains, tripe, intestines, pancreas, and any other organs you wish into small pieces, wash them well, and put them into a large kettle… Pack the washed paw of a bear in clay and bake it in an oven…. Cut the meat of a mature cat and a chicken into cubes and steam them until tender… Grind termites, sugar and banana flour together to form a kind of honey-nougat paste.”
To be fair, the book avoids being a Fear Factor episode (or the episode of Beverly Hills 90210 where Brenda and Donna go to France and accidentally eat cow brains) by providing curious facts about the history and customs of strange food. We learn that before Geritol, “even proper ladies in Victorian England would drop by the slaughterhouse for a monthly tot of fresh blood.” We learn that pickled pig’s feet once graced most bar counters in America. We learn that South American cowboys have a “fiesta de huevos” (feast of balls) after castrating their charges (and perhaps more interestingly, that whenever a horse or bull was castrated during Schwabe’s stint in vet school, the doctors threw dice to see who got to take home the “goodies”). Schwabe even breaks the recipes down by countries in a sort of perverse culinary Olympics ceremony. (Our own fast food nation clocks in with forty recipes, about a fifth as many as Schwabe’s favorite France.)
Once you get over your shock and wonder over everything that appears in Unmentionable Cuisine, you’ll wonder about the things that don’t. There is, for instance, no mention of Louisiana’s loveable swamp rat the nutria (readers will have to scour nutria.com for a “stuffed nutria hindquarters” recipe that calls for “pounding out the legs”) or South America’s equivalent the capybara (according to a 1991 survey, over 400 tons of the giant rodent’s meat is eaten yearly). Schwabe might also have given the Glaciar Brewhouse of Alaska’s recipe for reindeer sausage, 28 of which record-holder Dale Boone downed in 10 minutes (other competitive eating records: 3 pounds of pickled beef tongue in 12 minutes and 57 cow brains in 15 minutes). While these omissions may have been innocent, one can’t help but cry “food prejudice,” as Schwabe so often does, over the glaring absence of primate recipes. After all, entire smoked monkeys can be purchased on the side of the road in rural Africa, their tales tied to their heads so they can be carried like briefcases (this according to CongoCookbook.com, which also offers an elephant soup recipe). And legend has it that in China, monkey brains were and possibly still are eaten before the creature is even dead— the monkey’s head is locked in a vise (or in a special table with a hole in the middle), its scalp is skinned and punctured, and the brains are extracted and eaten while still pulsating.
And what about that ultimate unmentionable cuisine? The book’s epigraph, after all, may remind some of Diego Rivera’s words about cannibalism: "When man evolves a civilization higher than the mechanized but still primitive one he has now, the eating of human flesh will be sanctioned," said the artist of the refreshing two-month cannibal diet he claimed to have gone on during his stint as an anatomy student (his favorite dish: "women’s brains in vinaigrette.") And yet Schawbe offers none of the human placenta recipes (placenta pizza, placenta lasagne, etc.) that are commonly prepared by new mothers.
To round off Schwabe’s book, readers will have to refer to the fascinating "Eat Me" chapter of Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of the Human Cadaver, which kicks off with a recipe for Arabian "mellified man," one of the many "mummy elixirs" Roach says were ubiquitously prescribed in Egypt (and, according to one source, even in Paris) up until the early 1900s: the corpse of a man who has eaten only honey for the last month of his life is macerated in a stone coffin full of honey for one hundred years after which small bits of the "human mummy confection" can be swallowed to ail broken and wounded limbs. Roach quotes from a 1571 book Chinese Materia Medica that offers restorative recipes for feces soup, human knee dirt, earwax, and powdered penis (to be "taken with alcohol"). C.J.S. Thompson’s book The Mystery and Art of the Apothecary includes recipes for Spirit of the Brain of Man (combine human brains with black cherries, lavender, and lily) and King Charles’ Drops (combine brains with a half pound of opium and some wine). And Cannibalism in China by Key Ray Chong offers a list of dishes prepared by children who demonstrated filial piety by hacking off pieces of themselves (limbs, ears, kidneys, even an eyeball) and cooking them in soups and porridges (this occurred as recently as 1987 when a daughter served her mother a piece of her own thigh). Roach’s sources say that indeed as many as three million Chinese still drink urine, aborted fetuses are consumed to improve bad skin, and "the use of human fingers, toes, nails, dried urine, feces and breast milk are strongly recommended by the Chinese government to cure certain diseases." Although Roach doesn’t know of any cultures that regularly participated in "taste cannibalism," we can’t help but think of Schwabe the testicle-eating medical school student when she tells us that Chinese executioners enjoyed the job perk of taking human brains and hearts home for dinner. Given that Schwabe’s book makes no mention of these unmentionable cuisines (nor of "fecal phosphorus," the glowing excrement dish that was concocted in 1710 by a German doctor), it appears that our fearless author (or at least his publisher) still has a few sacred cows of his own.
If its premise falls short, Unmentionable Cuisine is still to be admired. After all, Schwabe’s non-chalance about organ eating predates Hannibal Lechter’s by almost two decades. I admit I have yet to sample the recipes—reading the book is so delightful that actually using it seems beside the point. But I plan to. I can’t help but wonder what the tome will look (and smell) like a few years from now, when the pages have been smeared in veal brains, beef tunics (the outer membrane of the testicle), and who knows, maybe someday the mucus of the fabled Giant African Snail. Some of these recipes I’ll never get to try— especially the ones in which an entire pig or lamb carcass is slung over an elaborate ground stove such as the Peruvian pachamanca or Hawaiian imu (I doubt my Brooklyn nabe will yield the requisite lava stones). But there are simple recipes, too. Maybe I’ll start with this one from Laos:
“Boil dragonfly nymphs. Eat them.”

Daniel Maurer writes and edits things in New York City.

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