Recently there’s been a kerfuffle in my inbox over baby flavouring. And there will probably be a bigger one after this, so let me say this now: those who are faint of stomach should stop reading and look forward to Friday Cat Blogging instead. Don’t claim that you weren’t warned–we’re going to get down and dirty here.
Some writers have been horrified that I could, in all seriousness, write about eating babies. (Apparently they haven’t read through the rest of my site, or they would have had a litany of offensive topics.) Some writers were curious about the flavour of human flesh generically, rather than babies specifically, and others were offering up their newborns to science (just kidding!)
This is a topic I’m actually really curious about. I mean, not just babies in particular, but the consumption of human flesh, because it’s been so hotly debated. It’s one of those taboos that everyone seems afraid to cross, as though it’s been hardwired into us. (I find this unlikely, given that our close relatives, chimpanzees, obviously don’t have a problem with eating each other.) Indeed, anthropological evidence suggests very strongly that early humans ate each other, so we’re all descended from cannibals. So there.
The anthropological question is how widespread was/is cannibalism, especially in the last two hundred years with the steam rollering of native peoples by Western values. How many people ate who, and in which circumstances? So much myth and legend surrounds cannibalism that it’s hard to get any actual factual information on it, which is a little frustrating. Common lore, for example, can recall the cases of kuru, a human version of mad cow disease contracted by eating human brain and spinal tissue, in New Zealand. But how widespread was kuru? And has it ever been thoroughly documented, with scientific evidence to prove that it wasn’t contracted from the flesh or neurological materials of cannibalistic animals?
In recent years, cannibals in the West have made headlines because they’ve been considered pathological–the German prostitute who ate the penis of one of her clients, for example, or a woman in California in the early nineties who killed and roasted her abusive husband (apparently she experimented with a variety of preparations, like any responsible scientist). Clearly, Western values preclude cannibalism. And everyone else ain’t copping to it.
A friend of mine has asked that we eat him when he dies, and this is a challenging issue for me–what kind of preparation to use? Which wines would make the best pairings? Given the advanced age he will have reached, probably stewing or slow roasting is the best solution. But what kind of meat can I expect? How can I utilize it to maximize the flavor? Given the environmental toxins soluble in human fat, will his meat even be safe to eat? I turned to The Joy of Cooking usually my ultimate food authority, and came up empty handed, an unusual state of affairs. For Pete’s sake, I can learn how to butcher a possum, with illustrations, but they have no tips for Homo sapiens?
So I sat down and decided to do some hard research on human flesh, to see if anyone else has written about these pressing issues.
Human flesh, in my opinion, has two strikes against it in terms of flavour:
The first is that most of the flesh we consume comes from vegetarians, for reasons of food chain efficiency. But I suspect carnivores also don’t taste as good, given the effect of meat on human bodily fluids. Furthermore, as anyone who has nursed a child or raised dairy animals knows, the things you eat affect the taste of your milk, and I suspect this is true for meat as well. A long term complex diet with lots of strange flavours might not result in the most excellently flavoured flesh. How do you prepare meat like this, which probably tastes different from each specimen? Do you take a sample, cook it bland, and taste test it to see what would complement it best? Luckily my friend is vegan, so I may not be as fettered by these issues when the time comes.
The second is that most meat is eaten young, with the exception of meat for stewing. Usually within two years, animals are slaughtered while their meat is still tender and easily usable. Even on the long end of things, you are generally looking at less than ten years. Imagine eating an eighty year old animal! That’s got to take some serious stewing. Coq au vin, anyone?
Is human dark or white meat? What kind of flavour profile can I expect? How will it behave in the oven? On the grill? In the saute pan?
In my searching, I stumbled across a very interesting talk given by David Allen at Oregon State University discussing this very topic.
To begin with, he points out the difficulty of defining tastes, especially in English. He’s right. What does chicken taste like? Other than chicken? How can you define the flavour experience in a way that someone who had never eaten chicken could understand? Can you? Perhaps by comparing it to other foods, but even then, it’s a challenge. Taste is a difficult sense. Describing any sense, really, is difficult. What does velcro feel like? What does a river look like? What does poop smell like?
It’s a challenge, isn’t it?
Next, he discusses the mythological aspect of cannibalism–that it’s very hard to get accurate descriptions of the flavour, because it’s unclear where truth ends and fiction begins. Mostly this is because, in the West, accounts of cannibalism are second hand or sensationalist, and in cultures which may have practiced cannibalism, there’s no written tradition to carry on the lore.
In the West, cannibalism is generally undertaken in an emergency situation, and understandably the Donner party didn’t write about what it tasted like to eat human flesh, they wrote about the emotional experience. Likewise with other survivors forced to eat human flesh, or people like Tobias Schneebaum, who participated in a cannibalistic raid during his time in South America, who explains that he was so caught up in the heat of the moment that he can’t describe the flesh. In the case of murders who ate their victims, there’s the clear issue of insanity to temper any reports.
The flavour has been compared to monkey by those who have been exposed to it who are not insane, caught up in the heat of the moment, or survivors of terrible airplane crashes. (And what does monkey taste like?)
Allen turns up one person, William Seabrook, who claims to have eaten human flesh under more controlled circumstances, and wrote about it, describing the flesh as similar to well-developed veal (hah!) that had not yet matured into a state of beefiness. Excerpts from Seabrook’s report, by the way, are at the end of the Allen article, if you’d like to read it.
Seabrook’s case is interesting. To begin with, he wasn’t given a body, but a hunk of meat (which, arguably, could have been from anything!) The meat was “similar to beef” but seemed stringy, although the fat was of a slightly yellowish colour like mutton and pork are. (I’m curious to know the body fat compositions of these various animals, and the chemical and biological factors that affect the look and feel of their flesh–I’m sure this research is out there, I just don’t know where.) Seabrook decided to go plain, to allow the flavour to go through, and settled for spit roasting and barbequing.
He also doesn’t provide cooking times, which is a great shame. We know how long and at what heat it takes to reduce a body to ash in a cremation, but that isn’t terribly helpful for us–although at least we know the parameters of overcooking.
According to Seabrook, the flesh tasted good. He defined as different from other meats that he had experienced, though without a strong flavour like mutton, goat, or boar–most of these meats are influenced by sex hormones, and perhaps human sex hormones don’t influence the taste of our meat, at least to other humans? The meat was tough (probably due to age) and slightly stringy.
He also didn’t report on the wine he paired with, which is a pity.
I think some serious research needs to be done on this, perhaps with a panel of trained taste testers. It would be nice to have a comparison sampling with flesh at a variety of stages of development–milk-fed, pre-pubescent, adolescent, and senile, perhaps, just to see how the meat ages on the hoof, so to speak. Let’s get to the bottom of this mystery, Western style: with science!
Donations of humanely raised, grass fed flesh with an easily traced origin are always welcome in my mailbox.