Thursday, February 18, 2010

In case you ever wondered what humans taste like...

Admit it, you've probably wondered about this ever since Hannibal Lecter sneered about eating an auditor's liver "with fava beans and a nice Chianti". But, let's face it, there are a paucity of people to ask, and those in the know tend to be close-lipped on the subject. In the modern age of broken taboos, the last one left intact might be the frank admission that you chowed down on a person.

So what do we taste like? Game? Chicken? If we use Lecter's choice of wine as a barometer, we might taste like beef, which matches well with a hearty Italian red. Or perhaps, if we listen to Fat Bastard from The Spy Who Shagged Me, we taste like pork (the other other white meat). Actually, the pork hypothesis is a strong one - Christopher Hitchens elaborates on the similarities between humans and pigs in God Is Not Great, in an attempt to explain why so many religions eschew pork products. Basically, he surmises, we aren't supposed to eat pork because pigs are much, much too like people.

It makes some sense that we would avoid eating an animal so much like ourselves - pigs are balder than most stock, and a lot more intelligent. Their organs are so much like ours that pig insulin was given to diabetic patients until a synthetic type was developed. Pigs are said to cry tears of grief, and to scream in a very human manner when trussed up for slaughter. The slang term for roasted human amongst Papua New Guinean tribes that practice cannibalism is "long pig", and Hitchens notes that firefighters tend to dislike pork, and especially pork crackling. Apparently, once you've smelt a burned human carcass... well, I'm sure I don't need to finish that sentence.

So we taste like pork, right?

Wrong, according to a New Yorker called William Seabrook, who decided to break the last taboo and try human flesh whilst travelling in West Africa in the 1930s. Finding that it was not uncommon for the locals to munch on roasted people from time to time, Seabrook approached the village chief and asked if humans really did, as he had heard, taste like pork. The chief was puzzled by this question, stating than that he had eaten pork many times and that human flesh was nothing like it, nothing at all. (We can suspect that he must have followed this up with "you dumb-ass whitey", or similar). Seabrook bided his time and waited for the opportunity to find out for himself.

Soon afterwards, he found that opportunity, in the form of a freshly killed 30 year old man whom the locals assured Seabrook was "not murdered". Seabrook never bothered to ascertain the man's cause of death, but instead set to work in cooking a small rib roast and a "sizeable rump steak". "I proposed", he wrote, "to make a meal of it as one would any other meat, with rice and a bottle of wine". And make a meal of it he did, as well as taking meticulous and detailed notes on the texture, colour, smell and taste of the raw and cooked portions.

If you're still with us, then here is the crux of what he had to say:

"I took a big swallow of wine, a helping of rice, and thoughtfully ate half the steak. And as I ate, I knew with increasing conviction and certainty exactly what it was like. It was like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef...

"The roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in colour, texture, smell, as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable... as to the 'long pig' legend... it was totally, completely false".

Seabrook, the man who referred to himself "thoughtfully" chewing on a dead man's cooked buttock, wrote that he felt "a sense of pride in having carried something through to its finish", and congratulated himself upon "a long-standing personal curiosity satisfied at last". At the time of writing his memoirs, he noted that "Neither then, or at any time since have I had any serious personal qualms, either of digestion or conscience". That said, he became known as The White Cannibal of New York, and eventually committed suicide in 1945 amid speculation that he was going insane. (It took people that long to notice something was wrong here?)

But one man's pork is another man's veal... and another man's tuna, if we listen to Issei Sagawa, the "Cannibal of the Bois de Boulogne", who famously murdered and ate his unrequited love in 1981 in Paris. Sagawa related that her flesh was "soft" and "odorless", "like tuna". However I think we can assume that any dickhead who considers tuna to be "odorless" (not to mention, any dickhead who thinks he can emulate the health and beauty of a woman by ingesting her) can be safely written off as complete whack-job with too much time on his hands.

So to return to Lecter - take a bow! According to Seabrook, our most credible source on the subject, his wine choice (a nice Chianti) is a stylish match with the regional Italian speciality of tender veal.
Or person.