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Dragonfly Larvae, Anyone?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980
Unmentionable Cuisine. By Calvin W. Schwabe. Virginia. $20.00.

Not so many years ago, the term “Unmentionable,” in either the singular or the plural, referred virtually unequivocally to ladies’ underwear. Now that television has come with almost repulsive frankness to deal with “Unmentionables” and beyond, the term has certainly lost this older connotation. But in what sense might it be applied to “Cuisine”? A ten-year-old in New York City was required by his teacher to produce a menu at Halloween for a feast of goblins, ghouls, and witches; he came up with an item that fascinated me—”Bat-kidneys grilled in ear-wax.” I asked his father where he picked up that one, and was told that he made it up himself; he hates kidneys. Now because of its rather obvious repulsiveness, this item might very well be classed as “Unmentionable.” But this category is clearly not what is intended by the adjective in this book’s title.

This is a cookbook in the proper sense, that is, it gives lots and lots of recipes. Unlike a book on cooking such as Laurens van der Post’s First Catch Your Eland, to my mind, the finest book on cooking to appear in the last 30 years, there is only a brief concluding section giving the raison d’etre of its composition. Actually, the “Epilogue” (pp. 407—15) might very well be read first of all, though Professor Sehwabe evidently prefers to give his reader some idea of the range of foodstuffs he wishes to consider before ascending to generalities. And variety there is! The profound changes in American dietetic habits over the last half-century are quite apparent to anyone who is able to recall a boyhood (or girlhood) when the “open markets” flourished amid dust and flies. The author is, of course, interested in looking forward as well as in looking backward. When I was young, freshly killed game was proudly displayed. Now, I understand, some brands of quail which are ranch raised are injected with bird shot in order to persuade the public that that wonderful gamey flavor is present in the frozen article. And one used to be able to buy genuinely fresh-killed rabbits in open market, always with the feet on so that there was no danger of a cat’s being substituted by an unscrupulous vendor. (Also, small boys always treasured the left hind foot of a rabbit as a good luck charm. ) Nowadays, open markets in the United States are largely things of the past, save in cities with a considerable Oriental population, and a few others. (The markets in Honolulu are a revelation!)

Our author gives four recipes for cat (felis libyca domestied), two from China, one from Spain, and one from Ghana. Having myself partaken of steamed cat with chicken (p. 177), I can assure the reader that this dish is delectable. As regards the flesh of dog, a number of recipes are given; and with the cost of “fixing” and spaying now almost astronomical, the flesh of tender young puppies may well come to be a valuable protein source in the not too distant future. It is remarkable that Professor Schwabe does not mention the Chinese view on the virtue of dog-flesh. Chinese armies used always to travel with a number of dogs in the troop; anyone down with fever was fed the meat of a freshly killed dog and was said always to recover by the following morning.

The sections dealing with pork and beef are of considerable value. True, we do not usually knowingly eat the eyes, lungs, pancreas or testicles of beef—but what goes into certain types of imported sausage will hardly bear scrutiny by the squeamish, and protein shortages of the future may very well require the use of unfamiliar items in the days to come. Incidentally, the term “calves’ liver,” which is frequently used in this book is no longer a part of the American butcher’s vocabulary. It has almost universally been displaced by the term “veal liver,” within the last two years. “Rodent and Other Mammalian Meat” constitute a separate chapter, starting with a dish dear to the heart of most Virginians, Brunswick Stew, and continuing through the gamut of opossums, raccoons, ground hogs, prairie dogs, rats and mice, muskrats, armadillos, and (at last) bats. The final item mentioned in this chapter is Chinese bear’s paw, an item that just happens, though no mention is made of it, to be foremost among the “Eight Precious” of classical Chinese cooking. Professor Schwabe fails to note that it must always be a right front paw for reasons which lie deep in ancient folklore and are as applicable today as ever.

Save for the fact that some of the recipes are rather abbreviated, the section devoted to chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese contains little that would seem to merit the title, “unmentionable.” The author, I am happy to report, does take note of the feet of fowl as regrettably absent from American markets today. The reason is simple; such items are frozen and shipped to Far Eastern areas, where American tourists often unwittingly and enthusiastically consume them as elements in the fine, complex dishes of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taipei. I can well recall from my boyhood the wonderful taste and aroma of chicken feet—which were all that we small fry were allowed while a big formal banquet was being set out for the grown folks, upstairs. Along with his remarks on the feet of fowl, the author might well have spared a couple of sentences to deal with the opposite extreme, the head. In the coastal provinces of China, the guest of honor regularly receives the duck head on his plate; and he can certainly lose face (and possibly compromise his mission) if he does not know how properly to consume this prize.

As regards reptiles, amphibians, fish, eels, and so on, the recipes are, on the whole, judiciously chosen. It is delightful to have the fried baby eels of Spain included. They are indeed delicious, and one can almost always win the hearts of visitors from Cartagena or Almeria by including them in a buffet. It is to be regretted, though, that Professor Schwabe does not include one of the few Feinschmecker dishes of present-day Japan, unagi meshi, nor does he mention Hamburg’s renowned Aalsuppe, which must be experienced to be believed. Insects have their innings in chapter 20; it contains a few surprises for persons who have never lived in primitive tropical societies. Though “couscous” and “kirn chee” are mentioned in passing, no chapter on vegetable items is included. This is not a serious matter (though, if general nutrition were the topic, it might well have been, in spite of Mr. Euell Gibbons’ efforts, which touch only one surface). It might, for example, have been worthwhile to include such a little-known commodity as corn smut which frequently plagues sweet-corn plantings in the southern United States. In Mexico, this is called cuitlacoche, and it is sufficiently valued to be sold in cans. I well remember how scornfully I threw out infected ears from my garden before I learned of the smut’s value both nutritionally and flavorfully.

To return to Professor Schwabe’s “Epilogue,” a number of very important problems are raised. Just how critical are questions about our dietary habits likely to become in the reasonably “foreseeable” future, say, the year 2000 A. D. ? The number of human beings on the earth’s surface by that date is variously forecast; but several estimates are in excess of six billion persons. And unless some neo-Malthusian checks take hold, the rate of growth in certain areas—if not in most—is not likely to decline. If, the author suggests, the narrowing of our food preferences is not reversed, we may be heading toward a catastrophic situation. This is particularly the case in animal proteins. Between 1947 and 1972, the percentage of U. S. beef cattle being grain fed “rose from 35 to 75 percent as the weight at which grain feeding was initiated dropped from 740 to 800 pounds to 450 pounds.” And the late E. F. Schumacher is quoted to the effect that “an industrial system which uses 40 percent of the world’s primary resources to supply less than six percent of the world’s population” can be regarded as “efficient” only if tremendously successful results are forthcoming in terms of “human happiness, well-being, culture, peace and harmony.” Exactly how are our irrational and potentially harmful food habits to be curbed? Professor Schwabe recommends that “senseless taboos” regarding what is edible and what is not be abandoned.

On this note the book concludes. But there is an unwritten chapter not suggested by the author but, in a way, implict in his concluding remarks. This chapter would have been entitled: “Anthropophagy.” Of course, Swift and Voltaire (among others) have toyed with this idea satirically, and one is inevitably reminded of that wonderful old French song about the petit navire qui n’avait ja—, ja—, jamais navigué. (One will recall that the shortest straw was drawn by the youngest sailor who was ultimately served up on the main deck with salsify, since provisions had long since given out. ) I once taught a course entitled “History of Morals,” and at that time anthropological evidence strongly supported the view that cannibalism was not so much a ritualistic or religious practice as one which resulted from gustatory preference—”long pig” just tasted better than the flesh of hog or wild deer or kangaroo. Is our “civilized” abhorrence of human flesh an example of another “senseless taboo,” or not? It is hardly my place to rule on this matter, but I should certainly point out that modern tenderizing methods could doubtless make available the meat of persons of advanced years, thus eliminating a sector of the population which, on the whole, is less productive. (The expenses of funerals and of cemetery plots would also be eliminated. ) In some tribes of Central Asia, it was said to be a matter of honor that a son should slay his father when that gentlemen reached the age of 40, this obviously because of the migratory character of the tribe’s living pattern. (In our own country, it will be recalled that “Never trust anyone over 30” was the battle cry among young people some ten or 15 years ago. ) If the flesh of people more than 50, or perhaps 60, were systematically de-identified, tenderized, and fresh-frozen for the supermarket trade, the world’s population might find a ready source of top-grade protein (along with several valuable by-products), while simultaneously exercising a “sensible” form of population control. At the moment, “senseless taboos,” to quote our author, would seem to block this line of investigation.


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