Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth - Trevor Norton (2010)

Lovely Grubs

‘The shrivelled objects, resembling pieces of a horse’s hoof, were soaked all day and boiled all night, by which time they looked like large black garden slugs’ – Description of sea cucumber served to dinner guests by Frank Buckland

The most complex substances that we swallow are not drugs but the organic compounds we affectionately call food. In olden times we were far less finicky than today. Anything that swooped, scampered or slithered was considered to be grub. Until the nineteenth century English recipes included such ingredients as seal and squirrel, and the wealthy consumed swans or roasted dolphin in a porpoise sauce. No crane, lark or song thrush was safe from the pot. There is rather little meat on most British birds, so no wonder it took four and twenty blackbirds to fill a single pie.

The Victorians changed all this. A famous zoologist at Edinburgh University taught that civilised folk should confine their comestibles to cultivated or husbanded stock created for the ‘special use’ of humanity. Refinement demanded dietary discipline. It was only the savage who consumed indiscriminately. The evidence was overwhelming; when the heathen Hottentot was baptised by missionaries he became nauseous at the sight of zebra meat, which he had relished all his life. Even our French neighbours craved frog’s legs, snails and horseflesh. Orientals, no matter how ancient their civilisation, were treated with suspicion and ‘animals that in England were looked on with disgust … are by the Chinese regarded as delicacies’. Who else would eat grubs, earthworms, rats and, worst of all in British eyes, dogs and cats?

But there was a desire for the exotic. Explorers had been roaming the globe gathering useful animals and plants that might be exploited back home or in the colonies. The seeds from a single African coffee plant were transported to Brazil by the Portuguese and bananas from Asia were being cultivated in the West Indies. Captain Bligh, of Bounty fame, also introduced breadfruit into Jamaica from Tahiti. Some food plants would even grow in Europe: wheat had been imported from Asia, barley from the Middle East, maize, potatoes and tomatoes from the Americas, and ‘French’ beans from Canada. Most of the great botanic gardens were set up as ‘gardens of acclimatisation’ to cultivate introduced plants and perhaps even ‘persuade’ some semi-tropical species to cope with the European climate.

Many farm animals had also been introduced: cows, chickens and turkeys had been naturalised long ago. Roving naturalists such as Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on the cruise of the Endeavour, tasted many of the exotic animals he discovered. He was the first white man to taste kangaroo and boasted, ‘I have eaten my way into the animal kingdom farther than any other man.’ But that was before Frank Buckland came along.

Frank was the son of William Buckland who was Oxford’s first Professor of Geology and became Dean of Winchester. From childhood Frank was fascinated by animals and his collection of wildlife grew to include guinea pigs, doves, hedgehogs, dormice, frogs, tortoises, marmots, snakes (including a venomous adder), monkeys, chameleons, a jackal and lots more besides. They all seemed to be escapologists. His eagle soared around inside the chapel during a service, the cat lodged in one of the organ pipes transforming well-loved hymns into deathly drones. His baby bear raided the local sweet shop, ‘putting the village in uproar’, before charging into the chapel and dumbfounding the reader of the day’s lesson. Florence Nightingale suggested that the unruly bear should be hypnotised. This desire to keep animals in a state of intermittent incarceration remained throughout Frank’s life. He eventually had a ‘studio’ full of wild livestock and woe betide anyone wearing a flouncy skirt or a coat with flying tails who passed close to the drunken monkey’s cage. His huge Turkish wolfhound escaped and spied a lady and her little dog in a neighbouring house. The wolfhound leapt through the open window and within moments the lapdog had lapsed for ever.

Thanks to his father, Frank’s love of strange animals extended to eating them. Dean Buckland had boasted that when present at the disinterment of Louis XIV he sliced off part of the embalmed heart and had it for tea. Buckland’s dining table groaned beneath dishes of horse’s tongue, ostrich, frogs, snails and rats. A house guest later groaned that he had not enjoyed the crocodile for breakfast.

It’s not surprising that in later life Frank’s cook would be asked to serve such indelicacies as hedgehog and puppy. John Ruskin wrote to say he was sorry to have missed the toasted mice. Meals rarely passed without interruption from a flying fox or a wild hare. On one occasion a boot repeatedly flew across the floor as if it were a prop in an express séance. A meerkat had mistaken it for a burrow that it was trying to excavate. Another time a distinguished cleric was propelled rapidly backwards from the table by a river hog wedged between his chair legs.

Frank was co-founder and secretary of the Acclimatisation Society whose aim was to encourage the use of imported animals so that the British public should not be deprived of the joys of emu stew or fried wombat. Frank declared that ‘I do not mean to let slip any opportunity of increasing the supply of food for the people.’

It was the members’ task to table-test novel foodstuffs. At the first official dinner of the society in 1862 not all of the numerous courses received universal acclaim. They began with three Chinese soups:

Bird’s nest soup from the regurgitated seaweed slime that holds the nest together. Verdict – ‘Gelatinous with a very peculiar flavour.’

Sea slug soup – ‘Tasting something between a bit of calf’s head and the contents of the glue pot.’

Deer-sinews soup – ‘After a monstrous deal of boiling, good eating, but glue-like.’ Frank decided that: ‘When I next entertain a Chinaman, I’ll give him … sixpennyworth of carpenter’s glue.’

Semoule soup from Algerian wheat – ‘More fitted for invalids than for ordinary table. Reminded one of the porridge the giant was eating when Jack the giant-slayer killed him.’

Some entrées fared no better; the kangaroo ham was ‘dry and too highly salted’ and kangaroo steamer had ‘gone off’.

Four years later 160 diners attended a feast to popularise horseflesh. Every course from the soup to the dessert jelly was of equine origin. The reviews were not encouraging: ‘Simply horrible.’ ‘Resembled the aroma of a horse in perspiration.’ Frank was ill all the next day and concluded that: ‘In my humble opinion hippophagy has not the slightest chance of success in this country.’

Funny food caught on and as an undergraduate at Cambridge Charles Darwin joined the ‘Glutton Club’ that convened weekly for esoteric eating. According to Darwin the cod’s tongue was fine but its liver was ‘not good’ and the brown owl was ‘indescribable’. Almost all the ‘gluttons’, except Darwin, rose to high rank in the church.

When Frank Buckland heard that a panther had died at the Zoological Gardens he asked for some samples of the beast. So they dug it up from its grave and dispatched parts for examination. Frank examined them with his taste buds, but the chops ‘were not very good’. The director of the zoo, thinking that Frank’s interest was anatomical rather than gastronomic, asked if he would determine the cause of death of future fatalities. Frank could not resist such a mouthwatering opportunity.

He was competent to carry out post-mortems, having qualified as a surgeon, and had been house surgeon at St George’s, the hospital where John Hunter had accepted the same post eighty-four years earlier. It had changed surprisingly little. Surgeons still operated in coats encrusted with coagulated blood – a sanguinary souvenir of past patients – and the wards were redolent with the aroma of gangrene. The nurses were largely untrained and illiterate. When Frank asked one to read the label on a jar, she ventured: ‘Two spoonfuls to be taken four times daily.’ It actually said To be applied externally only. Frank’s cases were mostly failed suicides and ‘scaffold incidents’ where the gallows had given way under the gyrations of the choking felon. After a typically ‘delightful day of dissection’ he snacked on chicken’s brains and read a ‘lively dissertation on inflammation of the bowel’. Such was his enthusiasm for dissection that it was said that ‘elderly maidens called in their cats as he passed’.

The cadavers from the Zoological Gardens were far more varied. A young visitor who called while Frank was conducting an animal autopsy described a large cadaver on the table and Frank frequently stopping to slurp from a bowl of stew beside the corpse. ‘Have some?’ he asked invitingly.

His staff became accustomed to opening unusual parcels but had several frights, as when three live badgers popped out, or a scorpion arrived in a jeweller’s gift box. The animals’ remains invariably ended up in the oven. Indeed, sometimes they were cooked before Frank had examined them. ‘Directly I am out of the way,’ he protested, ‘if they look good to eat, they are cooked; if they stink, they are buried. What am I to do?’ The upside was that he got to eat bison, giraffe, viper, rhinoceros pie, boiled elephant’s trunk and whole roast ostrich.

Buckland would be delighted that his culinary habits live on in ‘Buckland Dining Clubs’ in Birmingham and Helsinki, and that antelopes and okapi now roam England’s country parks just as he predicted, but he would be disappointed that they are not being raised for food. Yet for all his enthusiasm for animal importations his most important transplant was an export. He was appointed the Government Inspector of Salmon Fisheries and did a wonderful job. Although he had no scientific training and was almost innumerate, he was genial and straight-talking so fishermen, water bailiffs and even poachers warmed to him and willingly gave information. He reported to government on overfishing, water pollution and fish diseases. Another problem was the demand for water power. Where there was a water mill there was a dam. The River Severn had seventy-three weirs and each one was a barrier to salmon migrating up river to spawn. He supervised the introduction of fish ‘ladders’ to enable the fish to by-pass the dams.

Frank also drew attention to the lack of knowledge of the breeding and biology of both freshwater and sea fishes, and stressed the need for research on exploited species. He was ahead of his time and was one of the first to propose that this work should be the government’s task and not one for individual researchers. Better understanding and improving water quality would greatly increase the catch, but Frank realised that the stock could also be augmented by artificially cultivating the fish. He expelled eggs from a pregnant female by gently squeezing her sides and mixed it with milt from a male. In this way he hatched 30,000 salmon and trout eggs in his kitchen sink. He provided a thousand trout eggs which were exported to the Antipodes where they gave rise to all the brown trout now inhabiting the waterways of Tasmania and New Zealand.

It may come as a surprise that he ate something as palatable as his experimental fish. Tasting your research is not uncommon. I knew a marine biologist who studied plankton and in the evening offered me plankton sandwiches. Thomas Hunt Morgan was awarded the Nobel Prize for confirming the rules of genetic inheritance and mapping the location of genes on their chromosome. His experiments involved cross-breeding tiny fruit flies. To get to know them better he ate their maggots. They tasted like breakfast cereal. There are stranger things to eat for science. Lazzaro Spallanzani investigated the process of digestion by swallowing food in linen sacks and later regurgitating them for examination. Surely the ultimate high-fibre diet.

Except for his diet, Frank Buckland was no experimentalist but was practical and full of ideas. Unfortunately, for every good idea he had a daft one. To fatten fish more rapidly he suggested dangling a horse’s leg or a bunch of dead rats from a tree branch overhanging a fish pond. Over time the decaying meat would fall into the eager mouths of the fish below. He advised a woman distraught at the death of her pony that its hooves would ‘make good inkstands’ and its preserved ears ‘nice holders for spills’. He was against children wearing shoes for walking because it makes leather soles thinner whereas going barefoot makes the soles of the feet thicker. He had admired the feet of Scottish ‘fishergirls’ whose skin was ‘as thick and hard as the foot of an elephant’.

Frank Buckland was the most entertaining writer of popular-science articles of his generation. For decades he turned out tales of natural and unnatural history, such as ‘Elephant bones from the bottom of the North Sea’ and ‘Buoys made from inflated dogs’. He was intrigued by giants, perhaps because he was only 4 feet 6 inches (137 centimetres) tall. He described a fish called Chimaera monstrosa in typical style: ‘Couch describes its habits as nocturnal; he is doubtless right, for such a hideous fish can hardly dare to show itself in the day … coming round the corner on a dark night, [it] would be enough to frighten any ordinary fish into a fit of hysterics.’ This species is weird-looking. It resembles a dark, elongated carrot with ears, and inspired a children’s rhyme:

My name is Chimaera monstrosa,

My body gets grosser and grosser,

From the tip of my tail,

which is merely a flail,

To my head with the face of a grocer

To peckish readers Frank offered recipes such as slug soup: ‘The great grey and black slugs, I believe, make the best soup … if boiled till a rich firm jelly.’ He also praised the culinary potential of the capybara, blind to the possibility that the British public might not be tempted by a rodent resembling a rat on steroids.

Frank had an encyclopaedic palate. While visiting a cathedral to investigate a manifestation of ‘fresh martyr’s blood’, he did indeed find wet patches on the floor. He tasted one and announced, ‘Bat’s urine.’ I wonder how many samples he had tasted to distinguish bat’s urine from, say, a rat’s or a bishop’s?

Even he found some creatures inedible. Among his rejects were stewed mole, bluebottles and earwigs, which were ‘horribly bitter’. Disappointingly, the head of porpoise tasted like the ‘broiled wick of an oil lamp’. Perhaps he would have looked more favourably on them had he been in extremis, stranded in a place where only earwigs and lamp wicks grew. Such a possibility (more or less) was considered by Francis Galton.

Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, dabbled in self-experimentation, even trying to suppress automatic bodily functions. On one occasion he succeeded so well that he almost suffocated.

Galton trained to be a doctor, but his education was interrupted when he took a ‘gap year’ to travel abroad. No sooner had he returned to his studies than his father died, leaving him sufficiently wealthy to travel to more distant places. A two-year-long expedition to the unexplored regions of south-western Africa involved danger and deprivation, but Galton believed that ‘alternate privation and luxury is congenial to most minds’. He encountered hostile native tribes but pacified them by the sheer force of character. For his anthropological studies he developed a method of measuring busts and hips from a distance using a sextant, although most men can do this without any instrumentation. His reports of the trip earned him the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and led to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society while still in his early thirties.

In 1872 he published an explorer’s handbook called The Art of Travel. It contains sections entitled ‘Wholesome Food, procurable in the Bush’ and ‘Revolting Food that may save the Lives of Starving Men’. The latter is full of helpful tips, e.g. if the water is suspected of being poisoned get a cat or dog to taste it first. I can see that the explorer might be accompanied by native bearers, but a cat? One learns that ‘Carrion is not noxious to a Starving Man’. Apparently, a diet that would cause a healthy, well-fed chap to fall dangerously ill is absolutely fine for one who is starving. In this condition ‘carrion and garbage of every kind can be eaten without the stomach rejecting it’. Rotting carcasses are also easy to find: just follow a jackal, your friendly guide, or look for circling crows and vultures sitting on trees. It’s perhaps wise to ensure that the vultures are gorged prior to your arrival.

Birds should be skinned because their ‘rankness lies in their skin’. Yet ‘all skins of any kind are fit and good for food; they improve soup … or they may be toasted and hammered … Many a hungry person has cooked and eaten his sandals.’

A problem arises if you manage to capture an animal. It makes a great feast for today, but what about tomorrow’s dinner? A useful find would be an animal with deciduous parts. Galton noted that bush ticks eroded the base of oxen’s tails to the extent that the tail dropped off, reminding him that oxtail soup is ‘proverbially nutritious’ – with the guilty ticks as a side dish, perhaps. He appreciated that you might be too weak to carry a carcass so he suggests that you use the old Abyssinian trick of keeping the animal alive and taking it with you, just slicing off what you want each day. He doesn’t say how to keep the poor animal’s spirits up during the trek.

Galton found that locusts and grasshoppers ‘are not at all bad’. The great virtue of insects as food is that they are never in short supply. When the famous biologist Jack Haldane (whose extraordinary exploits will be narrated later) was asked what his studies had told him about God, he replied ‘that He had an inordinate fondness for beetles’. Certainly the vast majority of animals that the starving explorer encounters would be insects and it would be foolish to disdain them. Some bugs contain seventy per cent protein, more per gram than meat and less fatty, as well as being rich in vitamins and minerals. Although nutritious, insects are not invitingly packaged, a serious failure in the Deity’s marketing department. They are, however, consumed throughout the developing world. Locusts are eaten raw, roasted, fried, jellied and mashed, and are a seductive combination of a crisp exterior and a creamy filling. But remember to remove the legs first as they get stuck between the teeth. If you’re wanting more than just a snack, then cockroaches fit the bill. For the calorie counter, ants and termites also have a worldwide following, but the tyro collector should remember they deliver a hefty bite for their size and inject formic acid as an irritant. For this reason they are best eaten cooked rather than live or raw. The best ants’ eggs are known invitingly as ‘sour ant’ in Thailand. When bitten they pop out a cream tasting somewhere between camembert and hard-to-bear.

A few westerners are also insectivores. There is even a ‘Food Insects Newsletter’ produced by the University of Wisconsin. Frank Buckland would have been in his element at the centennial dinner of the New York Entomological Society in 1992. The courses included:

Spiced Crickets and Assorted Worms

Waxworm and Avocado Roll

Worm Fritters with Plum Dipping Sauce

Cricket and Mealworm Sugar Cookies

The queasy should be reassured that the worms were, of course, not really worms at all. They were grubs. Although I have seen a recipe for worm patties, which requires almost a kilo of ground earthworms.

Unbelievably, we all eat about a kilo of insects every year, mostly because these pesky critters can’t be kept out of food processing. The US Food and Drugs Administration allows up to 450 insect fragments in every kilo of wheat flour, 225 insect fragments or four and a half rodent hairs for every 225g of macaroni, sixty insect fragments or one rodent hair per 100g of chocolate, one maggot or five fly eggs in 250ml of citrus juice and one pellet of rat excreta per sub-sample of popcorn. In most pizzas, bangers and crisps there is an additive called cysteine. It comes from human hair.

The problem for the traveller is how to know which creatures are edible and which are poisonous. Some animals are venomous and best not approached or they might get you instead of the other way round. Frank Buckland almost died from a snake bite, but the snake didn’t bite him. He was poisoned while dissecting the snake’s dead prey. Fortunately he didn’t eat it. I wonder how many of our ancestors died testing whether a succulent-looking spider or shiny berry was safe to eat. The risk is encapsulated in Jonathan Swift’s comment that: ‘He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.’

Everyone knows that some toadstools are lethal, but which ones? Perhaps their names hold a clue: Devil’s Boletus, Destroying Angel, Death Cap. Seemingly innocuous plants or their products can also be dangerous. Nutmeg is a poisonous narcotic. Even a small amount of chocolate is toxic to many animals, although it takes eleven kilos to kill a chocaholic human. Many plants contain deadly poisons such as cyanide, strychnine and prussic acid. Tomato and potato plants come from the same family as deadly nightshade and are just as poisonous. The only safe parts are the ones we use: the fruit of the tomato and the tuber of the potato. Noxious chemicals in plants deter grazers, but some animals have developed immunity to the toxins contained in their main food source. This sometimes has disastrous consequences for humans.

When the Americans recaptured the island of Guam from the Japanese in 1944 a navy doctor discovered that the main cause of death among locals was a devastating brain disease resulting in paralysis, dementia and death. Outsiders didn’t get it – so what was the cause? Native islanders made flour from the nuts of the cycad plant, which contain a potent nerve poison. Surely that was the culprit? But, puzzlingly, the traditional way of preparing the flour removed almost all of the poison. However, they also ate local bats called flying foxes. The bats fed on the cycads and their bodies accumulated the nerve agent so that over time their tissue contained four hundred times more poison than would be found in a tonne of processed cycad flour. It is commonplace for both animals and plants to accumulate dangerous substances within their tissues to very high levels without showing any adverse symptoms. Thus a seemingly healthy animal may be deadly if eaten.

Neither Frank Buckland nor Francis Galton fully appreciated the risks they were taking. Frank knew that some animals might be poisonous, but his test was to taste them. The garfish has sinister-looking green bones and was thought to be toxic. To ensure that it wasn’t Frank ate a dozen of them for supper. Others deliberately eat animals that are potentially deadly.

While exploring various Pacific islands Captain Cook, against the advice of the naturalist on board, dined on puffer fish and became very ill. Fortunately he had consumed very little and it was one of the less toxic species. In Japan the most poisonous one is an expensive delicacy.

The fugu fish is not merely food: it is a drug, a ritual and a dining event. Raw fugu flesh is at the zenith of epicurean eating. The platter is an arrangement of a hundred or more transparent slivers of pale flesh arranged like the petals of a chrysanthemum, or the outspread wings of a crane. The effect is breathtaking. How can anyone bear to deface it by taking the first piece?

Its preparation is only permitted by state-licensed chefs who spend four years training to ensure that their customers may dine without dying. The most toxic organs – the liver, ovaries, intestine and skin – must be removed completely and the remaining flesh washed thoroughly to remove all traces of the toxin.

The fugu’s poison is a neurotoxin that stops the nerves from transmitting. It is one of the most deadly compounds on Earth, over twenty-five times more powerful than the arrow poison curare, and 10,000 times more lethal than cyanide. The amount needed to kill a person would fit on a pinhead. It is not a pleasant death. A tingling sensation gives way to burning pain and stomach cramps followed by muscular paralysis and progressively greater difficulty in breathing. There is no antidote and, as with curare, the patient is aware of everything that is happening but is unable to move or speak. The lucky ones die within eight hours.

Even though every effort was made to remove the toxin, gourmet diners sometimes begged the chef to leave just the tiniest trace to provide that tingling euphoria they craved. The result was sometimes that recounted in a traditional verse:

Last night he and I ate fugu,

Today I help carry his coffin.

In 1975 Japan’s leading stage actor, who was officially designated a ‘living national treasure’, died from fugu poisoning. Subsequently a ban was imposed on the preparation of fugu liver. At that time the death rate was running at over twenty people a year.

But the Japanese gourmet seeks more than mere safety, he wants the thrill and danger that a trace of poison provides, for a fugu without its poison is said to be like a samurai without his sword. An old verse states the dilemma:

Those who eat fugu are stupid,

But those who don’t are also stupid

NB: if you are a daring diner and wish to order fugu in a Japanese restaurant, make sure you don’t ask for fugo, which is a bomb suspended from a balloon and should not be swallowed in any circumstances.


Frank Buckland medicating a poorly porpoise.