Thursday, 4 October 2012

Unspeakable Cuisine by Calvin W. Schwabe: The Joy of Insects

A man on a mission

Calvin Schwabe was a man with a mission. It was, quite simply, to evangelise to his countrymen about the many cheap, nutritious and readily available foods which were perfectly acceptable in other parts of the world, but were shamefully ignored by Americans.

All sounds very reasonable.

So alongside his day job of being a world-renowned veterinary epidemiologist (that's the study of disease in animals, apparently) he spend thirty years collecting hundreds of recipes for foods you wouldn't normally think of as foods, and compiled them into a book.

Unmentionable CUISINE.

At first sight this looks like a very nondescript book. Plain white cover. Drawing of a fish on the front. Doesn't look like much. If you saw it in a second-hand bookstall you wouldn't give it a second glance.

But once you open to the contents you are entering a new, and dangerous, world.

It's laid out like a fairly standard cookbook. The first section is on MEAT. Beef. Pork. Lamb and Mutton. Goats and Wild Ruminants.

OK, then Horsemeat, Dog and Cat Meat, Rodent and Other Mammelian Meat.

That's a bit weird.

The next section on FOWL deals with Chicke, Turkeys, Ducks and Geese in one chapter before turning to more interesting stuff - like Reptiles (zoologically related to birds, as the author points out).

Fresh lampreys. Makes you wonder who's the dinner
and who's the diner... :-x
Then there's FISH, including eels and lampreys. And believe me a lamprey is not something you want to meet on a dark night. Then SHELLFISH which starts with Molluscs, then Crustaceans but finishes with Insects and Other Land Invertebrates.

And to end there's a tastefully titled section on "Milk, Eggs, and Sperm".

It's at some point between reading "MEAT" and "and Sperm" that you realise this isn't a normal cookbook.

More than just rubbernecking

As I said, this is a dangerous book. It's a book which takes you on an adventure, to the wilds of Indonesia or the locust-drench plains of North Africa. It pulls you out of your culinary comfort zone and invites to think about about an entirely new and scarier larder.

It takes you swiftly from the relative safety of grilled ox-hearts and red-simmered beef tongue to a world where calves eyes are stuffed with mushrooms and truffles, breaded and fried. Where raw dog hams are a delicacy, where inebriated rats are simmered a la bordelaise. Where chocolate rabbit, broiled puppy and calf testicles a la soleil are strictly on the menu.

But the most important point to make is that this isn't just an exercise in culinary rubbernecking. Too often Unmentionable Cuisine is written off as just "that book with insects in". It's much more than that.

There is an amazing breadth of learning in this volume doubly so when you consider it was published in 1979 when the world was a much more closed place. In fact its only now, thirty years on, that the rest of the world is catching up.

Oxtail Antichuchos (p37) for example are now a staple of any number of modish Peruvian/skewer restaurants. Deep-fried calf's brain (p25) is often on the menu at Michelin-starred Medlar. Baked bone marrow (p35) is the epitome of retro at London's ever-modish St John..

Dealing with the bad news first (and no, that's not the insects)

Actually let's get the bad news out of the way first. Mr Schwabe was no Shakespeare. In fact he wasn't even much of a J K Rowling.

The introduction and epilogue to this book are turgid and long-winded. At times he seems to be competing for the James Joyce Prize for Needlessly Extensive Sentances, quoth:
I don't deny that I, personally, have taken much pleasure too from the variety of positive expressions of Unmentionable Cuisine's acceptability as a useful addition to gastronomic and anthropological exotica, working cookbook for professional chefs and fellow amateurs, useful source of information for dieticians and socially concerned members of the public-or simply as a stimulus to loftier-than-usual cocktail conversation. (page x)
The book is laid out in a workmanlike manner and he starts each chapter by going through why people don't like to eat the ingredient in question e.g. Americans think lamb taste's funny, goat smells, pork is riddled with worms (admittedly it is probably a culinary first to have a cookbook where every chapters tells you why you shouldn't eat its recipes!). He then debunks these before launching an eye-popping series of recipes arranged (in true veterinary fashion) by body part (e.g. the chapter on pig starts with whole-animal hog roasts before moving on to muscle, head, snout, ear &tc before finishing with blood and scraps).

To be honest the recipes tend to the sketchier side as well, most as barely longer than a short paragraph. There are a couple of exceptions (including a particularly exuberant French recipe for stuffed suckling pig (p80), but these are definitely intended for the more experienced cook.

Although let's face it. This isn't a book to read cover to cover, to cook from. It's a book to dip into anytime you want to be surprised and entertained.

Yeah, its basically "loo reading for food-lovers".

What's in these canapes again?

Random picture of my Ronnie, my (former)
pet rabbit. The book is Gordon Ramsay:

A Chef For All Seasons, FYI.
Having laid out Schwabe's failings I have to say the book has a certain black humour. In his introduction to Dog and Cat Meat he makes the po-faced observation that:
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.
This brings to mind Jonathan Swift's memorable satire A Modest Proposal where the soberly enumerates his play to solve Ireland's food crisis by stewing, roasting and baking unwanted children.

Similarly when he gets onto the subject of poultry reproductive organs he gives us the inimitable line:
My neighbour and colleague Rosie Rosenwald is probably the world's leading authority on turkey testicles. And on that account, and others, cocktails at his house generatlly are a mixture of surprise and delight (delight in watching initiates' faces as they try to figure out what they are eating).
There's also an amusing story about a bunch of European tourists in Hong Kong:
They encountered a formidable language barrier but persisted in ordering a resplendent dinner and, amidst much confusion and gesturing, also conveyed, so they thought, the additional idea that their poodle was hungry, too, and was there not something in the kitchen he might eat. As the dog was led off by the waiter, they commenced to embark on their delicious, many-coursed dinner...
I'll leave it to you to figure out how the story ends. Bonus point if you can guess what chapter it comes up in.

Chocolate rabbit and other stories...

There are many recipes which are interesting in spite of - not because of - the main ingredient. There's half a dozen different ways with suckling pig (p77-80), all of them fascinating. These range from a Chinese dish stuff with red dates, encased in clay and baked, to a French recipe stuffed with a forcemeat of kidneys, heart and sweetbreads to a classic Hawaiian Kalua pig, slow-roasted in a pit.

Further on there is an extensive discussion about how to assemble a lamb shawarma (p126) - that sumptuous layered dish of meat and fat otherwise known as a donar kebab to the rest of us. There are also surprising dishes such as a recipe for an English haggis called Aromchemoyle which both myself and Google's search engine are wholly unfamiliar with!

There is a Spanish dish for Chocolate Rabbit (conejo en chocolate) p189 featuring olive oil, red wine and grated chocolate which I wonder is related to a South American chocolate-infused mole. It's almost immediately followed by an evocatively-named English recipe for Mumbled Rabbit, although alas the etymology goes unexplained.

Moroccan lambs tails with honey (p134) sounds a most fetching dish, and I am intrigued to try sea anemone, which Schwabe reports as tasting something like crab and lobster (p362).

The weird and the wonderful

Of course that's not to say this book isn't packed with fascinating ways with dog, rat and locust you definitely won't be cooking for supper tonight. Let's face it, no one really buys this book to get a recipe for chocolate rabbit.

But funnily enough many of the weirder recipes are from closer to home than you think. There is a resplendent French haute cuisine treatment of calf's eyes on p23, stuffed with truffle, coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried to crispness. Drunken rat, too, features on the menu in Bordeaux has he memorably recounts:
Grilled Rat Bordeaux Style (Entrecote a la bordelaise) / France
Alcoholic rats inhabiting wine cellars are skinned and eviscerated, brushed with a thick sauce of olive oil and crush shallots, and grilled over a fire of broken wine barrels.(p204)
Apparently this is taken from Larousse - though I'm not sure why the dish is called entrecote. I'll be very careful next time I order the Entrecote Maison in a Parisian Bistro...

There are also many recipes for stuffing body parts which probably weren't meant to be stuffed. Ancient Rome is a good place for this - they throw up sow's udders stuffed with sea urchins and caraway seeds, and a uterus sausage filled with cumin, pepper, leeks, Garum, pork and pine nuts (I'm assuming this is all from Apicius). We are reassuringly informed that As a food, cow's udder resembles pancreas in texture and flavour. So that's all right then!

Everything but the bark...

But of course the two most controversial chapters are those on Dog and Cat Meat, and Insects.

I had dog in China actually, many years ago. It was served cold, thinly sliced and tasted was pretty much like roast pork. Apart from the whole "man's best friend" shtick, it was actually a pretty unremarkable meat. And as Schwabe points out, the Mexican hairless dog was the principal food species of the Aztecs. Nonetheless there is certain dark humour when you open the chapter and alight on:
Broiled Puppy / Hawaii
The delicate puppy meat is prepared by flattening out the entire eviscerate animal and broiling it over hot coals. It also may be spitted on sticks. The traditional Hawaiian accompaniment for dog cooked in any way is sweet potatoes. (p171)
But then again what's the difference between a broiled puppy and a suckling pig?

There are also a number of recipes for raw dog hams (p172), not only from China (which, to be honest, you'd expect), but also from Switzerland (Gedorrtes Hundesfleisch), which you wouldn't. Fox is also popular in the land of Heidi too, apparently. There is also a "great Chinese delicacy" called Dragon, Phoenix, and Tiger Soup, which is basically a broth made with snake, ginger, bamboo shoots and the meat of an old cat and a chicken.

The funny thing is though, that the chapter on insects is actually comparatively underwhelming. There are dozens of recipes for locust and grasshopper here but they are all quite similar - basically fry or roast until crispy and serve with a salty dip. Okay sometimes they are dried and ground to a nutritious flour to be mixed with milk or turned into dumplings (did you know locusts and grasshoppers are 46-50% protein versus 14.7% for a T-bone steak?). But generally crispy-fried grasshoppers seems the way to go.

The same logic holds largely true for beetles, grubs and other worms. Ants are maybe an exception - he gives a recipe for Zanzibar for a sort of honey-nougat paste made from termites, sugar and banana flour. Earthworms get a brief mentioned (boiled to a nutritious broth), but I was disappointed he couldn't be more adventurous (sic).

Actually the most evocative for insect recipes I have come across is from that bible of French staidness Larousse Gastronomique, where silkworm pupae are
... fried in butter, fat or oil, and sprinkled with stock... after boiling them for 5 minutes they are crushed with a wooden spoon and the whole mass is carefully stirred so that nothing remains at the bottom on the pan. Some egg yolks are beaten, in the proportion of 3 to every 100 chrysalids, and poured over them. In this way, a beautiful golden yellow cream with an exquisite flavour is obtained. (Larousse Gastronomique - Insect Larvae)
But then again what's the big deal. Hey, even Noma is serving ants nowadays...

Read, but don't eat

So in summary this is a turgidly written book by a non-cheffing veterinary epidemiologist. The recipes are largely uncookable, it has no illustrations and definitely no full-face picture of the author.

But what it does give you is an exhilarating trip to the dangerous frontiers of eating. And that's a tour you can't find anywhere else.

More than just loo-reading for food lovers.


  1. The great Fanny Cradock says that the English haggis is called franchemoyle. That doesn't bring anything up on google either!
    Great piece!
    Tom Blach

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