Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Monday, 18 March 2013

In Defense of Gross-Out Foods

In 1687, Hans Sloane, the Irish born collector, antiquarian, and botanist, traveled to Jamaica as the personal physician of the newly appointed Governor of Jamaica.  
Hans Sloane: 1660-1753
Sadly, the Governor died the following year and Dr. Sloane, bereft of his noble patron and probably eager to dodge suspicions of medical malpractice, traveled around the West Indies for the next 15 months.  In 1707 he finally published a compendium of his observations about these distant English colonies, entitled A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, St. Christopher’s and Jamaica.

Many scholars have shared my fascination with Sloane’s book, and have analyzed everything from his attitudes towards slavery to his meticulous, semi-obsessive collections of insects and plant specimens.[1]  (Sloane was pretty much the quintessential early modern hoarder.  Yet unlike the people portrayed on A&E, his bizarre and compendious collection of curiosities eventually became the British museum.)

A 17th Century Map of Jamaica

My interest in Hans Sloane is slightly different.  I’m interested in what kinds of food Sloane encountered during his time in Jamaica and how these foods informed his impressions of the people he met there.[2]  At first glance, Sloane didn’t seem terribly pleased with what he saw (or tasted).  Take basic English staples: beef and veal.  Not only were these products terribly overpriced (due to the fact that meat rotted in a matter of hours under the oppressive Jamaican sun – meat markets were usually sold out by 7am) but English imports often tasted terrible to begin with.  This, Sloane surmised, had to do with the Calabash Tree Leaves that grew everywhere in Jamaica, which infected cow’s kidneys and milk to the extent that “Everything made of Milk tasts … so strong of it that there is no using with pleasure any thing made therewith.”[3] 

Neither could Sloane stand the cassava bread, so dry that it had to be dipped in sugar-water to be palatable at all.  (Sloane did acknowledge, nevertheless, that it kept men healthy in spite its insipid taste.)  The black slaves, cattle and poultry happily fed on maize (Indian Corn) but Sloane had qualms about its suitability for Europeans. 
Sloane wasn't a big fan of cassava bread
He called it "rank and poisonous"
So alien were these Jamaican foods, so distasteful were they to the European palate, that Sloane began to ponder the very definition of food in the first place.  After all, Sloane surmised, there was no hard and fast rule separating "food" from "non-food."  What was unique about mankind, Sloane reasoned, was his ability to extract nourishment from pretty much anything.  Good to keep in mind during a famine, “should it please God to inflict the like Calamity.”  Thankfully, God had also equipped man with the tools needed to deal with such situations –– teeth, spittle, digestive fluids –– enabling men to extract nourishment from nearly anything.  “[T]hough Stalks and Leaves afford no great Nourishment,” Sloane confessed, “they have sometimes kept many from starving.”  Indeed, Sloane points out, the hungry will even eat inanimate objects such as shoes and belts “soak’d and eaten” when man found himself in dire straits.

Even though the dietary divisions between man and beast collapsed under threat of hunger, Sloane didn’t see anything cruel or unjust about this inevitable state of nature.[4] “All these several differing Bodies; which, when no other are at hand, must be the Food of Mankind in the places where they are produced,” he wrote, “are … digested by the Artifice of Nature into good Sustenance to repair its Losses, and propagate its Kind.”  To the contrary, man’s ability to turn non-food into food was knowledge worth learning and passing on to future generations.[5]

But necessity alone does not determine one’s taste preferences.  [H]owever strange to us,” Sloane continues, strange and un-food-like foods “are very greedily sought after by those us’d to them. Thus Person not us’d to eat Whales, Squirrils, or Elephants, would think them a strange Dish; yet those us’d to them, prefer them to other Victuals.”
Sloane noticed raccoon-meat for sale in Jamaica
Ralph Beilby, A General History of Quadrupeds (1790)
Why, Dr. Sloane wonders, do people willingly eat foods that taste disgusting?  As Sloane wandered the towns, markets, and plantations of Jamaica, he recoiled at the sight of snakes and lizards relished by polite and supposedly “understanding” people “with a very good and nice Palate.”  Rats and raccoons –– bred among the sugarcanes to sweeten their meat –– were sold in local markets as good meat.  His Jamaican observations sent Sloane straight to his gigantic English library, where he found many instances of gross-out foods consumed throughout history. 

–– Ancient Greek grasshoppers “eat like shrimps.” 
–– Peoples of the East Indies dining on bird’s nests
–– Hottentots enjoying the guts of cattle and sheep

While 17th century scientific literature often attributed racial and cultural differences to the distinct climates of foreign lands, taste-preferences could not be explained this way.  The American Indians, displaced African slaves, as well as the ancient Romans apparently considered Cossi (Cotton Tree Worms) “so great a dainty” in spite of their distinct cultures and geographical origins.

But neither were new tastes so quickly learned.  Slaves from the East Indies were less desirable to plantation owners than the Jamaican born Creoles, Sloane pointed out, as the former arrived in Jamaica with a taste for meat and fish as opposed to a cheaper diet of yams, plantains, and potatoes.  

Are we in fact what we eat?  It’s a well-worn adage, but Dr. Sloane didn’t seem to think so.  In fact, precisely because the definition of food was so malleable, Sloane concluded that one’s dietary preferences should not be a pretext to classify, categorize and enslave other peoples.[6]  The Spanish very unjustly enslaved the Aztecs because “the Indians … eat Piojos [lice], and Gusanos [larva], and intoxicated themselves with their kinds of wines … and the smoak of tobacco:” incredibly flimsy justifications for extermination.  Sloane did not know how to explain the acclimation and habituation of taste preferences, but he knew that they did not conform to one's moral or cosmological worth.  Indeed, several scholars have pointed out that early modern conceptions of identity, such as race and gender, were far more fluid and mutable than we now believe them to be.[7]  Where does the sense of taste fit into the discussion?  



[1] See, for example, Kay Kriz’s Curiosities, Commodities, and Transplanted Bodies in Hans Sloane’s ‘Natural History of Jamaica’ in The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 35-78 and James Delbuorgo, “Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate and the Whole History of Cacao” Social Text (2011) 29:1:106 pp. 71-101. Sloane is often credited with the invention of chocolate milk, althought the “Sloane Brand” was actually invented in the 1750s.
[2] I share this curiosity with the high Tory satirist William King, who published a satirical send-up of Sloane’s interest in Jamaican food, entitled “Concerning several sorts of odd dishes used by epicures and nice eaters throughout the world” in Useful Transactions (London, 1700).    
[3] The Calabash plant was even rumored to kill horses by the fruit “sticking so fast to their teeth that they are not able to open their Chaps to feed.” 
[4] My favorite book about early modern famine is unquestionably Piero Camporesi’s Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) orig. 1980.  But while Camporesi focuses on the divisions between the fed and the hungry, emphasizing the latter's wretched, drugged-out, state ––  bran, for example, “soaked in hot water and formed into a bran mash for the pig-men, so reduced to wallowing as to resemble snuffling animals” (38) ––  Sloane focuses on famine as a natural calamity that men should learn to deal with their reason and ingenuity.  
[5] Sloane cites some well known “famine guides,” such as Joachimus Struppius’s Anchora Famis (1578) that advises making bread out of almonds, hazelnuts, and pine-kernels, as well as the work of the Bolognese cleric Giovanni Battista Segni, who documented instances of cannibalism in his work (1602).  talks about veg and animal productions made use of in times of famine – “most attentive and sensitive treatise writers on hunger and its excesses” -
[6] Lest we be too hasty with the praise of Dr. Sloane as an enlightened cosmopolite, I should point out that he married a Jamaican planter heiress and owned slaves.  Just sayin!’
[7] See Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth Century England (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004) and Roxann Wheeler, The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth Century British Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).