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The internet is a wonderful, wonderful thing. One of humanity’s greatest achievements, it might well be argued. However, it also unquestionably leads to many people (especially those of us who spend rather too much time on it) learning things which, on balance, we might have preferred not to know. I have very recently learned one such thing thanks to a tweet from @redditships.

The tweet in question is a screen-shotted post from reddit.com/r/relationship_advice, titled “My (19F) Dad (40s M) has an obsession with buying exotic or illegal animal meat and is why my family fell apart”. It is an incredible bit of writing and genuinely probably one of the finest pieces of 21st century short horror I have read. I am 99% certain that the story told within isn’t true in any way shape or form, and that what we’re reading is just a (very, very good) creepypasta type internet camp-fire tale, designed to unsettle, shock, and turn the stomach. It succeeds in all of these but especially the latter, because this is a story all about forbidden food and one man’s compulsion to consume ever rarer, stranger, and more taboo foodstuffs.

One of the weird foods name-checked in the post/tweet is the Ortolan bunting.“(look it up)” the poster said, so I did… and I sort of wish I hadn’t. The results played on my mind, and soon took me down an internet rabbit-hole of lots of other things which maybe I didn’t really need or want to know either. If you would too rather not know then, genuinely, please do not read on. What follows here is some of my accidental, and to some degree unwilling, research into some very strange, and unpleasant eating habits and insatiable appetites.

The Shame Of Such A Decadent And Disgraceful Act

“I bring my molars down and through my bird’s rib cage with a wet crunch and am rewarded with a scalding hot rush of burning fat and guts down my throat. Rarely have pain and delight combined so well. I’m giddily uncomfortable, breathing in short, controlled gasps as I continue slowly – ever so slowly – to chew. With every bite, as the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin, and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wondrous ancient flavors: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones. As I swallow, I draw in the head and beak, which, until now, have been hanging from my lips, and blithely crush the skull.”

These are the (thoroughly unsettling) words of American writer, chef, and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, taken from his 2010 book Medium Raw. The bird he was writing about eating was, you guessed it, an Ortolan bunting, and his doing so wasn’t just weird, it was completely illegal and a sin.

Just as French cuisine has kept alive the Ancient Roman practices of eating snails, and force-feeding birds to make foie gras (“fat liver”) pate (something which the Romans took from the Egyptians, admittedly), the eating of whole songbirds has also been maintained and, unluckily for the Ortolan, they are the bird of choice. Keeping, capturing, hunting, and cooking the birds is banned across the EU, with the French government promising, in 2007, to fine anyone caught doing so €6,000. Despite this, surveys carried out by the League for Protection of Birds and others suggest that the birds are still hunted and consumed at pretty much the same rate as ever.

Once an Ortolan has been caught, the manner in which it is prepared for being eaten is a strange, cruel, and ritualistic one. The bird is kept in a black, lightless box, or in some cases has its eyes removed entirely, in order that they not be able to distinguish night from day. This stimulates the Ortolan to eat and eat and eat and therefore put on weight. This part of the process is supposedly, again, a Roman invention, but the French claim full credit for what comes next. The tiny songbird is drowned in Armagnac, its body left to marinade in the brandy. The birds are then roasted, plucked, and presented to the diner whole on a plate.

Then we come to the ritual of eating the bird. Though Bourdain’s description quoted earlier may be strange and unsettling enough, it omits what is perhaps the weirdest part of the “proper” way to eat an Ortolan.

“The customary way of eating ortolan, a delicate songbird, involves the diner covering his or her head with a large napkin. Tradition dictates that this is to shield – from God’s eyes – the shame of such a decadent and disgraceful act.” [1]

This aspect of the Ortolan eating supposedly dates back to the 18th century when a priest was invited to eat the dish by French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, and covered his head in shame. This sacrilegious connotation – the idea that eating an Ortolan is something God themselves would actually disapprove of – seems, strangely, to have become one of the dishes selling points. It is not so much the taste of the bird but its very forbidden-ness, its illegality, its morally questionable nature which seems to draw people to it.

There is something of the vampire, or perhaps more accurately the ghoul, about the way people write and talk about eating Ortolan. It is as if, once consumed, some secret is imparted to the diner and they can never go back. There seem to me to be very obvious parallels here with the many cross cultural cautionary myths and tales relating to cannibalism: once a person tastes the forbidden meat they will never be the same, craving and hungering forever-more. It will return to this thought later. Weirdly though, an awful lot of people don’t seem to see Ortolan eating in those rather frightening terms, instead they simply regard the tortured songbird as somehow (to quote Homer Simpson) “sacrelicious”.

Mémoire Sur La Polyphagie

In 1805 Baron Percy, surgeon-in-chief of the Soultz-Haut-Rhin military hospital in north eastern France, published his paper Mémoire sur la Polyphagie on the strange case of a man named Tarrare. Percy and Terrare first became acquainted around 1792 when the latter was serving in the French Revolutionary Army.

Though a man of average height and weight, Terrare had a huge appetite; a terrible hunger which could hardly ever be sated, and even then only for a short time. His meagre army rations were not enough to sustain him, so Terrare would carry out tasks for other men in exchange for food and even scavenge from dung-heaps. He was admitted to Soultz-Haut-Rhin hospital suffering from extreme exhaustion and was granted triple rations in an effort to curb his hunger. Nevertheless Terrare remained ravenous and was observed scavenging in gutters, bins, and even eating soiled dressings. Amazed and intrigued by the man’s condition, Baron Percy and other doctors at the hospital decided to make a study of Terrare. First, to test his true capacity for eating, Terrare was allowed to eat as much as he desired from a meal which had been intended for fifteen people. He finished the whole thing and promptly fell asleep.

Next came the (more gruesome) experiments to find out exactly what Terrare would and wouldn’t eat. Presented with a live cat he “[seized it] with his teeth, eventrated it, sucked its blood, and ate it, leaving the bare skeleton only. In about thirty minutes he rejected the hairs in the manner of birds of prey and carnivorous animals” [2]. Terrare was offered other animals such as dogs, snakes, lizards, and an eel (which he is said to have swallowed whole after crushing its skull in his teeth), all of which he ate with the same terrifying greediness.

Baron Percy tried many, many methods to cure Terrare’s hunger but nothing seemed to work. Every attempt to control his diet always resulted in Terrare finding some means to scavenge up some horrific food source. He was found drinking the blood of fellow patients, and sneaking into the morgue to consume the flesh of the dead. Eventually a fourteen month old girl went missing and, though no concrete evidence that Terrare had eaten her was ever uncovered, he was ejected from the hospital grounds by a gang of outraged staff, never to return.

To Dine Upon Birds And Beasts Unknown To Human Palate

19th century naturalist Charles Darwin is, of course, best known to us today for his 1859 work On the Origin of Species and is thought of by many as the father of Evolutionary theory. What is less well known however, is that he was a glutton. That is, he was a member of the Glutton Club during his time at Cambridge University; a society which met weekly to “dine upon birds and beasts, which were before unknown to human palate” [3]. The Glutton Club apparently disbanded after members ate a particularly unpleasant supper of owl one evening, but Darwin did not lose his appetite.

While on his groundbreaking voyage aboard The Beagle, it is said that Darwin undertook to eat one specimen of each species he encountered. The agouti – a large, deer-like, burrowing rodent – was apparently his favourite, with Darwin recording that it was “the very best meat I ever tasted”. In December 1833 the naturalist stopped mid-way through his Christmas dinner onboard the ship when he realised he was not eating a rhea as he had believed, but an extremely rare bird he had not yet described (the Avestruz petise). According to his own record, he managed to salvage “the head and neck, the legs, and many of the larger feathers” and examine them in detail [4].

Thirty years Darwin’s senior and a fellow of rival university, Oxford, William Buckland was nevertheless a man of similar appetites. A theologian, geologist, and palaeontologist, Buckland is best known today as the first person to write a full account of a fossil dinosaur, giving it the name Megalosaurus. He also pioneered the study of fossilised faeces, christening them coprolites, and did much to promote and disseminate Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz’s, then controversial, glaciation theory.

William Buckland was known to be rather eccentric, conducting all his field research while dressed in full academic gown, as if he were about to give a lecture. When he did give lectures at Oxford – something he did on occasion while on horseback – Buckland was known for his dramatic delivery, and tendency to imitate and “act out” the behaviour of the creatures he was speaking upon.

Buckland became President of the Royal Geographical Society and Secretary of the Society for the Acclimatization of Animals, which allowed him to import all sorts of creatures to England. Unfortunately for the animals in question, Buckland was a man on a self proclaimed mission to taste the flesh of (at least) one of species animal on Earth. From the bluebottle (which he did not like the taste of) to the panther, from the mouse to the crocodile, the rhinoceros to the porpoise, Buckland tried them all and, on several occasions, served them up to his family and guests.

As with Terrare though, Buckland’s zoöphagy seems to have lead to an appetite which grew ever more strange and insatiable. On a visit to Edward Venables-Vernon-Harcourt, the then Archbishop of York, talk is supposed to have turned to relics. The Archbishop brought out a silver box which was said to contain a portion of the heart of King Louis XVII of France. “Dr. Buckland, whilst looking at it, exclaimed, ‘I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before’, and, before anyone could hinder him, he had gobbled it up, and the precious relic was lost for ever” [5].

Monstrous Appetites

The folklore of the First Nation Algonquian tribes based in the northern forests of Nova Scotia, the East Coast of Canada, and Great Lakes Region of Canada, The Wendigo is a creature of pure hunger, greed, and insatiable appetite, described by Basil H. Johnston, an Ojibwe teacher and scholar from Ontario, thusly:

The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash-gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody […] Unclean and suffering from suppuration of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption. [6]

Wendigos are not merely supernatural creatures however, humans can become Wendigos simply by eating the most forbidden of foods: human flesh.

Before Baron Percy first encountered Terrare, the ever-hungry French-man had already gained notoriety for his strange eating habits. It is said that Terrare’s family cast him out (ostensibly because they could not feed him any longer), and that he took up with a band of criminals whom he travelled with for some time. There is no record of what these criminals got up to precisely, nor exactly what Terrare’s part in their enterprise was. Whether his appetites may have been put to use to dispose of all kinds of evidence of criminal wrong doings is a matter of mere speculation. We do know that after that he became a street performer, earning money showing off his abilities to eat vast quantities of just about anything.

Terrare is said to have had a strange, dull, grey complexion, stained teeth, and hardly any visible lips at all. When he had not eaten, Terrare’s dusty skin was described as hanging so loosely on his skeletal frame that he could wrap a fold from his abdomen around his waist. His cheeks were wrinkled, hanging loosely, and when stretched out, Terrare is said to have been able to hold twelve eggs or apples in his mouth. His body was constantly hot to the touch and he sweated heavily (sometimes clouds of vapour were said to be visible, rising from his body). His body odour stank “to such a degree that he could not be endured within the distance of twenty paces” [7] This smell would, apparently, get noticeably worse after he had eaten.

Folklore records that when a Wendigo ate human flesh, the creature grew in proportion to its prey, thus ensuring that its hunger could never be satisfied. When Terrare performed his feats of appetite his stomach is described as swelling up hugely, the normally saggy skin being pulled taught like a balloon. After his death, Terrare’s body was autopsied. He was found to have an abnormally wide gullet, and an abnormally large stomach which was said to “fill most of his abdominal cavity” [8]. In short, it was not just his appetite which was strange, but his appearance and anatomy seem to have been markedly different from that of a typical human.

The Wendigo is, of course, just one of many cautionary myths from across the globe warning what a human may become should they commit the ultimate taboo of cannibalism. Many today believe that tales of flesh-eaters such as the Wendigo, the ghoul, the vampire, the were-wolf, and their ilk are just that; mere Fairy Stories told to teach a moral lesson. In this age of rising awareness of the many benefits of eating less and less meat and animal products though, perhaps we can begin to envision something more like a sliding scale of what constitutes “taboo” flesh. Maybe those who would succumb to the strange, sacrilegious, temptations of the Ortolan, might find themselves hungry for more.

And more.

And more.

REFERENCES

1. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/11102100/Why-French-chefs-want-us-to-eat-this-bird-head-bones-beak-and-all.html

2. Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, by George M. Gould and Walter Lytle Pyle (1896) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/747/747.txt

3. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/63238/charles-darwin-glutton

4. Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century, by Niles Eldredge (2015) https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=I6AvBgAAQBAJ&pg=PA117&lpg=PA117&dq=darwin+christmas+petise&source=bl&ots=tpfzvnon2L&sig=bJt5XMPTK70aG8ERBiPlpMUOKgY&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=darwin%20christmas%20petise&f=false

5. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2008/feb/25/foodherowilliambuckland

6. The Manitous, by Basil Johnson (2001)

7. London Medical and Physical Journal, Polyphagism, by T. Bradley, Samuel Fothergill & William Hutchinson (1819) https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=4e0EAAAAQAAJ&redir_esc=y

8. London Medical and Physical Journal, Polyphagism, by T. Bradley, Samuel Fothergill & William Hutchinson (1819) https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=4e0EAAAAQAAJ&redir_esc=y