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Category Archives: Food
“Laws are like sausages, better not to see them when they are being made.” This remark, in various forms and guises, is attributed to Otto von Bismarck, among others. Whether it was Otto who said it or someone else, they definitely have a point. Some of the stuff that goes into the modern sausage would have you reaching for the sick bowl. Or, in my case, the scotch. This is not to denigrate all sausages. Indeed sausage making has become something of an art form with thousands of varieties being created throughout the world. A cornucopia of flavours and combinations. Some delicious. Others frankly weird. Venison with redcurrant and red wine, duck with orange and apricot, beef and Guinness. Tasty! Rattlesnake and rabbit. Emu and Elk. Dubious to say the least
There is plenty of evidence to show that the sausage was well known in ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed the word ‘sausage’ comes form the Middle English, sausige, which derives from sal, the Latin for salt, that well known preservative. Early man made the first sausages by stuffing roasted meat into stomachs. Animal stomachs, I hasten to add. And dead ones at that. It would be a brave man or woman who attempted to stuff a living bear or bison. No guesses as to who would end up as the filling if it happened the other way round.
Our British banger got its name in the First World War. There were food shortages; meat in particular was scarce. There was little to spare for sausage making. So the manufacturers packed the casings with scraps – bits of vegetables and water. When they were cooked over open fires, notably on shovels in the trenches, the water caused them to hiss and burst and pop. Hence ‘bangers’.
The humble sausage is associated with far meatier things than the full English. Indeed it played a part in the birth of Reformed Protestantism. Not many people know that! It happened in 1522, in Zurich, when a small number of believers met together to defy the teaching of the Catholic Church, which banned the eating of meat in Lent. Led by one Christopher Froschauer they declared that nowhere in the bible did it say you couldn’t eat meat in Lent. So there. The city council finally got round to agreeing with them and passed a law stating that’ No Christian is bound to do those things which God has not decreed.’ And quite right too.
Not only did the modest sausage play its part in the birth of a religion, it also features in the annals of war. For this we again go back to the First World War when the German High Command had a weapon with which it planned to bring Britain to its knees. The Zeppelin airship. These engines of war were responsible for the first bombing campaign directed at civilian targets. Though only 1,500 people were killed – only! – the raids brought terror to the populace, in particular on the South and East coasts where the raids were heaviest.
It was bad luck for the Kaiser when, despite the widespread panic, the campaign failed in its attempt to completely smash morale. Bad luck too for the German populace and even more for German cows. Sausage eating was banned for the duration. Why? Because cows intestines, the very ones used to make sausages, were a vital component in the manufacture of the airships. The technique by which the intestines were turned into gasbags to hold the hydrogen has only recently been discovered and is the subject of a Channel 4 documentary.
So for the Germans it was the wurst case scenario (couldn’t resist!). They may have scared the pants off the Brits, but they didn’t succeed in ending the war. On top of that they were deprived of their favourite food. And spare a thought for the poor cows. In a macabre version of the old light bulb joke – how many cows does it take to make an airship? The answer – 250,000 and that’s just one Zeppelin. It’s enough to moo-ve you to tears (pun intended.)
A couple of weeks ago, during a pleasant weekend in the country, my friends took me to one of those garden-centre-come-overpriced gift-shop-come-expensive-interior-design–come-a-bit-of-everything sort of places – I believe the correct name is shopping village. (Who thought that one up?) In this shopping so-called village there were two restaurants, both heaving. When we finally got to sit down in one we ordered a perfectly adequate meal of the baked-potato-with-toppings and soup-and-a-roll variety. Not a Michelin star in sight; that was fine. We weren’t expecting gourmet.
What wasn’t fine was the sheer effrontery of the place. When it was time to choose a pudding (I will not call it a dessert in this context) each of the three items on the menu stated - and I quote – ‘comes with custard, cream or ice cream’. I’m not sure what prompted me to check, apart from my suspicious nature or perhaps my passion for words and the English language. For whatever reason, I asked the waiter to confirm that these items came as part of the pudding.
‘Oh no,’ I was told. ‘They are extras.’
‘But it says ‘comes with,’ I protested. ‘That means they are part of the dish.’
‘Oh no,’ he repeated, ‘you have to pay extra.’
‘It says,’ I insisted ‘comes with custard, cream or ice cream.’
‘It does come with them, ‘ he answered, ‘but you have to pay for them.’
Arguing was pointless since he didn’t get the point. I gave up. I did, however, draw the offending text to the attention of the owner, assuming it was some sort of typo. He didn’t exactly apologise just acknowledged my comment and thanked me in a lukewarm sort of way. Which was somewhat cancelled out when he sauntered up to our table and said that I was the first person who had remarked on the wording in eight years. Any hopes of a goodwill gesture – ‘so sorry, have the custard/cream/ice cream on us’ was obviously out of the question.
Eight years! Jeez! He’d been getting away with that for eight years. At least. If this sounds a bit of an extreme reaction on my part, let me tell you there was more. The pudding selection consisted of three items on the menu. With prices. Plus a selection of cakes not on the menu but displayed in a case. With no prices. The bill wasn’t itemised. How did you know that your bill was accurate? You didn’t. Bad as that is from a trading standards perspective, the thing that bothers me just as much is the general ignorance about the use of English.
These days, while there are still many people who care passionately about the use of language, there are far more who don’t. Some from indifference. Even more through no fault of their own but rather as a result of failures in our system of education. So, why should any of them care anyway? What does it matter after all? It matters. Language is constantly evolving, which is a good thing. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is clear communication. That’s what grammar is all about. Clarity. The placement of a comma affects the entire meaning of a sentence. Sloppy language can signal sloppy thinking. It could lose you a job or, in the case of my grammatically challenged restaurant owner, a visit from the trading standards officer.There are many great books on the subject. Just to cite a few examples there is the splendid Eats, Shoots and Leaves as well as Troublesome Words and my bible, English Today, by the redoubtable Ronald Ridout.
I once met a girl who was frightened of bananas. She was the sort of girl that makes you clench your teeth being tiny, perfectly proportioned, exceedingly pretty and clever too. To add insult to injury – she was extremely nice. It was in our advanced French class. The third term. Most of us had followed the course for two terms and were getting there. Some spoke beautifully but were not too good at the grammar. Some had terrible accents but could express themselves like natives. Miss Perfect of course spoke and wrote like a Frenchwoman.
I can’t exactly remember why or how the subject of phobias came up. One day during an exercise, the point of which I no longer remember, we had to go round the class in turn and tell everyone about things we were frightened of. Miss P, I’ll call her Annie, had us all open mouthed with astonishment when she said she was frightened of bananas. I found that so endearing I completely changed my mind about her.
She was very convincing but I’m not sure everyone believed her. They should have done for there is indeed a known phobia. It’s called – you guessed it – bananaphobia. Bit disappointing really. You’d think they could have come up with a better name. I don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about phobias – but recently a fellow member of Toastmasters introduced the subject into his highly entertaining speech. Among the phobias he mentioned was – wait for it -anatidaephobia – a fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you.
I love it. It conjures up wonderful images of ducks lurking behind curtains or peering out from behind trees. Ducks in raincoats with the collars turned up. Or ducking (sorry) behind the wet fish counter in Sainsburys to avoid detection. I trawled the Internet. I found plenty of sites that listed anatidaephobia, many as if it were a real phobia. Sadly it isn’t – it comes from the talented Gary Larson’s cartoon series – The Far Side. I wish it had been real but I’m not surprised it’s made up. It’s rather reminiscent of the late, lamented James Thurber in its quirky humour.
For all the funny made-up phobias – anoraknophobia, for instance, of Wallace and Grommet fame – there are plenty of real phobias that strike most of us as amusing though I’m sure they are no joke to people who suffer from them. Imagine having ablutophobia and being scared to wash. Or unable to go to a party because of your globophobia, your fear of balloons. Or risking scurvy because lachanophobia stopped you eating vegetables. With a summer like ours pity the poor people who fear rain, a condition known as ombrophobia. And I for one would be very sad indeed if my phobia was ailurophobia – because I love cats.
While there are plenty of real phobias, many of them extremely strange like fear of string or rooms or hands, it’s the made up ones that are the most hilarious. And they have the added advantage of not risking running the risk of upsetting genuine sufferers. Luposlipaphobia is another from the wonderful Gary Larson. –fear of being pursued by timber wolves around a kitchen table while wearing socks on a newly waxed floor. But my favourite has to be the ducks. And for some unaccountable reason, the string.
Admittedly the tin’s made of 24-carat gold. Even without the gold, a smaller tin will set you back £800. However, It’s not just posh foods that are graced with the ‘most expensive’ label. Hot dogs, bagels, baked potatoes, sandwiches, pizza, frittata – they’ve all qualified. Usually because of the addition of something glamorous like gold dust or truffles. A bit like sticking jewels onto your trainers. As PG tips did – not of course with their trainers but with the world’s most expensive tea bag. Created to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary it was decorated with 280 diamonds and is worth £7,500.
Unbelievably extravagant? It’s almost insignificant compared to the world’s most expensive water. A 1.25 ml bottle of Acqua di Cristallo Tributo a Modigliani went for $60,000. Designed by Fernando Altamirano, it’s coated with 24-carat gold. If you missed the charity auction, and have $3.3 million lying around in your sock drawer, there’s a ‘dummy’ version in various precious metals studded with 6,000 diamonds.
This ‘world’s most expensive’ label is not easy to establish. There are claims and counter claims. It’s not a level playing field either. One thing’s priced by the bottle, something else by the ounce and so on. The only real benchmark is the Guinness Book of World Records and even those entries are constantly changing. In it or not, there are some wonderful finds, like these two exceptional cheeses. It’s not their rarity or price tags that make them so fascinating, though at around $500 and $616 per pound respectively they’re hardly cheap. No the real joy lies in the fact that Sweden’s Moose House Farm cheese contains the milk from three unusually tame moose. They answer to the names of Gullan, Haelga and Juna! Can’t say that about your average cheddar! As for Pule, it’s produced from the milk of 100 Serbian donkeys. And costs 1,000 Euros a kilo.
Not all highly priced foods are exotic and rare. Saffron, derived from the crocus, is reasonably common. Yet it takes up to 75,000 flowers to make one pound, accounting for the price of up to $5,000 dollars. The most expensive potato, La Bonnotte is grown uniquely on one French island, Noirmoutier. Melons are commonplace in Europe, rare in Japan. Which accounts for the $6,100 paid for a 17 lb. black Densuke watermelon. A pair of Yubari cantaloupes, auctioned in 2008, slaughtered that record fetching a mighty $22,872. And this September, Sotheby’s Manhattan showroom held an auction not of Old Masters, but of vegetables! Some expected to reach $1,000 a case.
Incidentally some ‘ordinary’ foods do make the Guinness Book of World Records. There’s Chef Blunos’ £111 cheese sandwich and the $69 hot dog from Manhattan’s Serendipity 3 restaurant. Domenico Crolla’s Pizza Royale 007 is a contender too, at $4,200. Serendipity’s Frrrozen Haute Chocolate Sundae definitely made it with its £15,730 price tag. From $1000 bagels and frittatas to beer at £500 a bottle, the world of gourmet eating seems in fine shape to me. Did someone say credit crunch!
Or indeed several cats. Most apartment buildings in Japan don’t allow residents to keep pets. Some do but they are at the expensive end of the market. The astute, cat-loving Japanese have come with the ideal solution. Cat cafės. Here in the U.K. we now have therapy dogs and cats that visit residential homes – perhaps we could make their presence more permanent in day centres and care homes. Of course there is a question of hygiene, but cats are clean creatures and the Japanese seem to manage in a café so why not in a day centre. As to health and safety, I’m sure most folks would rather injure themselves tripping over a cat than lying neglected in a bed. Besides, cats are clever. They’d get out of the way.
If your idea of finger food is a limp sausage roll, think again. And I’m not talking industrial accidents.
While we are still in the full throes of the Jubilee celebrations, this seems to be the perfect time to talk about finger food. Though, strictly speaking, I should be saying something like ‘while the celebrations are still in progress’. Because the word ‘throes’ refers to a painful struggle and as far as I’m concerned the Jubilee is not painful at all. Except for the BBC coverage of the river pageant. Which was painful in the extreme.
Be that as it may! In the past we called them canapés, and they were bread based but that word, and the description, seem to be in decline. Nowadays it’s finger food that’s served at parties and receptions when you prefer, for whatever reason, not to have a proper sit down meal. With 650 guests to accommodate, some of whom she probably never clapped eyes on before, it’s no wonder her Majesty chose finger food for the main reception after that wedding last year. And wisely scarpered before the full sit down meal for the kiddies in the evening. I sincerely hope that after 60 years on the throne, she was absolved from any whisper of catering duties this weekend. After all that standing on Saturday she deserves a massive G & T with her feet up.
Mind you, eating with your fingers is not necessarily the same as eating finger food. A greasy hunk of roasted camel doesn’t compare to a dainty duck terrine or a delicate salmon rose. So when did this practical style of eating begin? And why? This is where the fun really starts – half the known world lays claim to it. Some say it was dim sum, invented by a canny vendor to refresh the merchants travelling along the Silk Road as long ago as 206 BC. Others point to the cold appetizers, known as bawarid, served in eighth century Baghdad. Then there’s sushi and tapas and … the list goes on. Indeed the name canapé itself dates back to ancient Greece, where it began life as a mosquito net, or curtain. It mutated through the ages to the Middle English ‘canope’. For some unknown reason we adopted the French word ‘canapé’ which actually means a sofa. Because they think a canapé looks like a sofa? Time for a trip to Specsavers.
A sandwich can be finger food too. We’re not talking doorsteps here but a rather more delicate, two bite form often referred to as a tea sandwich. According to popular belief the sandwich was invented by our very own John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Unfortunately, and as is often the case, popular belief is wrong. One of the first references to something akin to a sandwich was in the 1st century BC. when the famous sage, Hillel the Elder, began the custom of putting chopped nuts, fruit and bitter herbs between two pieces of matzo to commemorate the Exodus. Down the ages food approximating to sandwiches appeared in various forms. So while the 4th Earl didn’t invent the sandwich, it was certainly named after him. Reluctant to leave the gaming table, or as some now claim his work, he ordered his chefs to bring him salt beef between two slices of toasted bread. His companions cried out – in true ‘When Harry met Sally’ style – ‘I’ll have the same as Sandwich’.
Personally I like finger food. Maybe I’ve been blessed by invitations to receptions that are the ‘works of art’ variety rather than the ‘two day old scotch egg’ sort. Nevertheless, as far as I’m concerned, finger food is perfect for anything where you have to stand up and hold a glass. We’ve all been there, trying to juggle a bendy paper plate, with soggy salad sliding off the side and a tilting glass that threatens to drip claret (or plonk more likely) onto our shoes or someone’s Sunday best. No, as far as I’m concerned it’s fingers every time. And the more ‘art form’ the better, as long as it tastes good. But spare me the recent fad for ‘bowl food’. Delicious it may be and flavour of the month, so to speak, but virtually impossible to eat without getting sticky, dropping something and embarrassing yourself.
So went the lyrics to the hit of 1925, sung by Waring’s Pennsylvanians, the Six Jumping Jacks and even later by the likes of Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. In those days ice cream came in vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and other fruit based flavours. You might perhaps have found coffee flavour or caramel. But not Kentucky Fried Chicken, even though it was America.
How things change
Today you’ll find ice cream in every flavour under the sun. Doc Burnsteins Ice Cream Lab in Arroyo, California offers such tempting delights as Merlot raspberry truffle (made with real wine), rainbow sorbet and egg nogg, besides birthday cake and motor oil. Not mixed together – though even that wouldn’t’ surprise me. These are two separate flavours; the latter made from dark chocolate, Kaluha and fudge.
Hardly weird at all
We’ve become so used to strange and unusual foods that some have become almost normal. The flavours run the whole gamut from breakfast to dinner, or as they say in the States, from soup to nuts. Cornflake ice cream is quite delicious and does actually taste of cornflakes. Heston’s bacon and egg ice cream is positively old hat – nowadays you get bacon with everything including chocolate so having it pop up in an ice cream is no big deal. Sausage and mash, Brussels sprouts, spinach, salad – no I’m not making this up.
Familiar – but still pretty weird
In this category I class the flavours that seem to be having an identity crisis. Some of them are a bit of a cheat to tell the truth. Because they’re meant to be savoury accompaniments – like the garlic ice cream that’s served with steak. I’m not sure that the same excuse can be made for fish and, chips, pizza, haggis and Yorkshire pud flavours to say nothing of cheeseburger (with fries.) Ye Gods! Nor for Coronation chicken, octopus, smoked salmon, sardines with brandy and spaghetti with cheese. All are ices available in a variety of restaurants and emporiums – not just in far flung places without the law but in our own dear London town.
Not so much weird as really icky
Now we come to those that are not so much having an identity crisis as heading straight for the asylum. Fancy some breast milk ice cream? Selling as Baby Gaga, this offering, from London’s The Icecreamists, uses fresh donations from the public – oh yum! Of course you could always help things along a bit, in a roundabout sort of way, by sampling some Sex Pistol ice cream. Also known as ‘Viagra’ ice cream it’s electric green, contains stimulants such as ginkgo, arginine and guarana and comes with a shot of Absinthe. And you’re only allowed one a day. It figures.
Not yucky enough? A nice dish of spleen and artichoke, perhaps? Or whatabout Japanese Basashi, which replaces the more normal cookie or chocolate chunks with lumps of horsemeat. Enough to make you break out into a cold sweat? Not to worry – you can get that too. Well, it’s more the effect than the flavour since Jalapeno or ‘Cold Sweat’, from North Carolina, is made from some of the hottest peppers known to man. You’ll be required to sign a waiver because, and I quote “what is painful going in, might be painful upon exit.” Ouch! Puts those song lyrics in a completely different light, doesn’t it!
Do I agree with Garrison Keillor? Hmm! Now let me see. Sex or sweet corn? Sweet corn or sex? Why choose at all! Have both. All at the same time. A quick browse on the Internet will turn up more food fads, fetishes and weird combinations than you ever dreamed up in your wildest imaginings. Some are sexy, some are playful, others are downright weird. Even the vegetarian society has got into the act with their very own rude video – I’ll never look at an asparagus tip in the same way again. Ever!
As for fish! Some years ago I was given the present of ‘Rude Food’, a collection of possibly the most beautiful, erotic food photography ever, created by David Thorpe, a gifted photographer. It’s still on Amazon, still in print and so it should be. Turn to the page with the Dover sole. Need I say more! Of course, certain fruit and veg always suggest the exotic, they just can’t help themselves. Bananas, cucumbers and courgettes. Sausages and hot dogs. Whatever turns you on – at least you’d be practicing safe sex. If nature doesn’t provide it in her copious larder, food manufacturers are happy to oblige. Take Spencer and Fleetwood, for instance. Their offerings include such tempting treats as candy G-strings, nookie cookies, licorice whips and lust dust.
Even if the food’s not rude, the names can be hilariously so. There’s ‘Big Nuts’ and ‘Donkey Balls’, ‘Fanny Pudding’, ‘Jerk Sauce’ and ‘Knob Biscuits’. These can be explained by a somewhat tenuous grasp of English on behalf of the marketers. But what on earth were Haribo thinking when they named their sweeties ‘Creamy Dreams’? Had Primula taken leave of their senses calling their bread rolls ‘Jussipussi’? Even respectable Mr. Heinz has got in on the act. Spotted Dick anyone? I’m pleased, but somewhat surprised, to see that that’s still around. After all, Bird’s Eye withdrew their Crispy Cod’s Balls years ago. Much to the dismay of my then teenage brother who was always eager to do the shopping when they were on the menu. We also took great delight when buying iced buns. “Six sticky willies and a packet of cod’s balls please.” The man at the corner shop just loved us!
There’s no great surprise in what people smear on their bodies in pursuit of a bit of extra excitement – olive oil, chocolate, cream, mashed potato, golden syrup, sticky toffee pudding. You may however be more startled by things people put into them. Most of us have heard of pregnant women and small children eating clay, or coal or dirt. It’s a form of a disorder called pica, characterized by an appetite for substances that would not generally be considered food. How about a nice battery for tea, or a toothbrush, some soap perhaps or a pencil. Not to make light of it pica is a genuinely distressing disorder, which can also be dangerous. Not only is there a risk of poisoning, but sharp objects may tear the stomach lining.
Less distressing, but nevertheless weird, are the fads people have for strange combinations. Thanks to the proliferation of food blogs out in Cyberspace some, which would have once appeared wacky, now seem perfectly normal. Bacon cupcakes, chili chocolate and, one of my favorites, digestive biscuits with cheddar cheese and marmalade. Slightly more odd was my ham and marmalade spaghetti – a strange phase now over. But I’m in good company. In Malaysia they eat Marmite with porridge. Some people like tongue in sweet raisin sauce, banana with mayonnaise or cheese with popcorn or Nutella and garden peas. To say nothing of those addicts who like everything frozen – M&Ms, Skittles, pickle juice and strawberries.
Food fads and fetishes are nothing new. Alexander the Great had a thing about mint. He wouldn’t t let his soldiers chew it; he thought it would over-stimulate them so they wouldn’t want to fight. What a spoilsport. Slipping further down the historical pole we come to Henry Ford. For him sugar was the enemy – he thought those little sharp granules would perforate his stomach and kill him. Maria Callas had no such fears, even though she was in far more danger from the tapeworm she swallowed. No one knows whether or not she did it on purpose, but she was chubby and got thin. Work it out.
Swallowing a tapeworm might be considered animal cruelty. Eating butterflies certainly is but that didn’t bother Vladimir Nabokov. Mind you eating insects is pretty normal in many cultures. They’re full of protein. Angelina Jolie will attest to that, having snacked on high-protein cockroaches. Saddam Hussein loved Raisin Bran Crunch and Joe Lewis, the famous boxer, would drink fresh blood before a fight. Rather more normal, but far more socially unacceptable, was Clark Gable’s fetish for eating onions. He may have been handsome as hell, but to his leading ladies the star of Gone with the Wind was simply smelly.
If today’s celebrities haven’t gone as far as swallowing tapeworms – give them time – they are well practiced in faddy diets. Oprah Winfrey swore by the acai berry. She certainly lost weight – again, and again and again. Beyoncé drinks homemade lemonade, maple syrup, water and cayenne pepper. Demi Moor eats everything raw, including meat. Reece Witherspoon eats baby food. Jennifer Lopez sniffs grapefruit oil. Christina Aguilera’s fad is even odder – she groups foods by colour – while Maria Carey eats only purple foods three times a week.
Smearing foodstuffs all over your partner and licking it off is considered fairly normal – though I doubt that as many do it as say they do. I certainly prefer my chocolate straight out of the pack and my olive oil on my salad. But then I don’t like being sticky! Even eating fish with jam or sitting on cakes doesn’t seem so bad when you hear of what some folks get up to. Take Vorarephilia, for instance, or rather don’t. Not unless you want to eat someone. Or be eaten. Now that really is taking it to extremes.
© Clodagh Phelan February 2012 www.wordswithwings.co.uk
If, like Woody Allen, you prefer your fodder deceased and departed, look away right now. Especially if you are fond of our furry and feathered friends.
On the other hand, if you’re just a tad ghoulish and, lets face it, most of us are, you may find what follows pretty fascinating. Disgusting perhaps, cruel and unusual almost certainly but, yes, fascinating.
In Korea and China, there’s a ‘health tonic’ that tastes like petrol and looks like the slaughter of the innocents. Without the human babies. To make
Baby Rice Wine, tiny newborn mice, less than three days old, are wrested from their distraught mummies and plunged into a vat of rice wine. Why so young? So that you don’t end up swallowing any fur. If a bit of crunchy beak and a mouthful of feathers doesn’t put you off you could try balut. This Filipino street food consists of duck eggs, carefully incubated until the foetus is nicely developed. Then it’s boiled alive.
At least they are not alive when you eat them. Unlike the unfortunate baby octopus in Korea. It doesn’t go down without a fight though and clings tenaciously to your chopsticks. Horrible as it sounds, it’s not that different from dropping lobsters into boiling water or eating oysters. On the other hand, the story that Chinese people eat a monkey’s brains from its skull while it is still breathing appears to be an urban myth. Great news for the monkeys – and for us.
Not extreme enough? Try playing Russian roulette with a fish. The notorious Japanese blowfish have been known to kill around 300 people annually, though some reports exaggerate the number wildly. Unless it’s prepared by a specially licensed chef, the lethal poison in the fishes’ organs can paralyze the muscles while leaving the diner fully conscious.
If you’d rather be mobile when you meet your maker, there are other ways to risk your life at the table. Sardinia’s infamous Casu marzu is riddled with the larvae of the cheese fly. Make sure to eat the cheese while the maggots are alive; when they’re dead they’re toxic. Mind you, they’ll get you either way. These athletic critters can jump up to six inches and make straight for the eyes. There’s also the little matter of intestinal larval infection; this is where they take up residence and bore through your internal organs. Nice!
Casu Marzu Image: Wikipedia/Shardan
Feeling a little squeamish? Perhaps what you need is a blood transfusion. The culinary variety. Our blood pudding seems tame compared to some dishes. The Maasai take blood directly from the neck of a living cow, mix it with milk then drink it. And not a vampire in sight. In the Philippines congealed duck blood, Tiet Canh, is a popular favourite. As is Dinuguan – blood stew with intestines, heart, ears and snout. It’s all bubbled together with garlic, chili and vinegar. Still, when it comes down to it, our blood pudding is not that different from Tiet Canh. I imagine oysters don’t enjoy being eaten alive any more than baby octopus do. It all comes down to a matter of taste and culture. Me? I’ll stick to sugar mice.
Death comes in many guises. But if death by carrot sounds just plain silly, try a blow to the head from a frozen fish!
Our relationship with food is complex – we love it, hate it, overindulge in it, deprive ourselves of it. Whether we see it as a pleasure or a curse, we all have an opinion about it. The Internet is stuffed with blogs about bacon, cup cakes and capons. With food fads and fashions and freakish diets – recipes for unachievable weight loss that may even lead to disaster.
And that’s just what food has proved to be for some. From the ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ to the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, food has been the cause of many deaths in film, in literature and indeed in life. Far from life imitating art, with food it’s often the other way around. For every fictional death by espresso machine or garlic canapé there’s a real life death by cocoa or carrot. Yes, really!
La Grande Bouffe, a classic film from 1973, sees a group of friends get together with the express purpose of eating themselves to death. Distributed in the UK as ‘Blow Out’, its comic depictions of sex and gluttony were highly controversial. Nevertheless, whether deliberately or not, some of the crowned heads of Europe have equalled, even surpassed, that level of gormandise. Take our own dear Henry I, for example, said to have died after stuffing himself with lampreys, his favourite food. His tastes appear somewhat peculiar, since lampreys are an extremely ugly, primitive fish that feed on the blood, body fluids and muscles of bigger fish. Thankfully, they’re not something we’re likely to find at the fish counter in Waitrose.
Fast forward to 1771 for yet another monarch setting a bad example. Remembered by Swedish schoolchildren as ‘the king who eat himself to death’, Adolf Frederick died after scoffing an enormous dinner. If the lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring and champagne didn’t do the damage, then maybe the pudding was the coup de grâce. Greedy Adolf finished his meal with Selma, his favourite food – a sweet spiced bun, stuffed with almond paste and whipped cream, served with hot milk. Nice. But fourteen bowls of the stuff! No wonder he didn’t make it to 1772.
Perhaps these monarchs brought misfortune on themselves, but that’s hardly true of the victims of London’s Great Beer Flood. Though maybe there are worse ways to die. Death by carrot or death by beer? No contest, I’d say. The tragedy happened at a brewery in London’s Tottenham Court Road on October 17th, 1814. Some huge vats ruptured, sending a wave of beer gushing into the streets, destroying homes and a nearby pub. Nine people died but, although the Meux Brewery was prosecuted, no one was held responsible. An early example of the need for a corporate manslaughter law.
The Boston Molasses Disaster in 1919 gave a whole new meaning to the saying ‘meeting a sticky end’. On an unseasonably hot day in January, a storage tank exploded, sending a wall of molasses coursing through part of Boston, Massachusetts. Between 8 and 15 ft high, travelling at around 35 mph, it killed 21 and injured 150. The force flung people and horses into the air, hurled a truck into Boston Harbour, snapped the girders of the elevated railway and swept buildings off their foundations. People were ensnared in the sticky mess as if they were flies on flypaper.
If that could form the plot of a zany horror movie, death by carrot sounds downright silly. But this unassuming vegetable, generally considered to be good for you, can in fact turn out to be lethal. And not just in implausible fiction. Perhaps the craziest carrot death is that in the opening scene of the movie, ‘Shoot ‘Em Up’ when Clive Owen brings down the baddie with a stick of carrot. Less well known is the sad case of Basil Brown, a 48-year-old health food enthusiast. Having swallowed excessive amounts of vitamin A and drunk ten gallons of carrot juice, he ended up bright orange. And dead. So be sensible – stick to your five a day.
Of course, most crime related to food is fictional. Not to be outdone by the vegetables, meat also figures in these tales. Fish too. There’s the infamous Roald Dahl story, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, where a wife bludgeons her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, swiftly defrosts it, roasts it and serves it up to the investigating constabulary. A great way to destroy the evidence. There’s a similar idea in an episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’. Here the weapon was a frozen fish, which, after it had served its purpose, was served for lunch.
Although the murderer is generally unmasked in the end, the primary aim in detective fiction is to fool the reader. Which leads to some truly ingenious plots. Like cleverly using the victim’s own weakness to engineer death by anaphylactic shock. Strictly speaking not all allergies are food related – bees are not food, not in Europe anyway. Honey is though, and so are peanuts. Ruth Rendell used a bee sting in ‘To Fear a Painted Devil’, as did H.F. Heard in ‘A Taste of Honey’ and Julie Parsons in ‘The Courtship Gift’. In ‘If Looks could Kill’, Kate White used peanut butter.
In that case the victim didn’t die; such deaths are not that easy to pull off, even in a book. So a word of advice – don’t try this at home. As to that death by garlic canapé, I cheated. The victim was a vampire. And the unfortunate who met her death at the espresso machine? She was fictional too and she was electrocuted, not scalded or smothered by coffee. However, truth is stranger than fiction. In 1975, in the charmingly named Peachtree City, Georgia, two kitchen workers thought it might be fun to throw cocoa power at each other. The room was small. The powder got in their lungs. They died. But don’t let that put you off your hot chocolate – unless of course you’re in the habit of inhaling it!
© Clodagh Phelan, October 2010 – this article first appeared in Issue 4 of Eat Me Magazine