Notes On a Modern Epicure

The following story is a continuation of this piece about escargot. It was originally published on Gothic.net (who never did manage to pay me for it) : 

Notes On a Modern Epicure

 

They say the golden age will return. Let us hope so.

- Remy de Gourmont

- Mr. Antiphilos, Satyr

     Arthur Day diverted the gardener, having him plant and grow those vegetables of old, those, in an age of narrow taste, no longer available at the common grocer. There were purple hyacinth beans, once favoured by Thomas Jefferson, which matured into bleeding red pods containing cyanogenic glucosides, poison, but, if properly prepared, were delicious. Young and prehensile, the pods of devil’s claw resembled okra, but were far tastier. The garden was a veritable orchestra: the long and thin kipfelkrumpl potatoes, skirret, the ornamental yet exquisitely edible Joseph’s coat. Then winnigstädt cabbage, which twisted into a lovely pointed head and, turned into sauerkraut, went well along side a few roast squab. The blue shackamaxon bean made a black polenta, sapid, reminiscent of a creek at night; served with a shank of lamb, anointed with pinoli and claret gravy it was ideal for supping on a mellow spring night.

     These early, almost aboriginal vegetables, he found tasted best along odd sorts of game – rich meats. The classical horsetooth amaranth went well with roast rabbit or civet. Evening primrose added a certain piquancy to a Brunswick stew cooked with grey squirrel. Opossum and malabar spinach. Baked crane with barely cooked crosnes and syrup of violets. Bear and Texas bird pepper. Beaver tail and cymling squash. Woodchuck with welsh onions. The combinations were numerous; but not infinite.

     Perusing antique cookbooks he came upon attractive recipes and put them to practice:

Item: Three green geese in a dish, sorrell sauce

Item: Potage of sand Eeles and Lamprons

Item: Galandine for a crane or a Hearne or any other Foule that is black meat

Item: Lamb’s ears with shallots

Item: Chauldron for a Swan

     He was delighted with a recipe for stewed larks:

     First take them and drawe them cleane, and cut off their feete, and then take a good deale of wine in a platter, and take a good deale of marow, and put it in the Wine and set them on a Chafing dish, and let them stew there a good while, then take a quantitie of smal Raisins, and wash them clean and put them into the broth, and take a little sugar, and Sinamon, and a few crums of manchet bread, and put them into the Larkes, and let them stue altogither, than take and cut half a dosen Tostes, and lay them in a Platter, then put them in a dish with broth, and serve them out.

     The recipe ‘To still a cock for a weake body that is consumed’ he found infinitely amusing:

     Take a red Cock that is not too olde, and beate him to death, and when he is dead, fley him and quarter him in small peeces, and bruse the bones everye one of them. Then take roots of Fenell, persely, and succory, Violet leaves, and a good quantitye of Borage, put the Cock in an earthen pipkin and betweene everye quarter some rootes, hearbes, corance, whole mace, Anis seeds, being fine rubbed, and Licorice being scraped and sliced, and so fill your pipkin with al the quarters of the Cocke, put in a quarter of a pinte of Rosewater, a pinte of white wine, two or three Dates. If you put in a peece of golde, it will be the better, and halfe a pound of prunes, and lay a cover upon it, and stop it with dough, and set the pipkin in a pot of seething water, and so let it seethe twelve houres with a fire under the brasse pot that it standeth in, and the pot kept with licour twelve houres. When it hath sodden so many houres, then take out the pipkin, pul it open, and put the broth faire into a pot, give it unto the weak person morning and evening.

     In his search for new peculiarities, ever inclined to the tender, he bent his brow toward the smaller creatures. In Australia he tried fried witchety grubs, enjoying, in a morbid sort of way, the creamy texture of the inside as it contrasted with the crisp and delicate skin. Venezuela offered the roasted tarantula, which he imbibed daily throughout his three week stay – Six to a plate; he cracked them open like crabs and, with naked fingers, advanced the bits of delicate flesh between his parted lips . . . While touring China he sampled scorpion soup, and then, with the stingers removed, the same creatures raw, crudo, a kind of hyper-exotic sushi . . . The mopane worms of Botswana he ate while sitting on an old log, under the flaring sun, the only white man for a hundred miles round . . . In Mexico ant larvae and pupae called escamole (a step above any brutish caviar), as well as fried red agave worms; the very same used in the popular drink mescal . . . Mealworms. Stinkbugs. Creatures that crept under rocks, existed in roiling bundles of multiplexed consciousness, honey-combs of living, crawling matter to be sampled in his nomadic journey through decadence.

     Yet, as interesting as bugs were, they were hardly worthy of being labelled more than a passing fad; – insects, though varying in flavour and possessing more finesse than cows or sheep, he found to be rather limiting as a culinary experience.

     “I’m fed up with the posing of the contemporary gourmet,” he told his friend Rudy one day. “Members of my species seem to imagine that a sprig of spring onion carelessly applied atop a spoonful of undercooked polenta is something to rave about. There is a shop in the Village making a killing on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The chef minces around the kitchenette, spreads the jelly with a bit of a flourish, and the mediocrity are thrilled. The extent of their naivete amazes me. Americans are the only people on earth who pride themselves on being lowbrow.”

     Rudy smiled, showing his fine, white, somewhat canine teeth. “You can’t expect everyone to have an appetite for poached eel and insects you know.”

     “Oh, I am pretty much through with insects,” Arthur said with a sweep of his hand.

     “Not quite profligate enough for you?”

     “That is not the point. There is no need to project your pre-fabricated morals on me. I simply feel that I have exhausted that sphere of edibles. Frankly,” he murmured in a confidential tone, leaning forward. “Frankly, I don’t know where my next meal will come from. The beasts of the forest and field, the sea and river, as well as those that soar in the sky, have one by one passed through my digestive tract. I sometimes wonder if it is not time to revert to simplicity.”

     “Well, stick to bread and cheese and you can’t go wrong. The Spartans-“

     “Please, let’s not talk about the Spartans,” Arthur said, rising from his seat. “It is true, a lesser man might retire from the high temperature of battle, scamper off and lick their wounds – hunker down with a roll and a cube of mozzarella, an olive, even a sliver of undercooked beef. But not I.”

     Shih Hu, the ancient Hun ruler, would, for special occasions, have one of his wives beheaded, roasted and served to his guests, while the uncooked head was placed on a golden platter, and displayed, so that all could admire her beauty while they supped. – A far cry from the debased form of cannibalism practised by those of the Donner party, on that snowy California pass over one-hundred years ago.

     Yes, Arthur Day knew full well that the eating of one’s own kind was in disrepute, but he tended to the belief that it was something of a modern prejudice. After all, many a stately being had tasted the flesh of human. Richard the Lionhearted was said to have enjoyed curried head of Saracen, prepared with ‘saffron of good colour.’ Abaga, the great grandson of Genghis Khan, often partook of his enemies, boiled and minced with chives. Amongst the Tartars, human flesh was consumed with surprising regularity, the breast meat of young girls, reportedly of exquisite tenderness, being set aside for the repast of nobles. Countess Elizabeth de Báthory disposed of a total of six hundred virgins, both drinking and bathing in their blood in order to keep herself young. Louis XI, during his great illness, drank the blood of children as a tonic.

     Of course, that most unusual of tastes could hardly be said to be reserved for the aristocracy. While the Aztec king Montezuma dieted on the still beating hearts of his enemies, his people grew fat on their flesh, boiled and served with squash blossoms. The Raft of the Medusa, the subject of Géricault’s monumental painting, which resides in the Louvre, was a craft on which the famished ate each other. Maupassant, in one of his tales, spoke of French soldiers slaughtering and eating their most exhausted companions while on the march, without food, through the deserts of the Middle East. Jeremiah Johnson ate over two hundred livers of Crow Indians. Herodotus tells of the Padaeans, who fed on their own sick and aged. In Egypt, during the dawn of the thirteenth century, endophagy was rampant; boiled babies and roast youngsters became a part of everyday fare.

     Arthur, at the age of twenty-five, had tried virtually every variety of cuisine but the cooked meat of his own species. Due to the promulgation of western thought, a veritable infection, the custom of cannibalism has long since retreated. – The Maori of New Zealand are now told to enjoy the hogget imported by the invaders and, under no circumstances, to indulge in the excesses of their ancestors . . . The practice of men dining upon men seems to have been reduced to cases of mere necessity, such as in the episode of the plane crash of the 1972 Uruguayan rugby team, the surviving members, upon being rescued, stating that they had formed quite a taste for rancid brain and lung.

     If the sensible man is considered one who adapts himself to the customs of the time and place in which he lives, then Arthur Day could by no means be qualified as a sensible man. But the narrow lanes, crowded, filled with the bleating of the common fold, were not those by which he travelled. He preferred to go off the beaten path. In his view, the habits of society as a whole had been long decanted from the decorated glass vessels of old, into plastic, present-day jugs – far more utilitarian, able to be handled by clumsy and plebeian hands, but altogether lacking in taste, refinement and the subtle aura of opulence. If the current grouping of humanity expected him to play by its rules, it was sorely mistaken. As far as Arthur was concerned, the game was still his.

     One mild afternoon, as Rudy and he sat in a Soho coffee shop, the former said: “So, are you still in the heat – I mean: Are you still in the high temperature of battle?”

     “The high temperature?” Arthur plucked a zaletta from the plate before him, his eyes glancing at it with a certain measure of disdain. “Naturally.”

     “So what is it this time?” Rudy asked. “Camel’s heels; peacock’s tongues; flamingo brains?”

     “No,” (chewing, blinking.) “Ever since gorging myself on sow’s utters stuffed with pearls I have been totally disinclined towards the Emperial Roman diet.”

     Rudy lit a cigarette. He was unsure if his friend’s last remark was in jest.

     “So then,” he said, leaning back, a shaft of sunlight striking through the cloud of bluish smoke before him. “Where does your campaign lead you?” He was beginning to enjoy the conversation. “I have known you for a long time Arthur, and I can always tell when you are beginning to boil – when you’re just about at a cross-roads. You act so damn calm, more aloof than usual – Yes, you don’t like the cookie, I can tell . . . In any case: Now – You’re searching for your next meal?”

     “I have been making inquiries,” Arthur replied, dusting the powdered sugar from his fingertips with a napkin.

     “Inquiries?”

     “Yes. I leave in two days for Brazil.”

     “Brazil? What for?”

     “Ask me no questions and I will tell you no lies,” Arthur replied, removing a Churchill Hoy de Monterey from his jacket pocket.

      His inquiries led him to the Amazon of Brazil: The Uasca tribe, who dwelled along an offshoot of the Rio Tapauá, still, according to report, cooked every eighty-fifth inhabitant on the sixth full moon of the year. At that time, so went their tradition, the eating of human flesh was especially propitious. It rejuvenated the tribe for the coming seasons.

     He lost no time in making his way to Lábrea, where he hired an Indian guide to escort him on the more troublesome part of his journey. They went up the river in a canoe. During the night, an insect laid its eggs in his cheek, making it swell to the redness and roundness of an apple. He caught a spell of fever. The mosquitoes bit in abundance. He sipped gin and tonic from a canteen and stared into the green masses of undergrowth around him: branches wreathed with vines and snakes, the sponge like forest floor crawling with tens of millions of insects. Birds of all sorts hollered from the canopy above. Occasionally he caught sight of a monkey or sloth. Fish, tucuxi and manatees swam by the boat. 

     When he finally arrived at the village, a dirty patch of ground nestled amongst the dark forest, his body felt like a single raw wound, an aching pillar of flesh . . . If his estimations were correct the local feast would soon be commencing, as he had managed to arrive on the very day of that hallowed event . . . He had the guide inquire for him . . . The head villager, naked and serious, with coal black hair clipped as with the guidance of a bowl, nodded his head . . . He invited Arthur to join him in the repast, which was then boiling, and just hours away . . . Arthur ate his supper as the sun set and the sounds of the wild jungle filled the air . . . A woman with thin, pendulous breasts handed him a large leaf on which sat a kind of stewed flesh . . . He sampled . . . It was savoury . . . The villagers eyed him with great concern as he imbibed the strands of meat, and sucked on the gristle before him . . . He was offered a white liquid to drink . . . The flames of the fire danced, the liquor took effect, his stomach became unsettled.

     The next morning found him in a hut of mud and straw, a family of native Huascans piled up around him. He arose and, in the early morning light, approached the dead coals of the previous night’s fire. Bones sat in the ashes and dust. He picked one up and inspected it. In disgust he noted the femur’s construct; obviously that of some sort of primate, such as a howler monkey of the genus Alouatta, of the species palliata or seniculus.

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