Carolyn Purnell Ph.D.

Making Sense

Empirical Eating: 19th-Century Exotic Animal Consumption

Eating is a powerful way to know the world.

Posted Aug 25, 2020

Art by Vincent Tsui
Source: Art by Vincent Tsui

The English naturalist William Buckland (1784-1856) was well known for his unusual food choices. Toasted mice, crocodile, and battered hedgehog were only a few of the delights in his journals.    

Buckland was widely respected in the scientific community, and he was certainly not alone in his unusual eating practices. Through an arrangement with the Regent’s Park Zoo, Buckland’s son Frank had regular access to supplies of exotic meats, and guests to his home could expect such delicacies as elephant trunk soup, roast giraffe, or partially rotted panther. Charles Darwin was a member of the “Glutton Club” at Cambridge, a group that met weekly to seek out and eat “strange flesh,” and Charles Waterton, an independently wealthy naturalist, tried ant-bear, toucan, and howler monkey. The average nineteenth-century Briton was not eating kangaroo steamer or sea slugs, but exotic dining practices were fairly common among the educated elite.

It might be easy to chalk this up to eccentricity, extravagance, or a desire for (quite literal) conspicuous consumption, but these practices also had deeper roots. Exotic dinners became trendy at the intersection of two events: the opening of Regent’s Park Zoo (1828) and heightened worries about feeding the booming populations of cities like London.

As learned individuals across Britain grappled with vast amounts of new information about animals, naturalists sought inventive ways to experience and understand them. Eating became an important way for people to engage with new ideas about the animal kingdom and humanity’s relationship to it.

Acclimatization Efforts

For many naturalists, a moral interaction with an animal was one that maximized its utility to man. Instead of focusing on preservation, conservation, or habitat research, the early zoo served as a storehouse for animals who would eventually be dissected.

At that time, natural history focused on the use of taxidermied specimens and on osteology, the study of bones, which meant that meat was the least scientifically useful part of an animal. This meant that tons of flesh were literally being discarded from zoos yearly. In an attempt to make science more “moral,” some naturalists started scheming about how they could use exotic animal meat to solve food shortages. Reformers speculated that the introduction of more meat to the market might lower its cost, making it more attainable for the working poor.

As new horizons were opened by trade, colonization, and travel, many men of science saw no reason that there shouldn’t be a similarly increased range of fare.

Consequently, many naturalists dedicated themselves to acclimatization, or domesticating foreign species on British soil. Edward Smith Stanley, the thirteenth earl of Derby and a founding member of the Zoological Society, converted his park at Knowsley Hall into a sprawling menagerie with more than 345 mammals, most of which were intended for consumption. Japanese deer, American turkeys, Indian blackbuck antelopes, mouflons (wild European sheep), hog deer, and gazelles populated the grounds of Sir E. G. Loder’s Sussex park. The Duke and Duchess of Bedford introduced over 73 new species of ruminants to Woburn Abbey, and Walter Lionel Rothschild raised ostriches and kangaroos.

All over England, new species vied for the attention and tongues of the British people. Exotic animal eaters took charge of determining which species were most suitable for the English palate and pocketbook.

Empirical Eating

The prejudices of the English people were considered the largest obstacle to acclimatization efforts. After all, who wants to eat a capybara? But men of science claimed they had the perfect antidote for these deep-seated prejudices. They would be the objective arbiters of which exotic animals were “good” enough for widespread British consumption.

Nineteenth-century naturalists approached nature empirically, meaning that they believed all knowledge comes from our senses. Consequently, scientific knowledge relies on experimentation, observation, and experience. 

This perspective may not seem radically different from our own, but the Georgians and Victorians took the idea of “sensory experience” much further. According to Britons in the long eighteenth century, vision could deceive. An artifact that looked light could, in fact, be quite heavy, or a seemingly smooth surface could be rough to the touch. Therefore, to truly know an object, one had to use every sense. That included the sense of taste. Hence, William Buckland’s goal to eat “his way straight through the whole of animal creation.”

Seen in this light, exotic animal eating seems less like an eccentric project and more like a logically consistent pursuit of scientific truth. For example, William Buckland used his gustatory prowess to disprove what he felt to be Catholic superstition. When he heard about a cathedral boasting miraculous splotches of “martyr’s blood,” Buckland took matters into his own hands. He dropped and touched the flagstones with his tongue. “I can tell you what it is,” he proclaimed. “It is bat’s urine!”

For better or for worse, in order to identify the mysterious substance, Buckland must have known what bat urine tasted like. Rather than accepting pre-packaged laws or explanations, he relied on his tongue as a valid instrument for gathering knowledge and drawing conclusions about nature.

Today, we tend to think of taste as a very personal sense. Very rarely would we state dogmatically that a food has a flavor that everyone should agree upon. The closest we might come would be the pronouncement that something “tastes like chicken.” But for Buckland and his compatriots, an item’s flavor was “precise.” You could discern it, document it, and categorize it just like other scientific evidence. Taste wasn’t more or less subjective than any other sense.

When “empirical eaters” sat down to dinner, their curiosity was surely piqued. But many nineteenth-century naturalists also insisted on eating “nasty” things, simply to gain a fuller understanding of the world. Their tongues became objective judges of which foods would help Britain thrive.

It Tastes One to Know One

As you might suspect from modern English menus, many of these acclimatization projects were failures, with the notable exception of fish hatcheries. A lot of the animals were expensive to import, difficult to domesticate, or just not palatable to the general public, who were much less experimental with their dinners.

Nevertheless, this episode in empirical eating reveals a lot about the scientific mindset of the period. For Georgian and Victorian naturalists, one had to taste the world in order to know it fully, and the tongue was a valid scientific instrument.

References

Sofia Åkerberg, Knowledge and Pleasure at Regent’s Park: The Gardens of the Zoological Society of London During the Nineteenth Century (Umea: Department of Historical Studies, Umea University, 2001).

Augustus J.C. Hare, The Story of My Life, vol. 5 (London: George Allen, 1900).

William Tuckwell, Reminiscences of Oxford (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1908).