What Does it Taste Like? An Account of Cannibalism

One summer morning at a local café I listened to a young Vietnamese-American neighbor of mine tell me the harrowing tale of her life. She was born in Saigon, and when the south collapsed her family fled the advancing North Vietnamese, becoming “boat people.” During a terrifying sea journey to Malaysia the engines failed twice and they drifted for days.

Then, very matter-of factly, she let it slip. “My parents ate people, you know. The old and weak died and the others cut them up and cooked them. That’s how they survived.”

Astonished at how benign my life had been thus far by comparison, I found myself asking “What did it taste like?” Of course, she didn’t know. “I was too young to have any. They gave me baby food, and my mother and father won’t talk about it. Never.”

However, many others have known the taste. It is accepted by paleontologists that our slightly crude cousin Homo neanderthalensis was a cannibal based on the evidence of split human shin bones found in southern European caves. But we’re Homo sapiens, an altogether brainier, better behaved hominid, surely. Take the past residents of Fiji, Homo sapiens all. They certainly once knew—fearful nineteenth century explorers called Fiji the “Cannibal Isles” and gave it a wide berth. The present-day Korowai tribe of Papua New Guinea may know. It wasn’t until 1970 that these remote hunter gatherers were aware of any other humans besides themselves. They were likely eating tribal members convicted of witchcraft—as well as enemy warriors—as little as a generation ago.

Sadly, among these willing cannibals was no Brillat-Savarin that we know of, no Balzac able to titillate the gastronomic cortex by describing the gourmet delights of human flesh. Among history’s unwilling eaters of human flesh, the Jamestown settlers were understandably squeamish about detailing their meals during “the starving time” in the winter of 1609. Likewise, the survivors of the man-made Ukrainian famine of the 1930s and the tens of millions of Chinese who endured Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s were somewhat naturally disinclined to dwell on the question of the taste of those relatives and neighbors whom they were forced, in desperation, to ingest.

Some gifted writers have alighted on the topic. Montaigne fantasized in high style about the Tupinamba of Brazil who made jolly feasts out of their enemies conquered in war;

Melville wondered whether the peaceful communistic Typee valley people of Polynesia, among whom he had dwelt, could, as was claimed at the time, be cannibals, deciding that there was no evidence for the accusation, and that these good folk had been traduced by colonialist prejudice; and the Brothers Grimm had their wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel lay in wait for stray children in the forest, and when one fell into her hungry clutches she killed it, cooked it, and ate it. None of these writers, however, indulge us with so much as a hint as to the gustatory delights or otherwise of human flesh, because unsurprisingly none of them had a clue.

So what does it taste like? “Like good veal” wrote journalist William Seabrook in 1931. A New York Times correspondent heavily under the influence of the English occultist and black magician Aleister “The Great Beast” Crowley, Seabrook obtained what he vaguely described as a “hunk of human flesh” stolen from the local morgue by a medical student friend of his from the body of a young man killed in a Paris auto accident. Like any reporter willing to break with convention for a good story, the intrepid American took it home, roasted it, and washed it down with Medoc. “It was mild, good meat” he declared.

It somehow seems quite natural that it was once again in Paris, the self-proclaimed capital of gastronomy, the city where Marie-Antonin Carême, the “King of Cooking,” and Auguste Escoffier, his acolyte, once ruled, that another feast of human flesh led to the most detailed account of people eating on record.

It had been half a century since Seabrook’s stunt. In the summer of 1981, a thirty-two-year-old Japanese man named Issei Sagawa, a literature major studying in Paris for his doctorate, tucked into a meal consisting of body parts cut from the corpse of a female Dutch exchange student, a colleague of his at the Sorbonne whom he had murdered in his apartment the day before. “Human meat is extremely tasty,” he told Vice magazine in 2009. The interview must rank as a first in the sordid annals of gutter journalism. Never before had a cannibal talked. And he, ever the lit major, talked up a highly articulate storm: “George Battaille believed that the kiss is beginning of cannibalism—and I agree.”

He was not bashful, Mr. Sagawa. What does it taste like? “It’s widely believed that human meat doesn’t taste good” he carefully explained. “In fact it’s the tastiest of all meats…Odorless, without a hint of gameyness”

And which is the choicest cut? he was asked.  “The neck”, he said with a gleam.

How was such an interview with a true life Hannibal Lecter allowed? After he was spotted trying to dump his victim’s remains in a lake in the Bois de Boulogne following his feast, Sagawa was arrested. Upon examination by psychologists he was declared insane and unfit to stand trial. The French authorities incarcerated him in an institution for the criminally insane, but his rich father hired the best attorneys money could buy and got him released. Sagawa was returned to Tokyo where the authorities tried to prosecute him for murder. The French, however, by refusing to hand over vital evidence to a foreign jurisdiction, forced the hand of the Japanese judiciary. In 1986 all charges had to be dropped and, from that day to this Issei Sagawa has been a free man.

How does he explain himself? Quite matter-of-factly. Weak and small from the moment he was born, he became obsessed as a teenager with beautiful, tall women like Grace Kelly who were physically his opposite. “I was short and ugly and sought out women like that. Eventually I began feeling a strong desire to bite into them…My cannibalistic urge is a sort of sexual appetite.”

According to the interview, after the murder Sagawa was still not cured of his addiction. “I think about wanting to eat someone again before I die,” he told Vice. This time I’d like to eat a Japanese woman. As far as preparing the meat, I think sukiyaki or shabu shabu [Japanese hot pots] may be the way to go.” As a “celebrity cannibal,” he has become a gourmet-about-town in Tokyo, the city with the most three-star establishments in the world, writing restaurant reviews for the Japanese magazine Spa.

What Does it Taste Like? An Account of Cannibalism

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