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Of battered mice and zoophagous men

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In February (2009), “Merlin” wrote about “phylum feasts” — celebrations held on Charles Darwin’s birthday at which participants eat meals comprising as many different organisms as possible (PJ, 7 February 2009, p142).

Reading the piece brought to mind a father and son who devoted much of their lives to eating as many animal species as they could, all in the name of science. The habit has been given the name zoophagy.

The father who engaged in this practice was William Buckland (1784–1856), a geologist and palaentologist famous for writing the first full account of a fossil dinosaur. The son was Francis (Frank) Trevelyan Buckland (1826–80), a surgeon, zoologist and popular author.

Battered mouseWilliam Buckland delighted in offering rare culinary delights to his family and dinner guests at his Oxfordshire home. Among dishes reported to have been served are mice in batter, squirrel pie, horse’s tongue, ostrich, panther and crocodile.

According to one of his acquaintances, Buckland visited Nuneham House in Oxfordshire to inspect a silver casket in which was preserved the heart of a French king, said to be Louis XIV. Before anyone could stop him, he helped himself to the relic and gobbled it down.

For a while, Buckland lived in London and was a regular visitor to London Zoo, where he would sample the flesh of any exotic animal that died. It is said that on one occasion he returned to London after a holiday to discover that a leopard had died and been buried. So he dug it up so that he could research the flavour of leopard meat.     

Not everything he consumed turned out to be palatable. He declared that the most distasteful items he had eaten were bluebottles and moles. And his son complained of the “horribly bitter” taste of earwigs.

Soon after William’s death, Frank set up the Acclimatisation Society to further the search for new foods. In 1862 he treated 100 guests to a meal of Japanese sea slug, kangaroo and three types of South American bird — the guan, the curassow and the Honduras turkey.

Personally I have dared to taste nothing more exotic than snails, which I found disappointingly bland. You certainly will not find me attempting to emulate the Bucklands.

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