Charles Darwin and the exotic food clubs of the 19th century

“[to consume] birds and beasts which were before unknown to human palate.” — Charles Darwin on the Glutton Club

Coming together over food has been something humanity has done since the beginning. In the grand scheme of things, at least from a western perspective, nothing is off limits when it comes to our dining habits. But whether through availability, squeamishness or ethical issues there are a great many food stuffs that various peoples, for whatever reason, across the world simply don’t eat.

In the past though, three clubs have sort to change that. The Glutton Club, the Acclimatisation Society and the Ichthyophagous Club. The mantra of these three clubs was essentially to sample all the world had to offer in terms of foods. It led to some truly bizarre dining experiences.

The Glutton Club

First, and perhaps most famously, the Glutton Club. Compared to later entries, the tastes of the Glutton Club can seem positively mundane, but it is distinguished by its most famous member — Charles Darwin.

Darwin was apparently an abysmal student for much of time studying at Cambridge, preferring instead to sample ‘strange flesh’. The club is known to have dined on hawk and bittern (a kind of bird, the loudest in Britain in fact). They are said to have lost their appetites after a time though, following a particularly nasty dining experience when eating a brown owl. The stringy meat put many of the club members off and the club seems to have developed a less exotic palette as a result.

Darwin wouldn’t abandon his fascination with ‘strange flesh’ during his travels aboard on the HMS Beagle either. He purportedly ate armadillos and an unknown but large (20lbs/9kg) rodent, the latter of which he found particularly delicious.

The Lesser Rhea

Controversially, for Christmas diner in 1833, he also ate a Rhea, a large, flightless bird native to Patagonia and Altiplano. While they are not considered endangered today, in Darwin’s own time, they were increasingly rare. He writes in his own journal that once he realised what he was eating, he leapt back from the table and tried to preserve the Rhea for study. But whether he wrote this dramatic retelling of the events, concerned with his legacy, knowing the eyes of history might one day fall on him, or if the reaction was genuine remains to be seen.

Ichthyophagous Club

“there are as good fish in the sea as have ever been put in the frying-pan” — founders of the Ichthyophagous Club.

In New York city in 1880, an eccentric group of journalists, writers, food executives and fisherman came together to create the Ichthyophagous Club. While the name may sound impressive, the less pretentious ‘fish-eating club’ will tell you far more about their practices.

Unlike the Glutton Club, the concerns of the founders seem to have been somewhat philanthropic. They wanted to introduce the US to vast array of seafood available to them, rather than the staples like cod, herring, tuna and salmon that even to this day make up the vast majority of our fish consumption. The idea of diversifying the food source may seem like a uniquely modern one, but the Ichthyophagous Club shows that people were considering it even then. Perhaps it’s less surprising when we consider that this was still a time when monocultures didn’t dominate our food sources.

The menu of the Ichthyophagous Club’s , which ran from 1880–1887, featured some particularly exotic offerings. These included: moonfish, sea robin fish, lamprey eels, dogfish shark, dolphin steaks, manatee fillets, sea spider crab, alligator steaks and starfish bisque.

Skate

To some degree, the Ichthyophagous Club, whose actions were heavily reported on, particularly by the New York Times, did influence the US palette. It’s credited with introducing the then oddities of skate and squid to the average American.

Acclimatisation Society

For a more damaging ‘exotic food club’ we need look no further than the final entrant, Acclimatisation Society. Not strictly a food club, the Acclimatisation Society was built on the notion that species introduced into new eco-systems would acclimatise to them, thus enriching the environment and the lives of the creatures and people living there.

This kind of forced adjustment of animals in new environments was intimately tied up with the Victorian idea of colonialism. Not only did they believe they could enforce their values on the peoples they conquered, but also change their environment. This, coupled with homesick Europeans craving familiarity, led to Acclimatisation Societies in Britain and France, the two largest imperial powers of the day.

One of the strongest opponents of this forced was none other than Charles Darwin, but the times moved faster than he could, and a great many species were exported to the colonies, especially Australia and New Zealand. The introduction of rabbits would become a particular problem in Australia, as would the introduction of sparrows to the US, were they displaced many native birds. Today we would call this practice ‘introducing invasive species’, but in the Acclimatisation Society’s time it wasn’t fully understood.

Frank Buckland 

While ideas of empire certainly influenced many in the movement, one man, Francis Trevelyan Buckland, better known as Frank Buckland, seems to have fixated on the opportunities for consuming exotic meats. The Oxford Professor is famous for his palette, which led him toward such items as: sea slugs, kangaroo, guan, curassow, boiled elephant trunk, rhino pie, porpoise heads and stewed moles. He seemed to have learned this practice from his father who is known to have dined on battered mice, ostriches, horse tongue and squirrel pie.

Evidently, Frank Buckland used his position as head of a movement, that in and of itself did far more harm than good, to sample everything and anything the world had on offer.

While eating rare animals has largely gone the way of the dodo (pun intended), there are still a great many places that consume rare and endangered animals, whether medicinally or for their meat. Perhaps there is an argument in reducing our consumption of the staple meats many of us eat on an almost daily basis. It easy to see with modern trade in bush meat how this can be exploited though, ultimately at the cost of the species themselves. Maybe it’s for the best then if the exotic tastes of Charles Darwin and the food clubs of the 19th century stay as a relic of a more decadent age.

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