Thursday, December 9, 2010

Unmentionable Cuisine

         I have mentioned Unmentionable Cuisine by Calvin W. Schwabe (University Press of Virginia, 1979) several times previously, promising to write about it because, leaving aside its terrific title and eye-catching cover illustration,  it was written for the important purpose of teaching human beings, we who battled our way to the top of the food chain: 

a) Why we need to and how we can make the most out of our alimentary resources; and 

b) How, by doing so, we can improve our own and others' lives and reduce world hunger.

        The thrust of Dr. Schwabe's thesis is captured in the Swahili epigram that introduces the book's first chapter on Meat:   

        "Kila nyama nyama tu" -- 

        "Every meat is meat".

        Essentially, Dr. Schwabe, late Professor Emeritus at the University of California (Davis) School of Medicine and a founding member of its faculty, as well as the man widely regarded as “the father of veterinary epidemiolgy",  tells us is that it is more common than not for one culture to despise all or many aspects of another culture's food.

 Calvin W. Schwabe, DVM (1923- 2006)
        Our collective prejudices in this area originate in the ways we were brought up and socialized. Unfortunately, the food xenophobia that develops leads to situations where the surplus food resources of many cultures are wasted and, ultimately, to unnecessary occurrences of malnourishment and hunger.

        Based on broad and extensive travels undertaken in connection with his public health work and academic research, Dr. Schwabe seems to have learned most of what any person could possibly know about world cuisine and he lucidly presents a monumental amount of information in Unmentionable Cuisine’s 420 pages.  Although it is divided into five basic sections – Meat, Fowl, Fish, Shellfish and Non-flesh food of Animal Origins -- it is through exploring the twenty-one subchapters that the reader gleans and gains the range of Dr. Schwabe’s knowledge and imagination, taking a trip that sometimes seems "out of this world", although this is profoundly and entirely a work of earthbound, human ethnography and philosophy. 

International Space Station Photo, 2010

        Although Dr. Schwabe maintains that Unmentionable Cuisine is a book “about foods seldom eaten by Americans though standard fare for others” and that “it is meant to be a practical guide to help us and our children prepare for the not too distant day when the world’s growing food-population problem presses closer upon us and our overly restrictive eating habits become less tolerable”, its scope is really broader than this, and its genius lies in the fact that it can be read and its lessons adopted by every culture on an ecumenical international basis.  Every meat is meat.

        Like Patience Gray’s Honey From A Weed, Unmentionable Cuisine can enjoyably and profitably be read from “any direction.”  (It is, after all, basically a cookbook, not a novel.)  However, unlike Gray’s volume, the index is almost as riveting as the text and can be consulted for myriad reasons ranging from Twenty Questions/Trivial Pursuit-type exercises to the more usual research purposes.  It almost cheapens the book and lessens future readers’ (which I hope you will be) opportunities for personal index perusal (one of life’s great pleasures)  to mention such intriguing entries as “cod air bladder”,  “pig yrchins”,  “rice rat” and “locusts boiled with couscous”.  Just be aware that these are but the tip of the tip of a highly exotic linguistic and zoological iceberg comprising subjects and local customs likely to attract some and repel others. (Certain parts of Korean and Chinese cuisine will probably qualify for the latter description among most American readers and eaters.)  Schwabe’s enthusiasm and zeal for detail makes his presentation entertaining, but essentially this is all serious stuff clearly infused throughout with a respect for life and an awareness of the trade-offs and questionable acts individuals and cultures make to survive physically in this vale of tears.

Squab heart anticuchos from Cava Restaurant, Toronto

        Although I can be described as omnivorous and fairly adventurous as far as food and eating are concerned, I have my own personal biases, food phobias and reflexive barriers, which assert themselves predictably and often unexpectedly.   In the mid-1990s, a year after I was kidnapped in Mexico City, I needed to return to the D.F. on business for a week.  Because of my previous disaster, I remained in my hotel most evenings, which gave me a chance to sample their purportedly definitive “tequila library” and also to try out all their restaurants, including a new, almost academically formal dining room featuring traditional, but unusual,  items of native fare. When I arrived for dinner, my waiter, a handsome, thoughtful-looking young man greeted me with polite reserve but unmistakable enthusiasm.   He said he and the hotel were so pleased I had decided to visit them because it clearly showed my sophistication and love of Mexico.  (The last part, abduction incident notwithstanding, was accurate. Mexico is magic.)  He then began to detail the journey the chef’s set menu would take me on, a sort of regional culinary progression through Mexico’s history.  The plan, he said, was to begin with fried ants and grasshoppers, moving on then to some very special stewed worms, ultimately building to a piece de resistance sojourn among an assortment of lizards prepared in various ways. My enthusiasm quickly (and probably visibly) cooled and I’m embarrassed to say that I immediately inquired about the availability of something more “normal” for dinner (simultaneously requesting, I’m sure an item from the tequila library card catalogue).

Chinese snakehead stew

        Similarly, when we were in China during the September we became a family, I recall dining with Caroline and baby Jane (sitting in an umbrella stroller, sleepy, peaceful and happy) in a pleasant Thai restaurant in Guangchou.  An entire page of the large and varied menu devoted to their snake cuisine contained the assurance that if restaurant's offerings were found unappealing or insufficient, the chef would be happy to prepare for you “any kind and style of snake you like”.  On that occasion, I remember “settling” for a bean curd dish.  That was definitely the right choiceThe quality of bean curd in China is simply beyond compare.  

Rice Rat of Galapagos

        Finally, I will never eat an opossum.  One of my closest friends is an opossum.


         I think stories like these are part of the point of Dr. Schwabe’s book, which asks us to examine our personal behavior and prejudices specifically and carefully so that we can better understand and evaluate them in relation to the more transcendent problems of scarcity, misdistribution of resources and world hunger and, one can only hope, to try on that account to live more “intentionally”, as the current saying goes, always respecting life.  I was interested, but not entirely surprised, to learn that Dr. Schwabe was a Quaker and the author of Science, Spirit and Wholeness:  A Quaker Scientist’s Sense of God (Xlibris, 2004) and Quakerism and Science (Pendle Hill, 1999). Quakerism emphasizes living intentionally and seeing and respecting “that of God" in everyone. 

Rat cooked like chicken

        In view of the remarkable collection of recipes Dr. Schwabe assembled, I would clearly be remiss in not offering here several that appeal to me.  The first, a Malaysian shad roe recipe, is one I feel especially strongly about and I will prepare it as soon as spring returns and shad arrives in these parts.  I have never seen an Asian shad roe recipe before.

Shad roe curry 

Shad Roe Curry Side Dish (Telow terubok sambal) (Malaysian Indian)

This curry sambal is prepared by frying shad roe in oil and mixing it with finely chopped onions and chilis, a little white vinegar, lime juice and Worcestershire sauce.


Elvers and Eggs (England)

Fry elvers (eels less than 2 ½ in. long) in hot bacon fat until the transparent fish are white.  Stir in a few seasoned beaten eggs and stir until they are set.  Serve with crisp bacon.

Tripes frites

Fried Tripe (Tripes frites) France

Prepare a light batter (as for CHILIS RELLENOS), cutting in beaten egg whites at the end.  Dry the prepared tripe, cut it into squares, dip into the batter, and fry in very hot olive oil.  Serve with a hot sauce, such as sauce diable or mustard.

Rognoni trifolati

Kidneys Trifolati (Rognoni trifolati) Italy

Slice kidneys as thinly as possible.  Brown a clove of garlic in olive oil.  Add the kidneys, salt and pepper and brown them over high heat.  Add some butter and chopped anchovy fillets and heat through.  Garnish with chopped parsley and lemon wedges.


        I cannot recommend Unmentionable Cuisine highly enough and can do no more than hint at the treasure of information and the meticulous research, entertainingly and masterfully imparted, it contains.   It is in print, easily available and would make an impressive and memorable Christmas gift.

        I can easily imagine some readers of Unmentionable Cuisine reacting to it by broadening their palates as Dr. Schwabe urges. I can imagine others possibly making the decision that it is the right time to become vegetarian, vegan or make other limiting (although I'm not sure that is the right word, even if it involves fasting) changes in their eating regimen.  The important thing is not to sleepwalk through life, to realize that everything is a choice and that choices have consequences.  I cannot imagine anyone remaining indifferent to Dr. Schwabe’s achievement, however.

"Italy is a boot in the Atlas" -- Ted Berrigan, "Tambourine Life"


  1. Curtis, again, as often, a fine piece of Atlassian length and gadfly charm. One might be, of course, curious about many things, but I will pass by the relatively tame tantalations of being kidnapped in Mexico (a mortal threat), a trip in China (my own second career), the culturally based loathings that so permeate food ( the secret of world peace) or even the mention of the peripatetic Ted Berrigan (the calmest of Frank O'hara epigoni ) to ask, or to wonder about how you and your wife came to have a child--like Abraham and Co.--at the point in your life when even thorougly occucentric individuals such as Roger Netzer or myself are seeing the children enter college or the work force, you have a NEW CHILD . . .wow! (The best in teethings and car seat allignments to you and your wife.)

  2. Hi. Send me your email address at and I can discourse on the child-parent part in some detail. Janie's 13 now. Our abduction occurred in December 1996 and Jane came into our lives in September 1998. I'm glad you liked the piece. Unmentionable Cuisine is a gem of a book and I'm wondering whether the late Calvin Schwabe had any association with our Quaker Meeting, Cornwall Monthly Meeting in Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY, or whether Quakerism was a later development in his life. I'll be very interested to learn about your China work. Our major ongoing involvement with China consists of an annual reunion with the families we traveled with (in Wuhan and Guangchou) during our journey and eating dim sum. An old friend has urged me to write about our Mexico City ordeal, but it's the sort of thing that's easier to talk about with friends than to write about. It's a terrible, terrible thing when it happens, but we're ok, and it's not an uncommon story down there. Still, the details are both shocking and dispiriting. Curtis