I’ve often described myself as a dilettante, someone who flits from one thing to another. It implied a certain triviality, an absence of depth. But I realize it’s not what the French would call le mot juste. A more accurate term might be “serial monomaniac.”
I tend to become completely engrossed in one subject after another. When the subject was Greek mythology, I spent months working my way through the Loeb Classical Library—looking for juicier details than I’d found in Bullfinch or Hamilton. Fly fishing led to a fascination with entomology. Reading about the history of nuclear physics led to nothing in particular—other than learning the painful truth that most people have no interest in the subject. Planting a few herbs led to so much reading that I wound up writing two books on the subject.
And discovering that writing books is a great way to investigate new subjects.
I encountered a paragraph in one of Margaret Visser’s books that casually mentioned cannibals. That led to reading a mountain of books on the subject (and heap Pelion upon Ossa, by adding two of my own to the heap).
Always fascinated with thinking about thinking, I’ve lately been investigating the mechanics of the subject. I’m simultaneously reading three different books that deal with neurophysiology. What goes on in our brains is, in the end, what makes us who we are—and what could be more egotistical than the search for ourselves there?
Today’s reading from the scriptures touches on two—seemingly unrelated—examples of my serial monomania. It’s an excerpt from one of two books on which I collaborated with historian Ken Albala. Human Cuisine is a collection of stories, poems, a play, as well as silly recipes about cannibalism. This particular story is narrated by a fictional food critic, and it’s about… well you’ll see.
Peter “Toots” Wheat
Frankly—when the invitation arrived—I didn’t know what to think of it.
It was probably sent to me because I’d been writing about cannibalism for a decade or so—and a lot of people knew it. Still, it was a total surprise when I opened the envelope. I mean, really, how often is one invited to join with like-minded individuals to partake in the eating of a human brain—let alone a famous brain?
Not, of course, Einstein’s brain—that had turned up recently but, since it had been divided into very small pieces and distributed to scientists around the world, it wasn’t likely to be featured as the main attraction for a dinner party. No, this was something very different.
The invitation was printed on hand-made rag paper—not ostentatiously thick—with simple, but (if you can forgive the expression) tasteful type. Garamond italic, I think—yes, I remember noticing that the lowercase “h” was almost closed, making the name of the featured entrée look like “Isbi’s Brain,” which only added to the confusion of the moment. But there it was:
You are cordially invited
to participate in a singular dining experience,
featuring Sauté of Ishi’s Brain
and a special libation created for the occasion.
Sunday, the 13th of September,
at the former estate of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
My first thought was that it was a prank.
I had published an account of the time when Fairbanks and Daisy Fellowes served an elegant meal of grilled human flesh to William Bueller Seabrook. It took place at a chateau near Paris, in 1932—after the publication of the book, Jungle Ways, in which Seabrook gave an account of his own cannibal experiences in West Africa.
The invitation seemed too perfect, too specifically attuned to my own rather outré tastes, to be true. However, so many people have asked me if I would ever try human flesh that I felt I was obliged to, at the very least, follow up on the invitation. When I called to confirm, I discovered that the event was exactly as stated.
You remember who Ishi was?
In 1911, in Oroville, California, a fifty-year-old Indian walked out of the hills—where he had been living in the Stone Age—and into a modern world that was incomprehensible to him. He was the last surviving member of his tribe and had never acquired even the simplest trappings of modern society. Needless to say, he became the darling of anthropologists. He lived out the remaining five years of his life as a kind of living specimen—in a museum, in fact—constantly probed and prodded by all kinds of scientists, from anatomists to linguists. When he died, even his brain was preserved for future study. At the time, no one could have guessed that Ishi’s final examination would be carried out by an assembly of gastronomes.
I had plenty of reasons to turn down the invitation. The idea—of eating the brain of this dead Indian was—rather like the practice of cannibalism itself: simultaneously disgusting and attractive.
Besides, like most Americans, I was a bit squeamish about eating organ meats—and, since the discovery of Kuru disease among the Foré of Papua, I had decided to avoid eating nerve tissue of any animal. Mad cow disease, wasting disease in deer and elk, scrapie in sheep—these were all good reasons to be prudent about certain kinds of culinary adventures. However, I deduced that California’s Sierras were a long way from New Guinea, and Ishi was the last survivor of the Yahi—a tribe that had no history of eating human flesh—so there was probably not much risk.
My researches had told me that the brain was one of the most desirable portions of the body for ancient cannibals. Hearts were often eaten, for strength by warriors, and the buttocks—described as “the big meat,” by some natives of Vanuatu—were eaten first by starving ship-wreck victims. However, among the remains of cannibal feasts, scorched skulls—used both as cooking pot and serving dish—indicate the popularity of the organ of reason as a culinary treat. The Fijians even made a special four-pronged wooden fork, the tines of which could be compressed to fit through the foramen magnum at the base of the skull—which allowed the fat-rich meat to be pulled through without affecting the collectability of the empty receptacle. Speaking of collectability, the gift shop of the Cannibal Museum, in Fiji, sells these forks to tourists. In fact, one of them stands—prongs upward—in a jar on my desk. It’s just a conversation starter (or stopper—depending, naturally, on who’s visiting my office), and I’m reasonably certain that it has never been used for its original intended purpose.
But I was telling you about what was going on in my own brain in response to the invitation. Weighing the risks of contracting some form of mind-destroying spongiform encephalopathy against the opportunity to experience a civilized version of an ancient culinary treat, I decided that I would be a fool not to attend the unusual soirée.
However, the risk of disease was not the only thing troubling me. There was the question of the preservation of Ishi’s brain. It was, after all, essentially potted meat of a very rare and delicate type. I had to assume that formaldehyde was not used, or the “specimen”—or “main ingredient”—would have lost all culinary value in the ninety years or so that had passed since it was placed in its jar. What would be the point of eating something—no matter how rare—if it had lost its most significant culinary properties?
It would be like drinking a bottle of Haut-Brion from Thomas Jefferson’s cellar, reduced by age to a vinegary sludge of ancient tannins and blackened pigment. Drinking such wine has little to do with taste, but much to do with conspicuous consumption. Better to leave some things in their bottles.
On the other hand, there would be only one chance to try this particular dish. Imagine having been given the chance to taste the last suprême of Passenger Pigeon—or rôti of Irish Elk or entrecôte of Mastodon. Wouldn’t I forever regret the lost opportunity?
Then again, poor Ishi had been reduced to being a specimen, little more than an object for the curiosity of rich white men. Wasn’t this just a more extreme version of that curiosity? Cannibals have often targeted the Other for dinner (or, alternatively, the charge of cannibalism has been used, by non-cannibals, to define the Other as somehow less human than civilized folk—which served as a wonderfully effective justification for colonial slavery or extermination of native peoples). Let’s face it—the act of ingestion makes an object of another person. Was this something to which I wanted to be a party? Could there be a more blatant example of the destruction of native America—by the descendants of white Europeans—than a formal dinner party at which the last remnant of an extinct tribe is served as the pièce de résistance?
Still, as Seabrook needed to fully understand “the precise thing that makes a cannibal a cannibal,” so did I. If I were ever to be taken seriously as a student of cannibalism, wouldn’t I have to attend this dinner?
So, after all the back-and-forth arguments, I decided that I would attend the dinner, After all, I could always decide—at the last minute—not to taste Ishi’s last remains.
At the appointed hour, I arrived at the former Fairbanks estate—still uncertain, in my mind, about how, or if, I was to proceed, but determined to keep an open mind about the main event. I was also curious to see who else was invited.
The estate itself was ever-so-slightly run down, but the elegance of its former days was still evident—in its Old California architectural details, luxuriously mature gardens, and liveried servants. I was led through a hall lined with Moorish tiles to a huge dining room—with a fireplace that covered most of the back wall, a black heavily-carved oaken table set with crystal and softly gleaming silver, and twelve arm-chairs, in the same carved oak, but with leather-covered seats.
Ten men were standing before the fireplace, chatting—I thought, ‘though I might have been projecting a bit—a little nervously. I recognized a couple of writers and was introduced to an odd mixture of anthropologists, historians, an artist, a sociologist, an explorer, and even an economist. If one of these men was our host, no one informed me of the fact. I was told that one more guest was expected—a newspaper advice columnist who attempted to answer readers’ everyday ethical problems.
It amused me to imagine that such a columnist might still be struggling with the same concerns that had plagued me—if there was ever a list of ethical conundrums, this had to be near the top. Perhaps I was right, since—as it turned out—he never showed up. Perhaps the chance to taste such a rare dish was not enough—for him, unlike the rest of us—to outweigh the ethical conflicts occasioned by the invitation’s arrival. Perhaps his failure to RSVP was a smaller ethical lapse that got lost among all the other philosophical complexities surrounding this event.
It is possible to overthink some situations—and this might well have been one of them.
The butler appeared—in that oddly silent manner that butlers have, a kind of shimmering emergence that suggests that butlers can spontaneously condense out of thin air, but wouldn’t think of intruding until needed—and thanked us for coming. He suggested that, as some of us had traveled some distance, we might care for an aperitif—and he motioned us in the direction of a door to the adjoining library.
On another table, inside—much like the dining table already described, but quite a bit smaller—stood a dozen martini glasses and several silver cocktail shakers, their lightly-misted exteriors implying icy contents. The party moved—in erratic little jerks—towards the table, apparently torn between their conflicting desires to appear nonchalant while really, really, needing those drinks.
The butler, who had somehow managed to get to the table ahead of the thirsty mob, poured the needed libations. Someone suggested a toast to the host—whomever he or she might be—who had brought us all together that evening. We all looked around, but as no one admitted being the host, we simply toasted (so to speak) Ishi, and took the first gulp of our martinis.
Once past that first life-saving swallow, we sipped the rest of our drinks in a less impetuous manner. The cocktails were clearly not made with gin—their flavor suggested high-powered neutral spirits, somewhat vodka-like but softened slightly, and without the usual trace of vermouth. We looked at each other, quizzically, saw that no answer was immediately forthcoming, then turned to the butler.
He stood, silently of course, behind his table, with only the barest hint of an expression on his face—an expression, by the way, which none of us could have identified at the time. He said nothing until directly queried, at which point he took a deep breath, and answered.
“As you all know, this evening’s meal will feature a rather rare—no, unique—dining experience. Your host, sensitive to the uncommon nature of tonight’s ingredient, wanted to make sure that no portion was wasted. Additionally, as the anthropologist in your party can explain better than can I, some tribes of cannibals—endocannibals, yes?—believe that, in consuming the remains of their deceased relatives, some essence of the dearly departed is literally kept ‘in the family.’ It was decided, early in the planning of this evening’s entertainment, to make use of every part of ‘the guest of honor.’ In place of vodka, tonight’s spirit of preference is the pure ethyl alcohol in which Ishi’s brain has marinated for nearly a century.”
There was almost whistling “whoosh!” sound—in unintentional eleven-part harmony—as all the guests inhaled suddenly through nearly clenched teeth.
Some of the men started to set their glasses down, thought better of it, then tasted the drink again, in a more meditative manner. The explorer laughed, a little too heartily perhaps, and tossed back the remains of his cocktail. The sociologist did place his glass on the table—but it was nearly empty anyway. He merely watched as the others fiddled with their glasses while exchanging the usual jokes about cannibalism. He noticed that I was watching him, and whispered that the others were beginning to form into two groups. It didn’t surprise him that the academics stood together—but the fact that the explorer fit in with the artsy types struck him as unusual.
After a while, the butler returned to tell us that dinner was about to be served. We returned to the original room, where an appetizer course had been placed atop the elegant china. I was curious to see how our host approached the dinner, thematically.
The meal might feature rare and unusual dishes—such as ortolan or coelacanth—to respect the uniqueness of the main course. It could—’though I hoped it wouldn’t—be designed to test our squeamishness thresholds, gradually building from one very creepy dish to another. I didn’t want to believe that this entire meal might be little more than an upscale version of Fear Factor. Since the portion size of the main course would be small (a one-and-a-half-pound brain would yield only two ounces, uncooked weight, per person), the meal might consist of a series of tiny courses, such as tapas, dim sum, and sushi, the ultimate in cuisine minceur. Brain (at least the non-human one I’d tried before) does not have much in the way of flavor and texture—it’s a richer, carnivore’s, version of tofu—so I didn’t expect the dishes preceding it to be so spicy or deeply-flavored that they would lessen the impact of the main course. The meal could be historically based—in which case, it might reflect the dining habits of Californians in 1916, or possibly the foods that Ishi himself might have eaten. This last, while it had a certain Alice-Waters-eat-locally charm, was less appealing when one considers the fact that Ishi was starving when he risked leaving the Sierras to go to a place where—based on what he knew had happened to the rest of his people—he assumed he would be killed.
I hoped that the appetizer course would provide an answer to my thematic questions. The contents of the small plate did not, however, resolve much for me. It was a tiny hard-boiled quail’s egg, topped with a few grains of osetra caviar. The appetizer was rare—but not exceedingly so (osetra is not even the highest quality of caviar—but it may have been chosen for its size, which was better proportioned to the quail egg). The ingredients could have been from California (but probably weren’t). Ishi could have eaten quail eggs, but I doubted that he ever encountered sturgeon in the streams of the Sierras—and wealthy Californians could have served an appetizer like that, but I’d have to look that up to know for sure. The dish was tiny—but it was only an appetizer, after all. It was a relief to see that the Fear Factor approach was not in evidence.
The white-gloved servants cleared the appetizer plates, then the butler signaled for the soup tureen to be brought in. Into each tiny crystal bowl—which I thought unusual for soup—a ladleful of sparkling clear Consommé de Perdreau was poured, garnished with a tiny shaving of white truffle in the form of an arrowhead. The shape—clearly meant as an allusion to Ishi’s skills as a flint-napper—was a little too obviously camp for my taste, but the Tuscan truffle imparted a delicate but sensuous perfume to the soup that was, itself, marvelously subtle, with delicate color, absolute clarity, and a decadently rich mouth-feel.
I was so taken with the soup that it took me a while to remember that I was looking for evidence of a thematic pattern. The soup was composed of rare, but not ridiculously rare, ingredients—certainly not local ones, at least. It might have been part of an elegant meal in the teens of the last century, but we can be certain that Ishi never savored anything like it. I was reassured that, once again, there was nothing about the soup course that might generate feelings of disgust in any of us.
After the soup plates and bouillon spoons were removed—and a fish fork added to the elegant cutlery at each place setting—the butler poured the first wine, a Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs from Calistoga. Servers, in pairs, then pooled reduced cream and sliced morels onto our plates, topped by a poached fillet of wild golden trout. A deep green sprig of watercress rested beside the pink fillet, its mildly peppery crunch playing against the unctuous combination of fish, cream, and wild mushrooms. This was the first substantial course of the meal, effectively eliminating the cuisine minceur theme. All the ingredients were relatively local, though fairly rare. Golden trout, found only in the icy streams of the Sierra Nevadas, are wild—not farm-raised like those bland and soft-textured rainbows found in grocery stores and mediocre restaurants—and can only be had, legally, by those willing to fish for them. The meal might have been served, historically, and Ishi would have had access to all its components, except for the cream. Only a determined fish- (or mushroom-) hater could have found anything objectionable in that course.
Once again, the plates and used silver were removed, and again the butler poured the new wine. I was expecting, as the meat course was next, a red—perhaps, considering the delicate nature of the meat, a lighter red; a pinot noir or, possibly, one of the lighter zinfandels—but I was mistaken. The choice this time was another Schramsberg sparkler—Cuvée de Pinot—a delicate pink wine with a little more body than the Blanc de Blancs, and only the slightest hint of fruit.
At a nod from the butler, plated entrées were placed before each of us at the table. In unison, the servers took a step back and stood behind each chair.
Fanned out, like the rays of the setting sun (or, as one the guests quipped, a war bonnet’s feathers) were leaves of Belgian endive. At the base of each leaf, a small dollop of Sauce Romesco sat atop a thin slice of Meyer lemon. These glowing dots peeked out from behind a cloud-shaped half-inch-thick transverse slice of buttery golden-brown brain. The two lobes were clearly visible, as were the distinctive furrows. Nothing about this dish was intended to hide its essential nature.
No one moved.
No one spoke (even the wise guy who had made the war bonnet comment was silent).
I don’t know what others were doing then, there was only the plate before me. I cut off a tiny piece from the edge—thinking, “this is the gray matter; this is the part that held Ishi’s conscious thoughts; this is the part that separates humans from the lower animals; this is us.”
It was a little firmer than I expected. Usually, brains are poached in court bouillon, to firm them, so they can be sliced for the final cooking—but this required no preparatory firming. I wondered, if like other muscles, the brain gets tougher and more flavorful through repeated use—then realized that, much as we don’t like to admit it, animals have to use their brains too (even if we use them for different purposes).
Suddenly, the reason for the brain’s texture was obvious: it was pickled! Ninety years in two-hundred proof alcohol had denatured the protein—and, no doubt, lowered its water content—creating a firm cheese-like texture.
I sniffed the bit on my fork: there were no unseemly aromas—certainly no formaldehyde—a trifle winy (no doubt from the pickling), but the primary scent was of browned meat and butter.
I put it in my mouth.
The first taste sensation was that of warm butter, followed by a little saltiness, some pepper, and the savoriness of browned meat. I chewed. It was slightly crispy on the outside, and chewy on the inside—rather like cheap over-cooked veal cutlets, but without their fibrous quality. The browned outside reinforced the veal cutlet impression, but the smoothness of the interior reminded me more of low-fat mozzarella; it almost squeaked a little when I bit into it.
I dipped the second piece in some of Romesco. I hadn’t wanted anything to disguise the taste of the meat at first but now wanted to see if there was any reason for choosing the sauce—beyond its nod to California’s Spanish heritage. It was a big improvement. Typically served with grilled chicken or fish, the garlicky red pepper, tomato, and almond paste worked beautifully with the fat buttery taste of the meat. Likewise, the bitter endive leaves worked a kind of culinary counterpoint against the roundness of the other flavors. A sip of the Schramsberg cleared the palate so that I could go back and taste everything anew.
I looked up, and saw that everyone else was eating—some pensively, some hurriedly—but no one was gagging, no one had pushed away from the table, no one was gulping wine defensively. I finished eating everything on my plate, and sat back in my heavy oaken chair, to digest—both the meal and the experience.
There was a salad course and dessert, but I don’t remember anything noteworthy about them.
I recalled my earlier determination to discover an underlying pattern in the meal’s structure. I noted that the main course was unusual (indeed, it would be hard to imagine a less common main ingredient). It was small and somewhat precious in its presentation, as befitted its rarity. It was certainly local and historical in its ingredients and allusions. What amazed me was the complete lack of Fear Factor responses it could have generated, but didn’t.
Of course, we were way past that once the butler served his surprise cocktails at the beginning of the evening—but the real reason I had experienced no wave of revulsion was the discovery that Ishi’s brain was just meat. There was nothing especially noteworthy about it, beyond what was done with it in the kitchen—just like everything else on the menu.
Peter “Toots” Wheat
Peter “Toots” Wheat is the nom de plume of a restaurant critic for a major West Coast newspaper, who—obviously—has a number of excellent reasons for keeping his identity hidden.
He is the first to confess that he thinks, and talks, entirely too much about what—or whom—he eats, usually in the form of run-on sentences. He also agrees, sadly, with Mary Pettibone Poole, who once wrote, “Alcohol is a good preservative for everything but brains.”
I haven’t decided what rewards will go to paying subscribers in the future. For now, if you become a paying subscriber, you’ll be entitled to read the complete text of my latest novella. Would that be of any interest to you? I’m open to suggestions…
Meanwhile, it is now possible to become a paying subscriber (just like supporting your favorite NPR station). It’s entirely optional, and—even if you choose not to be a paid subscriber—you’ll still get my regular substack posts. I’ll still be happy to have you as a reader.
You DO know that this was fiction….
This is a shocking story, well told. On one hand, kudos to you for tasting it. But on the other, shame on people for treating this man like an animal. As you say, Ishi was "reduced to a specimen" for white men to sample as a form of amusement.