Monday, July 11, 2011

Zoophagy

New York City,
1905


While the word carnivore” is now used to describe flesh-eaters, modern society may still find use for the obscure term zoophagy,” meaning the eating of animals. Since zoophagy usually connotes the eating of exotic creatures, it certainly can be used to describe a banquet in 1905 at the Astor Hotel in New York, where a Bornean Rhinoceros from the Berlin Zoo was served as the main course.

Fillets of the odd-toed ungulate were prepared for a dinner of the Canadian Camp, a club of sportsmen and explorers whose members believed that it was their duty to “be the game.” In other words, they ate the animals they killed, often ingesting some unusual species at their banquets. However, in this case, the carcass of the formerly-captive rhinoceros was a gift from Prince Henry of Prussia who may have learned about the club during his visit to the United States three years earlier. 

Four strong waiters carried the hindquarters of the beast around the banquet room on a wooden slab, presenting it to the sportsmen who gathered at the new hotel on Times Square, before taking it away to be carved. While roast rhino undoubtedly took center stage that night, there are other unusual game dishes on the menu below, such as puree of Indiana raccoon, stew of Canadian musquash (muskrat), and a pie filled with mephitis (skunk). According to the New York Sun, the skunk pie caused some of the women at the banquet to feel squeamish until they discovered, much to their relief, that it tasted like lamb. After the skunk, the diners cleansed their palates with a sorbet before feasting on wild turkey from a swamp in Kentucky. Dinner ended with Nimrod salad, referring to the mighty hunter in the Bible; Hamlin Garland cakes, named after the American novelist who described mid-western frontier life; and menagerie ice cream.


Today, there are only a few remaining Bornean Rhinoceros (also called Sumatran and Javan) in the jungles of southeast Asia. As a result, these solitary animals are on the critically endangered list, the highest risk category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Although the dramatic decline in their numbers is primarily attributed to the poaching of rhino horns for traditional Chinese medicine, another problem can arise when a species is placed on the endangered list. Ironically, its inclusion on this list can hasten its demise by making it more desirable as banquet fare in the Chinese province of Guangdong, where rare species are served as a sign of wealth and rank. Since words convey ideas, perhaps we should employ etymology to help save such creatures by re-purposing the word “zoophagy,” using it to describe zoophagous behavior as it specifically relates to the eating of endangered species.

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