The word “delicacy” gets used a lot to describe foods that are often less than appetizing. It has become a sort of diplomatic way to describe something that no one would want to eat unless they had to, more often than not. Some delicacies, like grubs for instance, seem to have been borne from necessity and were eaten for survival. But there are also luxury food items that no one necessarily had to eat to survive, they just chose to eat them because they were extravagant, unusual, or rare.
Once upon a time in Ancient Rome, the idea of eating rodents was not nearly so offensive as it is to most people today. In particular, the dormouse was something the Romans had really taken a shine to. About the size of a rat, they would actually fatten these rodents up in advance of eating them to make it more of a meal.
Romans kept the animals in clay pots where they could be fed and fattened, much the way a goose is confined to force its liver to grow for the production of foie gras. There were little ledges inside so the small beast could even keep itself busy and get a little exercise in its downtime.
When it was ready they would stuff it with pork, vegetables and spices. Then it could either be baked or made into a soup.
No one would bat an eye about eating chicken or turkey these days. Duck, squab, game hen and a number of other birds are fairly common in grocery stores and on restaurant menus. But there are some birds that, for whatever reason, never really stood out as food and are considered unusual by today’s standards. Flamingo is one of those birds.
Largely symbolic of places like Florida, we generally consider these big pink birds almost decorative, or at least not a food source. In fact, pink flamingo decorations are a somewhat tacky piece of lawn decor. Not so for the Ancient Romans (yep, them again) who may not have met an animal they weren’t willing to roast just to see how it turned out.
Flamingos were not easy to come by in Rome, and they were native to Africa. That meant only those who could afford the birds had any hope of eating them. Serving flamingo was looked at as a status symbol and apparently the greatest of Roman epicureans would stick to the choice cuts like the tongue and brain, as one does.
Ambergris is a waxy substance produced somewhere deep in the guts of a whale. Scientists believe it may be formed inside the whale to grease its insides up and allow it to pass hard objects that it has eaten out of its backside. In fact, that’s also how ambergris gets into the world. Whales poop it out. And then some people eat it.
The substance has what people have described as a “marine fecal” odor when it first appears, but the smell changes as it dries. For years people have prized it for the sweet, earthy aroma that was used as a base in many perfumes of the past. These days there are artificial versions that don’t require hunting or harming whales, but the real stuff can still sell for tens of thousands of dollars if it washes up on shore.
Back in the day, it wasn’t just the perfume-makers of the world who loved ambergris. Word is that ancient Persians used ambergris in desserts and Casanova included it in a chocolate mousse as an aphrodisiac. No word on whether or not it worked, but considering where it came from it’s probably best to not know the details.
7. Rooster Beer
In the modern parlance, the name “cock beer” is enough to cause a few jokes because many people are a little childish and that’s okay. But for generations past, cock just meant rooster, and that makes this brew known as cock or rooster beer a whole different kind of weird.
When it comes to making beer, the recipe typically calls for a variety of grains that need to ferment. Barley, hops, those sorts of things. Most alcohol is made in a similar way regardless of the plant uses. Grapes for wine, perhaps potatoes for vodka. Using chicken is not ordinary.
Back in the 1780s, people were apparently willing to try anything. A recipe from the time period calls for a rooster to be gutted, smashed up with some spices in a bag, and then fermented with some ale. Apparently some other recipes call for essentially the same thing without the courtesy of killing the chicken first.
The purpose behind adding a rooster to a beer was not to impart delicious chicken flavor since the brew must have tasted horrible. The idea was that the vitality and strength of the bird would have been imbued in the liquid and, in turn, whoever drank it.
6. Mock Banana
We take bananas for granted today but imagine a time when finding a way to transport bananas quickly and safely was all but impossible. During the Second World War, a banana was nearly impossible to find because they needed the ships that transported them for the war. They had become a luxury item for people at home who had enjoyed them in the past but could no longer get them. There were even songs written about it. In order to help placate the banana-loving masses, a new dish was invented. The mock banana.
Because Britain was importing nearly all of its food and rationing that it had, they sacrificed many luxury items. The mock banana made use of what people had readily available in an effort to reproduce that distinct flavor and texture. Whether it was successful is a matter of historical debate.
The mock banana was a boiled or roasted parsnip or turnip. Once suitably softened, it could be mashed up with sugar and some banana essence, an artificial flavoring that was used in banana candies and such.
Some of the people who lived through this recalled enjoying them, but also included the caveat that they had never actually eaten a real banana before, either. They would serve the mock banana on bread as a banana sandwich or just as it was in a bowl as a dessert.
5. Saddle Steak
The nomadic Huns were known as fierce conquerors and great warriors. Accomplished horsemen, the idea of how they may have fed their armies is probably something not a lot of people have considered. There are rumors that when they were doing especially well, they enjoyed a kind of steak jerky on the run that most people today would consider bizarre at best and awful at worst.
With little room to store or carry meat, there are tales of Huns taking thinly sliced meat and storing it under their saddles. As they rode, the heat and sweat from their horses’ haunches would cure the meat into a kind of jerky that could be easily cooked later. The salt from the horse sweat and the action of being rubbed between either rider or saddle and horse would serve to keep it tender.
Historical records about this are hard to come by so there’s no way to know if this was a widespread practice, but it would have meant some savvy Huns would have arguably been eating much better than other people if they were able to better preserve meat on the go.
If you’re a fan of Mexican cuisine, then pozole is something well worth trying. It’s a dish often reserved for festivities because it takes a long time to make if you do it the traditional way and can get pretty elaborate. Typically made from pork or chicken with hominy and a variety of vegetables, it’s delicious and filling. That’s today, anyway.
In the past, pozole was treated a little differently. Records of the food date back hundreds of years and the Aztecs served it as only for special occasions as it included hominy, which is maize, and was sacred.
The recipe gets a little weird when you factor in that there are some reports from the 16th century that chicken and pork weren’t always the meats involved. A missionary named Fray Bernardino de Sahagún wrote that they made the dish with human flesh, which certainly takes the recipe to new heights.
If Hollywood reflected the real world, we’d be up to our necks in sinister mummies all the time. In reality, mummies are quite a bit harder to come by these days, and most of the ones that do exist are safely housed in museums. But that’s not to say it was always hard to get your hands on a mummy. By some estimates, there may be upwards of 70 million mummies out there.
The reason you don’t see them everywhere today is that a number of them are obviously undiscovered and a number of the ones that were discovered are no longer with us. That’s because people ate them.
Literally millions of mummies have been lost to time because our ancestors were under the impression that ingesting mummies could cure just about anything. It got so out of hand that a fraud mummy market popped up in which fresh corpses, sometimes even the corpses of plague victims, were dried out and sold as mummies.
Not many animals have reached the status of the playful panda. It’s the symbol of the WWF and zoos around the world display them as prized exhibits. Once endangered, decades of preservation attempts have succeeded in bumping these seemingly gentle beasts up the chart to vulnerable. There are between 1,500 and 3,000 of them in the wild, with a number of captive specimens as well.
For all the playful and adorable things we associate with them today, there seems to be evidence that once upon a time the world delicious may have been used to describe them as well. There is no evidence of humans eating pandas except illegally in recent history. Even in Ancient China, it seems to have been a taboo topic. But if you go back even further, things change a little bit.
Archaeological evidence shows that the ancestors of modern giant pandas, which were smaller and maybe better described as regular-sized pandas, were killed by human hands. Tool marks on remains indicate that the animals were killed and people of that time certainly wouldn’t have been hunting for sport. The logical conclusion is that they ate the bears.
No matter how weird a dish from history gets, you can typically count on one thing to be true of it – the food was real. In a very strange way, that is not the case with cockentrice, an animal that never actually existed, so the eating of it should have been a difficult task.
The fact a cockentrice was not real did not stop people from making it, however. Produced for what must have been only the grandest of occasions, a cockentrice is what happens when you take the front half of a pig and sew it to the rear half of a chicken. The resulting monster, sort of a medieval version of a jackalope, could be stuffed with all manner of other meats and vegetables, and then roasted to produce a centerpiece that people would no doubt be talking about for years to come.
For the truly theatrical chef and the incredibly memorable occasion, the natural escalation of the cockentrice was the helmeted cock. Jokes aside, this dish involved mounting a chicken on top of a pig so that it looked like the bird was riding the other animal into battle. They would outfit the chicken with the coat of arms of whoever was being honored at the dinner.