People who eat people are generally not considered “good people.” If you have any doubts, spend an afternoon searching the World Wide Web and peruse the cannibal top-ten lists, which are haunted by the likes of Milwaukee Monster Jeffrey Dahmer, Japanese exchange student Issei Sagawa, and child-killer Albert Fish. And news of the insane and psychopathic hits our home pages on the regular—for instance the recent story of a hotel restaurant in Nigeria shut down by police for serving human flesh as an “expensive treat.”
The dispatches we have from a pre-internet era are no different. With the torch lit by Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., carried on by the likes of Captain Cook and his crew in the Pacific, and still not yet extinguished by those traveling through Africa in the early 20th century, a significant portion of European history is dedicated to documenting encounters with the bloodthirsty man-eaters of the far corners of the globe.
Tinged with varying degrees of racism, many of these accounts are just xenophobic hearsay. A surprising number, however, have actually been verified as true. As it turns out, anthropophagy, the technical term for eating thy neighbor, is a relatively common and socially acceptable occurrence in many human cultures, from the neolithic to the present. One contemporary example is the Fore people of the highlands of Papua New Guinea, who ritually consume the corpses of their recently deceased friends and family.
But while some groups frequently enjoy eating people with people, the modern West is decidedly not one of them. Cannibalism is the ultimate culinary taboo, one that we claim only the criminally insane, the so-called “savages,” or the starving and desperate participate in. But like the many other stories that we tell ourselves to cope with the fact that we are all just sacks of meat, this too, is false. There is a fourth group, who eat people and also live among us, known as the “cannibal-curious.”
In early 2013, David Playpenz, a British bondage-furniture maker, had his finger amputated following a motorcycle accident. Instead of leaving it at the hospital, Playpenz brought his severed digit home, boiled it on his stove, and promptly ate it. When asked why he dined on his own finger, he responded simply that he had “always wondered what human flesh tastes like.”
In 2012, Japanese transsexual chef Mao Sugiyama offered a much larger digit up for consumption: his newly removed male genitals. Five guests attended the banquet in which Sugiyama cooked and served himself up for dinner, reportedly paying $250 each for their meal.
In 1988, performance artist Rick Gibson took the action of eating people into the streets of London and consumed a jar of preserved tonsils a friend had given to him at the Walthamstow Market, becoming what he claimed was the “first cannibal in British history to eat human meat in public.” Whether or not he was a pioneer, he was undoubtedly the showiest man-eater in recent English memory, as he consumed the canapé while wearing a sign asking everyone to “meet a cannibal.”
These are just a few of the dozens of examples of people in contemporary society whose culinary inquisitiveness takes them much further than most. But a little cannibal curiosity may hit more than just some of us, and you don’t have to actually eat human to have wondered what it tastes like. Thankfully, those who have partaken of this unusual feast have been more than willing to share their experiences.
The most widely cited account in this morbid food-writing genre is that of William Seabrook, an intrepid 20th-century New York Times reporter who allegedly obtained a piece of recently deceased flesh from a surgeon friend at the Sorbonne. In his 1930 book Jungle Ways, he writes, “It was like good, fully developed veal, not young but not yet beef. It was very definitely like that, and it was not like any other meat I had ever tasted.” Infamous German man-eater Armin Meiwes, who claimed that his online posting about looking for someone to kill and eat received around 400 responses, had a slightly different take on the flavor, stating, “The flesh tastes like pork, a little bit more bitter, stronger. It tastes quite good.” A considerably less violent dining experience corroborates the excellent flavor of human. In 2007, Chilean-born artist Marco Evaristti had his own fat removed via liposuction and mixed it with ground beef to make meatballs. The taste: “Even better than my grandmother’s."
For obvious reasons, most people have not and will not ever eat the meat of a human being, regardless of how delicious some claim it tastes. The idea is simply too morally or physically repulsive. But what if cannibalism could occur without horrific killings or the loss of one’s own body part? What if one could have all of the flavor with none of the guilt? Enter science.
Last year, a team from Maastricht University in the Netherlands grabbed headlines with a $325,000 hamburger made exclusively from laboratory-grown cow tissues. Although still in the development stages, this “in-vitro” meat aims to remove the animal almost entirely from the picture and produces only the desired cuts of a creature. Test-tube meat holds such promise to revolutionize animal agriculture that even PETA has gotten behind it, offering $1 million to whoever markets the first successful line of cultured meat products.
The next obvious step for the gastronomically adventurous among us is in-vitro anthropophagy: the consumption of human meat grown in a lab exclusively for the dinner table. Future food hypothesizers have already predicted it as a 21st-century hipster foodie trend, picturing culinary faddists munching on “celebrity cubes” made from the cells of today’s biggest stars or spending a romantic evening dining on their favorite parts of their lover.
With no murder or mutilation required to serve man, or at least to serve man parts, all of our cannibal curiosities, big or small, might just be allowed to run free. So if and when that day comes and a scientist could bring you a hot and steaming plate of you, would you eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti?