Strange Foods: Bush Meat, Bats, and Butterflies: An Epicurean Adventure Around the World
by Jerry Hopkins
Published by Periplus Editions
232 pages, 1999
You Are What You Eat
Reviewed by Monica Stark
I didn't expect to be shocked, amazed or even particularly enlightened by Jerry Hopkins' Strange Foods. After all, I'm a culturally sophisticated West Coast babe. I eat more sushi than my mother thinks is safe ("That can't be good for you!") and I'm well traveled and well read enough not to think that it's particularly odd when other cultures eat things that mine don't think are appealing.
None of this prepared me for the reality of Strange Foods. A book that, oddly enough, does better than the tacit promise it makes with its title, its warning-yellow cover and a small illustration of a bottle of Vietnamese Cobra wine: complete with resident Cobra.
Strange Foods satisfies on a number of levels. For pure voyeur value, the book is tough to beat. Leave it on your coffee table and watch your guest's reactions. (I had one friend who -- after she'd leafed through the book -- wouldn't relax until I'd removed it from sight.) Michael Freeman's photography is vivid, gripping and goes a long way to support Hopkin's prose. In fact, people completely devoid of the ability to read English would get the gist of Strange Foods very quickly. Freeman's photos of scorpion pops, whole smoked monkeys and maggot fried rice (I'm not making this up) could just about support a book on their own. But there is more in Strange Foods. So much more.
Hopkins is a writer who walks the walk. As he writes in his introduction to Strange Foods :
... over a period of twenty-five years I have rejected my meat-and-potatoes upbringing in the United States frequently to try a wide variety of regional specialties, from steamed water beetles, fried grasshoppers and ants, to sparrow, bison and crocodile, the latter three served en casserole, grilled and in a curry, respectively. I have eaten deep-fried bulls testicles in Mexico, live shrimp sushi in Hawaii, mice cooked over an open wood fire in Thailand, pig stomach soup in Singapore, minced water buffalo and yak butter tea in Nepal, stir-fried dog and "five penis wine" in China, and the boiled blood of a variety of animals in Vietnam.
In other words, Hopkins is an author well prepared to tackle this topic. And tackle it he has. Our culinary adventure is divided into six logical parts; each further divided into appropriate chapters. So in Part 1: Mammals, we get chapters on dogs & cats, horse, rat & mouse, bats, primates & other bush meat and so on, all the way through to genitalia, urine and even human flesh. Later parts deal with reptiles & water creatures; birds; insects, spiders & scorpions; plants and, finally and appropriately, leftovers. This last includes gold, dirt and even the tale of the man who ate a Cessna airplane.
Many of the sections also include recipes. These are small -- always in the margin -- and unobtrusive, but are there, I suppose, for those who want them. Thus, if you're ever taken with a strong desire to make Dandelion Wine, Fried Silkworm Chrysalids or Rootworm Beetle Dip, you'll know where to look.
Despite the sometimes graphic photos and chapter headings, Hopkins goes a long way beyond sensationalism. The former Rolling Stone contributing editor and author of 26 previous books has done more than snack-sized homework. Strange Foods is, in many ways, a very informative anthropological study. Hopkins looks not only at what foods are eaten around the world, but also why and how, as well as the history of many of the "strange foods" in question. It's a fascinating in-depth look.
As Hopkins himself notes, "What is considered repulsive to someone in one part of the world, in another part of the world is simply considered lunch." | March 2000
Monica Stark is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and editor.