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The Slightly Disgusting Origins of Haute Cuisine

To appreciate the sublime, the philosopher-politician Edmund Burke said was to appreciate terror in captivity. While Burke was mostly talking about paintings of thunderstorms, the concept could also apply to food. Is that the secret sauce to the novelties now encountered on our plates.
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The latest issue of the food magazine Lucky Peach includes a drink recipe that calls for dried, grated turtle penis. But before it was known as a natural virility enhancement, the sea turtle -- and other off-putting foods -- captured the spirit of stylish fine dining.

In the summer of 1754, a flurry of London newspapers reported that a famous admiral had gifted a 300 pound turtle to an aristocratic and slightly infamous London gambling society. Shipped live directly from the West Indies, the turtle measured over four feet long and three feet wide (this was not including the fins). Even more remarkably, it emerged from the perilous cross-continental journey in unusually good health, promptly laying five eggs in the gambling society's kitchen. When it came time to slaughter the turtle, five gallons of blood spilled from its decapitated head. The oven's mouth had to be enlarged just to fit the giant reptile inside.

Over the 18th century, the sea turtle was elevated from the provisional nourishment of impoverished sailors and colonists to the pinnacle of European haute cuisine. It's hard to say what made the turtle so appealing. Contemporaries often made the turtle seem like the sort of thing one might be asked to eat as a dare. For one thing, no one could agree on what, exactly, it tasted like. Some claimed that it tasted like beef. Others likened it to chicken. Still others compared its fat to bone marrow, with the "consistency of butter" -- that is, if you could get past its otherworldly green color and its fishy smell. Women and children were known to gag. Even the experts were perplexed when trying to classify this strange beast. How could one willingly eat something that, in the words of one naturalist, "swims like a fish, lays eggs like a fowl, and feeds on grass like an ox?"

Maybe this was precisely the point. In the 16th century, culinary bravado was exhibited in eating dangerous foods. Severn lamprey, for example, was served at kingly banquets because it could supposedly kill you, inspiring the saying, "give eels, not wine, to your enemy."

For the dish to be appreciated as a delicacy in the 18th century, somebody else had find it utterly disgusting. Turtle fit the bill. The enlightened foodies of the 18th century were onto this. Histories of the largely unexplored New World often touted the delights of North American bear cub flesh, which supposedly tasted like a mixture of beef and pork coated in delectable white fat. London's most fashionable restaurant was rumoured to serve Chinese bird's nest soup and ragouts of snails. And in 1760, much to the public's delight, one writer described a fictional battle between two gluttons for the title of most adventurous foodie in history. The laundry list of foreign foods ingested: flamingo brains, essence of ham, "three sorts of fish for which you have no names," and, yes, turtle scraped straight out of the shell -- could turn the hardiest of stomachs.

Of course, there are a whole lot of other criteria that conspire to turn an ordinary dish into an object of gastroporn. Rarity and cost surely play important roles, as does the expertise and ingenuity of the chef. But the off-putting, even unpalatable nature of the main ingredient, as well as the heroism in swallowing it, remains as important now as it did then to the possession of good taste. We see this in the high demand for things like uni and monkfish liver in upscale restaurants. We also see this in the prandial machismo of people like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. But we also value these foods because other people -- perhaps those of more upstanding, conventional tastes -- wouldn't touch the stuff. Then as now, culinary delicacies become what they are by casting themselves as acquired tastes.

To appreciate the sublime, the philosopher-politician Edmund Burke once said, was to appreciate terror in captivity. Burke was mostly talking about paintings of thunderstorms. But the concept could also apply to the food of his time. Perhaps that's the secret sauce to the novelties now encountered on our plates.