What Does Sloth Taste Like? A Victorian Guide to Meats of the World

October 13, 2015

What Does Sloth Taste Like? A Victorian Guide to Meats of the World

As a rare book seller you spend a lot of time working with books you already know pretty well, the famous or infamous works that have had an out-sized impact on history. But the most fun part of the job lies in the chance encounters - finding the strange, unusual and near-forgotten volumes that can teach us about the past. Recently I found a remarkable Victorian book on how animals were used for food around the world: The Animal Food Resources of Different Nations with Mention of Some of the Special Dainties of Various People Derived from the Animal Kingdom (1885), by Peter Lund Simmonds. In addition to providing detailed information and statistics on the usual domestic and game animals, the book contains passages on the preparation and flavour of a staggering number of exotic creatures.

Simmonds was a journalist and editor who was fascinated by Britain's expansive colonial trade networks and the science and economics that sustained them. He "contributed to an enormous range of publications on a wide variety of subjects" and was a member of the Royal Society of Arts, for which he organised a exhibition of "trade products and objects of natural history" in 1851 (ODNB). Among his many books was a volume far ahead of its time in its encouragement of recycling.

Animal Food Resources covers every type of animal-based food eaten by man, "the universal eater", as Simmonds puts it (there's even a chapter on human cannibalism). As you would expect, much of the book is devoted to agriculture. It's here that Simmonds focuses on the economics of Victorian meat production, compiling facts from a variety of sources and spinning them into an engaging text. In the example below he discusses the specifics of the North American chicken industry, capturing the development of industrial farming as it was happening.

"Over 20,000 car-loads of poultry are carried into New York city yearly, and 25,500,000 dozens of eggs go to the same market. According to the best estimates, the United States produce nine thousand million of eggs annually. This is a nice little item for the consideration of those who call chicken business - egg raising - a small thing. The American farmer, however, has been shrewd enough to discover that eggs pay better than birds, and he has turned attention to their production and preparation in large quantities for distant markets..."

But as interesting as this is, you're not here to learn about Australian beef production numbers or the annual take of Scottish game birds, are you? You want to know what sloth tastes like. And Simmonds has the answer:

Wallace tells us that he found the flesh of the sloth tender and palatable; it is esteemed a great delicacy by the Indians who hunt the animal for the purposes of food.

Or armadillo:

Most of the varieties of armadillo are used for food in South America. Waterton considered their flesh strong and rank, but throughout the whole of South America roast armadillo is highly esteemed, and may be seen in all the cafes and restaurants of the cities turned on their scaly backs feet uppermost, and the interior filled with a rich sauce composed of lemons and spices.

The flesh of the manatee:

is edible, and pronounced by Humboldt and others sweet and palatable. When salted and sun dried it will keep for a year or more.

Young penguins:

...are good eating, but the old ones are dark and tough when cooked. A voyager says, 'The flesh of the penguin is black, and has rather a perfumed taste. We ate of them several times in ragouts, which we found to be as good as those made of hare'.

Even the axolotl is:

...commonly sold in the markets of Mexico, and dressed in the manner of stewed eels, it is esteemed a great delicacy.

Simmonds devotes much space to the culinary customs of other cultures, and he often displays the prejudices of Victorian Britain. For instance, in describing a type of caterpillar eaten by indigenous Africans he writes, "To a civilised taste they are most disgusting". Reports that an unpleasant looking or smelling animal actually tastes nice are always backed up by the words of a European explorer, with the tastes of the "uncivilised" indigenous people rarely taken at face value.

Another sign that the book was written in a wildly different time is that many of the species being eaten are now extinct or endangered. In fact, Simmonds includes what is now one of the most notorious symbols of human gluttony, the North American passenger pigeon:

While it might seem surprising that Simmonds wrote about both exotic meat and everyday agriculture in the same book, it makes sense from his perspective at the centre of a global empire. The production and distribution of food was a primary economic and security concern for the British, and foreign crops and agricultural regions were commandeered to centralise imperial power and funnel wealth back home. At the same time, science and technology were harnessed to develop better agricultural and transportation methods, as well as ways of keeping food fresh for longer - industrial farming was being born. Tales of colonial explorers, which usually included the strange animals they had eaten to survive, were incredibly popular, while ordinary people who returned from overseas brought new ideas about cuisine. Simmonds's book crystallizes these aspects of life in Victorian Britain, providing a fascinating window onto contemporary attitudes toward animals, food, and foreign cultures.