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Tongue in Cheek: Cannibal Humor

Sunday, April 8, 2012
I once overheard a conversation between two store clerks. One regaled the other with an imaginary dialog between two cannibals who were eating a roasted clown. I began to eavesdrop in earnest.

The clerk delivered the punch line: "Does this taste funny to you?"

Affecting a tone of seriousness, I asked if they were talking about cannibalism. They appeared slightly embarrassed, but admitted that they were. "But there are no more cannibals," I corrected. Their embarrassment deepened perceptibly. It was clear that they felt themselves to be in presence of a cranky old guy with no sense of humor. They were trapped, and would be forced to wait the situation out. Pity did not prevent me from continuing.

"I ate the last one this morning!"

They were victims of a form of cannibal joke that typically involves some form of entrapment.

Mark Twain's short story, "Cannibalism in the Cars," relates his encounter with a passenger who had survived a cannibalistic episode on a train full of congressmen, stranded in a blizzard. After seven days without food, they decided that someone must die that the rest might live. Being good parliamentarians, they entered into a series of nominations, in which the qualifications of each for office were discussed. After six ballots, and some battles over amendments,
"Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who [was] well and honorably known to all of us" was elected to the post of "dinner." He was prepared for office while the remaining congressmen began electing breakfast. Debate was interrupted by "the happy announcement that Harris was ready."
At this point, the congressman waxed eulogistically,
"I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction."[1]
After listing the gastronomic qualities of the congressman's esteemed colleagues, the story was cut short by their arrival at his destination. The politician departed with a genteel farewell,
"I must bid you good-by. Any time that you can make it convenient to tarry a day or two with me, I shall be glad to have you. I like you, sir; I have conceived an affection for you. I could like you as well as I like Harris himself, sir. Good day, sir, and a pleasant journey."[2]
W.C. Fields, the curmudgeon's curmudgeon, responded, when asked how he liked children, "Boiled or fried." When he said, "I never met a kid I liked," he was probably not talking about eating them. He was less ambiguous when he quipped, "Madam, there's no such thing as a tough child—if you parboil them first for seven hours, they always come out tender."

"Hear about the cannibal who had a wife and ate kids?" "When do cannibals leave the table? When everyone's eaten." "Did you hear about the cannibal who loved children? He just adored the platter of little feet." These are old jokes, admittedly—but there are older ones.

Near the end of Petronius' Satyricon, we encounter the will of the wealthy, but inept, poet, Eumolpus. He couldn't take his wealth with him, but could leave something of himself behind to keep company with his money:
"With the exception of my freedmen… all those who come into money by the terms of my will shall inherit only …[if they] slice up my body into little pieces and swallow them down in the presence of the entire city…"[3]
While certain that greed would ensure his final request, he added this encouragement to his beneficiaries: "I warn my friends not to disregard my last wishes, but to eat my body as heartily as they damned my soul."[4] Eumolpus helped them swallow the bitter pill he prescribed: "Just close your eyes and imagine that, instead of human flesh, you're munching a million."[5] He added, "The people of Saguntum …when Hannibal besieged them, took to eating human flesh, and did so, moreover, without the slightest hope of getting an inheritance out of it."[6]

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is one of many works that address the political consumption of the weak by their oppressors. In suggesting a solution of the "Irish Problem" by feeding Irish children to English gourmands, he phrased it in a way that -- like Eumolpus -- made it easier to swallow:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.[7]
Ambrose Bierce once defined a cannibal as, "A gastronome of the old school who preserves the simple tastes and adheres to the natural diet of the pre-pork period."[8] In an 1868 essay he ruminated, with characteristic tenderness,
Our uniform vanity has given us the human mind as the acme of intelligence, the human face and figure as the standard of beauty. Of course we cannot deny to human fat and lean an equal superiority over beef, mutton and pork. It is plain that our meat-eating ancestors would think this way, and being unrestrained by the mawkish sentiment attendant on high civilization, would act habitually on the obvious suggestion. A priori, therefore, it is clear that we ate ourselves.[9]
He continued, linguistically,
Observe the significance of the phrase "sweet sixteen." What a world of meaning lurks in the expression "she is as sweet as a peach," and how suggestive of luncheon are the words "tender youth."' A kiss is but a modified bite, and a fond mother, when she says her babe is "almost good enough to eat," merely shows that she is herself only a trifle too good to eat it.[10]
Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary has a more substantially fleshed-out definition than that of Bierce. It includes:
The nations we call civilized have done right not to put their vanquished enemies on the spit; for if we were allowed to eat our neighbors, we would soon eat our compatriots, which would have grave consequences for the social virtues. But civilized nations have not always been civilized; all had long been savage… It was superstition that caused human victims to be immolated; it was necessity that caused them to be eaten.[11]
Voltaire' Candide (and sidekick Cacambo) encountered the Oreillons, a tribe of South American cannibals, who
…were heating a large cauldron of water, others were preparing spits, and all were shouting,
"He's a Jesuit, he's a Jesuit! We'll have our revenge, and eat a good meal! Let's eat Jesuit, let's eat Jesuit!" …Seeing the cauldron and the spits, Candide cried out, "Ah, what would Dr. Pangloss say if he saw what pure nature is like? All is well, I won't argue about it; but I must admit it's a cruel fate to have lost Lady Cunegonde and then be roasted on a spit by the Oreillons."[12]
Candide asks Cacambo to explain "How horribly inhuman it is to cook men… how unchristian…." Cacambo, instead, uses logic: it's normal to want to kill one's enemy, however
"If we don't exercise the right to eat him, it's because we have other things to make a good meal of. But you don't have the same resources as we do, and it's certainly better to eat your enemies than abandon the fruit of your victory to crows and ravens."[13]
He concludes his argument by telling the cannibals that they are mistaken in thinking that they have captured Jesuits. The Oreillons, more reasonable than Candide, are persuaded by Cacambo. They release their prisoners, treat them as honored guests, and toast them with cheers of "He's not a Jesuit, he's not a Jesuit!"[14]

In Anthony Burgess' novel The Wanting Seed, the protagonist, Tristram Foxe, lives in an overpopulated future that has reverted to ancient sources of protein. He encounters a soldier who talks about his source of food:
"It's officially called tinned pork," he said. …but the canning makes it seem civilized.'"…"It would seem," said Tristram, "that we're all cannibals." "Yes, but, damn it all, we in Aylesbury are at least civilized cannibals. It makes all the difference if you get it out of a tin."[15]
Burgess' application of civilizing techniques to cannibalism is carried even further by J.P. Donleavy. His The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners, deals with problems not often covered in etiquette books. He seemed to have the Uruguayan plane crash in mind when he wrote about
The regrettable possibility therefore must be considered of ingesting one of your fellow passengers. This you may really find foul making to contemplate, especially with the type that might be sitting next to you these days on group charter flights. But here is a rare opportunity to find qualities objectionable in the living quite beneficial in the dead.[16]
On the other hand, one might find oneself seated next to some vision of loveliness
…who makes your mouth water to eat. Under no circumstances is it permissible to allow any expression of this appetite upon your face. It is bound to be the most sickly visage imaginable. You may freely, however, contemplate her delightfully eating you.
He reminds us that, given the chance to eat said vision of loveliness, we should
Be mindful not to exhibit any relish while ingesting the gorgeous body, hungry as you may be, and never smack or lick your lips over her dainty viands. …Of course, fair is fair, and some allowance can be made for the normal healthy enjoyment of a bite to eat.[17]
Donleavy, in a kind of quid pro quo, once announced that, after his death, he wanted his body sealed up in a huge cask of beer, to be consumed by his drinking buddies all around Dublin.

Americans are traditionally squeamish about eating organ meats. Combining that reluctance with our national unease about sexual matters, the consumption of Rocky Mountain oysters takes on overtones of dare-taking. Such squeamishness is sometimes indulged in for pleasure, and we can to skip from aversion to aversion when it suits our whims. Consider this joke about a
…man [who] went to a gourmet restaurant in the great bull-fighting city of Barcelona. He was reading the menu and saw an item he didn't recognize, something like "Orbs of the Ring." …he was told that they were bull's testicles, broiled and sliced, and that the restaurant had an exclusive contract with the arena to supply them fresh from the day's contest. Well, the man ordered them and was served two large circular slabs of meat, which he very much enjoyed. In fact he liked them so much he returned each day and ordered them. One day, instead of the usual large slices of meat, he was served several small pieces of meat about the size of grapes cut in half. When he asked the waiter why, the water shrugged and said, "Sometimes, the bull is not the loser."[18]
Another, shorter, exercise in castration anxiety: Two cannibals are enjoying a meal. One of the cannibals keeps laughing and laughing between bites. Finally, one of the other cannibals looks up from his meal and asks why his companion is so happy. The other cannibal smiles and says "Oh, I'm just having a ball!"[19]

At least two tongue-in-cheek cannibal cookbooks exist: Wendy and Kimberly Spurr's Alferd Packer's High Protein Cookbook (1995), and Karl Würf's To Serve Man: A Cookbook for the People (1979). Würf's book is loaded with recipes for dishes like Scrapple of Man, Hungarian Ghoulash, Hunter Stew, Mannerschnitzel, and Homme Bourguinon -- complete with coy little headnotes like this one for Shepherd's Pie:
This ...recipe was invented for shepherds, rather than to be made of them, although it might have had some applicability to cattlemen's and sheepmen's feuds (see also Texas Chili with Cowboy).[20]
Jokes touch places that are hidden from view, but not far from consciousness. Sometimes, the first time we recognize that something is true is when we hear it in a joke. The always-irreverant Bill Maher may have exposed the truth behind these cannibal jokes: "…a good joke is telling a secret that everyone knows but no one has yet said out loud. That's why it gets a reaction."[21]


[1] Twain, Mark. "Cannibalism in the Cars," in Neider, Charles. (ed.). The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1957, p. 14.

[2] Twain, in Neider, p. 15.

[3] Petronius. The Satyricon (Arrowsmith, William, trans.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959, p. 181.

[4] Petronius, p. 181.

[5] Petronius, p. 182.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Swift, Jonathan. "A Modest Proposal" in English Prose of the Eighteenth Century. (Moore, Cecil A. ed) New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1933, p. 225.
The notion that the rich and powerful might literally consume others, is oft repeated. Patrick Bateman, the cannibal yuppie featured in American Psycho is just one popular example.

[8] Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil’s Dictionary. Mount Vernon, NY: The Peter Pauper Press, 1958, p. 14.

[9] "Did We Eat One Another?" in Bierce, Ambrose. The Sardonic Humor of Ambrose Bierce. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1963, p. 193. 
Once, Ralph Waldo Emerson was pontificating about the horrors of cannibalism, at the same time as he was carving a roast for his dinner guests. One of those guests, Bronson Alcott—a confirmed vegetarian—asked. "But Mr. Emerson, if we are to eat meat at all why should we not eat the best?"

[10] Bierce, 1963, pp. 193-194.

[11] Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, (Gay, Peter, trans.) New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1962 pp. 86-88.

[12] Voltaire. Candide. (Bair, Lowell, trans.) New York: Bantam Books, 1962, pp. 85-87.

[13] Ibid., p. 87.

[14] The word "Oreillons" has among its meanings, "ear muffs." Voltaire, perhaps, intended to draw attention to the Panglossian habit of muffling inconvenient evidence—just as Rousseau would have to have done to support of his Noble Savage conception? Ironically, the reports of Jesuits about native life in the New World provided just that kind of inconvenient evidence.

[15] Burgess, Anthony. The Wanting Seed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1962 (first American edition, 1963), pp. 171-173.

[16] Donleavy, J.P. The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners. New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1975, p. 70.

[17] Ibid, pp. 71-72.

[18] Demas, Chuck. "Orbs of the Ring." Online. posted to the ChileHeads listserv, 12 September 1997. (ChileHeads Digest V4 #120 ), n.p.

[19] "Nothing Like a Good Joke," Prairie Home Companion, online at, accessed 11 January 2008.

[20] Würf, Karl. To Serve Man: A Cookbook for People. Philadelphia: Owlswick Press, 1976, p. 21.
 More faux cannibal recipes can be found in Allen, Gary and Ken Albala (eds.). Human Cuisine. Charleston, SC: Booksurge, 2008.

[21] "Sunday." The New York Times Magazine, May 28, 1995, p. 10.


Blogger Mikki said...

Well done, Gary! (Double entendre intended!)

April 8, 2012 at 11:36 AM  

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