The gustatory voyage of the Beagle, part 1

I have a soft spot for food writing in books that are not about food. Experiments in living off the land in My Side of the Mountain, the expansive feasts put on by the woodland creatures in the Redwall series, the culinary culture of the Lenape Indians – the depictions of food and food preparation in these stories are what stand out in my memory.

So to commemorate Darwin’s 200th birthday this week, I’ll highlight some of my favorite culinary passages in The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s diaries describing the years he spent traveling around the world as the naturalist on board HMS Beagle. I’m only part way through, so consider this part 1.

It is often the case that Darwin exposes his wry humor when speaking of food. Take, for example, his description of the difficulty they sometimes had in procuring food from their hosts:

On first arriving it was our custom to … ask the senhor to do us the favour to give us something to eat. ‘Anything you choose, sir,’ was his usual answer. For the first few times, vainly I thanked providence for having guided us to so good a man. The conversation proceeding, the case universally became deplorable. ‘Any fish can you do us the favour of giving?’ — ‘Oh! no, sir.’ — ‘Any soup?’ — ‘No, sir.’ — ‘Any bread?’ — ‘Oh! no, sir.’ — ‘Any dried meat?’ — ‘Oh! no, sir.’ … It not unfrequently happened, that we were obliged to kill, with stones, the poultry for our own supper. When, thoroughly exhausted by fatigue and hunger, we timorously hinted that we should be glad of our meal, the pompous, and (though true) most unsatisfactory answer was ‘It will be ready when it is ready.’

Contrast this with a sumptuous dinner hosted by a well-stocked relative of a member of Darwin’s party just a few days later:

[The] profusion of food showed itself at dinner, where, if the tables did not groan, the guests surely did; for each person is expected to eat of every dish. One day, having, as I thought, nicely calculated so that nothing should go away untasted, to my utter dismay a roast turkey and a pig appeared in all their substantial reality.

When describing the animals he encounters, Darwin sometimes includes a note about its culinary value. For instance, the meat of the water-hog (Hydrochoerus capybara), the largest living rodent in the world, is apparently “very indifferent,” though it supposedly tastes like pork and is considered a delicacy today. Of an aggressive carrion-eating bird, the Polyborus Novae Zelandiae (probably a species of Caracara), Darwin writes, “the sealers say that the flesh of these birds, when cooked, is quite white, and very good eating; but bold must the man be who attempts such a meal.”

Photo by kaptainkobold on Flickr

Photo by kaptainkobold on Flickr

Neither of these sounded particularly appetizing, but later on Darwin mentions that armadillo is “a most excellent dish when roasted in its shell.” I <3 roasting, so this claim prompted me to search for recipes online – pointless, in retrospect, since I lack the means to procure armadillo in suburban California. At any rate, all I could find were some armadillo-inspired dishes and a bare-bones fact sheet confirming that people do indeed consume armadillo roasted in the shell. Ah well. Now I know what to ask for when I visit South America, or, hey, even Texas!

Original photo by SDCDeaCerte on Flickr

Original photo by SDCDeaCerte on Flickr

It’s said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. So Happy Birthday, Charles – can’t wait to learn more about you through your culinary adventures!

6 Responses to The gustatory voyage of the Beagle, part 1

  1. Ricardipus says:

    Excellent post, and Happy Darwin Day to you! Extra points for using one of Kaptain Kobold’s fabulous Darwin lego minifigure pics.

    [visiting via the Blog for Darwin blog swarm…]

  2. Pingback: Happy birthday, Charles Darwin « Ouroboros

  3. JR says:

    Well, there’s a new take on Darwin Day! I love it when the 19th-century naturalists talk about eating these fantastic new species. I think it’s a bit of a vicarious delight for me, as a vegetarian (and a Texan who has never eaten armadillo…it should be easy enough for you to harvest a roadkilled one next time you’re there, though).

  4. shwu says:

    Thanks, Ricardipus and JR!

    Unfortunately, the pleasure of reading about their culinary experiences is tempered a bit by the knowledge that many species have gone extinct in that way. Still, few things help me appreciate a time period or a group of people more than learning about their food!

  5. Alex Palazzo says:

    One of my favorite culinary tid bits from The Voyage of the Beagle was Darwin’s description of Puma meat:

    “We did not reach the posta on the Rio Tapalguen till after it was dark. At supper, from something which was said, I was suddenly struck with horror at thinking that I was eating one of the favourite dishes of the country, namely, a half formed calf, long before its proper time of birth. It turned out to be Puma; the meat is very white, and remarkably like veal in taste. Dr. Shaw was laughed at for stating that “the flesh of the lion is in great esteem, having no small affinity with veal, both in colour, taste, and flavour.” Such certainly is the case with the Puma. The Gauchos differ in their opinion whether the Jaguar is good eating, but are unanimous in saying that cat is excellent.”

  6. Pingback: Five things I didn’t know about Darwin « The bamboo raft

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