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Still as savage as in the past

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By Maneka Gandhi
I am reading ‘A Curious History of Food and Drink’, by Ian Crofton, and the more I read the sadder I get. It is a compilation of such savagery, such insane greed for destruction, such insensitivity, that I wonder what an alien reading it would think of us humans.

In the 1990s, archeologists, examining a Neanderthal site in southern France, uncovered human bones of 100,000 B.C. which had been eaten in the same way as the bones of deer that lay nearby. Clearly the humans were cannibals. But did they evolve? In 2009, archeologists found bones in Germany’s Rhineland of modern humans of 5,000 B.C. – barely 7,000 years ago – when India already had kingdoms, coins, gods and sacred books. The human bones showed clear signs of butchery for consumption, so humans were still cannibals until then.

We have not come very far in the last 100,000 years. Humans eating humans is called cannibalism, but all animals are sentient beings like us and when we kill them we are still cannibals. All commercial biscuits and a lot of bread are made of L-Cysteine, which is made of human hair. Is that not cannibalism?

The earliest soup of 6,000 B.C. is of hippopotamus bones. But in 1864 the English explorer, Samuel Baker, is still writing about boiling the head of a hippo with vinegar and chopped onions to make soup.

A thousand years ago people ate the teats of pregnant cows and sows. In India, we are exporting the meat of pregnant and lactating buffaloes to the Middle East – and the company that kills these mothers illegally put their teats with each slab of meat so that the buyer knows that they were pregnant. The Deonar slaughterhouse in Mumbai takes pictures of the buffaloes being milked before they are cut and puts the pictures with the consignment. So how far have we come?

Chocolate was treated as a sacred drug by the Aztecs. When it was discovered in the 1500s by the West, and mixed with sugar and vanilla, it became popular to dip insects such as cicadas in chocolate and crunch on them. This disgusting tradition carries on: in parts of India, for instance, a vat of burning oil is put under a strong light. The insects that fly towards the light are caught, dipped live in the oil and eaten as snacks. In Japan they put wasps into chocolate biscuits.

We think about the Roman feasts as the ultimate decadence: a country that destroyed so much of the world for its own pleasure. The slaves, the wild animals brought in for live combats, the food made with animals all over the world – live fish swimming in wine till they drowned, jellied bat feet, stewed spleen of frog, lamprey eels cooked in their own blood. But are we any better now? In America, they eat Fried Rattlesnake dipped in egg, flour and breadcrumbs. In Vietnam, they slit the poor struggling cobra in front of you and place its still beating heart into a glass of its own blood. In West Bengal and Kerala, they turn live turtles upside down, slit their stomachs and dip their shot glasses into the blood as the heart carries on pumping it out.

In Namibia, the intestines of the Warthog are pulled out of its anus, the faeces is squeezed out and it is roasted and eaten unwashed. Dwaeji-makchang is a popular dish made out of the rectum of pigs in Korea. In Singapore, they stir fry and eat the fallopian tubes and uteruses of pigs.

In Canada the Inuits eat the raw eyeballs of seals immediately after they kill them. In Japan, Tuna eyeballs are sold in supermarkets and eaten with a little garlic. Moose Noses are removed by Alaskans, sliced and boiled. Yak penises are eaten in Beijing (what isn’t) to fight acne in women.

People, who are aghast at the French eating snails, will eat the eggs of a sturgeon fish, cut out of its pregnant stomach while she is alive. This is called caviar. In Mexico, Escamolor ‘insect caviar’ is made of the larvae and pupae of ants.

The idea of eating human male sperm makes one sick, but in Japan, Shirako- raw, steamed or fried white gooey sacs of fish semen filled with sperm – is considered a creamy delicacy. Milt means the sperm of fish – and it tastes like male human sperm. It is popular in so many countries (Romania, Russia, Indonesia, Japan) where the testicles of fish are eaten with the milt.

People pay lakhs to eat Pâté de Foie Gras, a raw paste made from the cancerous liver of a goose. As revolting is the national Nordic delicacy of beheaded Greenland shark which is buried in sand and then taken out after three months, when the meat is truly rotten, and then eaten. Or the fermented head of a king salmon, buried underground for a few weeks and eaten as mush.

Frog legs are cut from live frogs and are a staple part of French and Chinese food, besides being eaten in many European countries. We may be disgusted by such brutality, but till 1977, India was the largest exporter of frogs’ legs and the population of frogs has still not recovered from the genocide that we perpetrated on these clever useful beings. As of 2014, the world’s largest exporter of frogs’ legs is Indonesia.

You feel sick at the thought that royal families in Rajasthan used to put dead pigeons into wine to ferment, and create a liqueur called Asha. But normal wine which is drunk by millions of Indians – and even made tax free in Maharashtra for many years in order to popularise it – is filtered through dead fish bladders, called Isinglass, so that the drinker does not suspect! Beer is also processed through fish bladders.

Eggs are the period blood of a hen or duck which will turn into birds if you let them. The Filipinos have gone one step further: they want the yolk and the white and the meat all together. So they incubate eggs of ducks for 18 days till the embryo is partially developed. And then they eat all three together in the national dish called Balut.

All over India, people are disgusted by the eating of dogs. Over 1.27 lakh emails were sent to Nagaland alone in just 3 days to stop the practice. But are goats and chickens less sentient? Not at all. I have lived my life closely with animals and I find goats, camels, donkeys, and especially ducks and chickens, as intelligent and easy to love as dogs. But the rest of India considers it normal – even essential – to kill these beings.

Compassion is an essential part of being civilised. The human is just as savage today as he always was – and no amount of art and poetry will change that.

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)