What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten? Although (I think) I’m willing to try pretty much anything, I haven’t had many opportunities to truly push the boundaries. I once had a seafood hotpot at Melbourne’s (famous) Supper Inn – I didn’t recognise anything in it, although all the key ingredients certainly seemed to be from the mollusc family. I’ve also eaten ‘bush tucker’ including Witchetty grubs, emu, kangaroo and crocodile (that lot will sound exotic to people living outside of Australia but here, not so much).
It’s all mahogany desks, rowing crews, glasses of sherry and legal loopholes in Ian Flitcroft’s The Reluctant Cannibals, the story of a secret gastronomic society at St Jerome’s college, Oxford.
“The unusual parts of normal animals and the normal parts of unusual animals had left him wondering whether it was such a good idea to offer ice cream as a dessert.”
The title tells you the guts of the plot – a group of food-obsessed academics devote themselves to investigating exotic and forgotten culinary treasures. One of the group members, Professor Arthur Plantagenet, discovers he has a serious heart condition and decides that his imminent death should not be in vain – his will contains instructions that test the loyalty of society members by tackling gastronomy’s ultimate taboo: cannibalism.
“Anthropophagy, please, cannibalism is such an ugly and etymologically unsound word,” replied Arthur…
I was torn by this book. The descriptions of food were sublime, quirky and unquestionably intriguing – who knew beaver tail was considered fish for the purposes of Lent; that squills were the ultimate ‘fast-food’ crustacean; and that oysters are one of the few foods that are routinely eaten with a still beating heart?
“The sea urchin and fennel en papillote with… caramelised vermouth sauce….”
“A fresh oyster in dill-scented cream over Laphroaig whiskey… Courgette flowers lightly fried in fennel and Courage’s Best Bitter batter with a fresh anchovy and pecorino stuffing…”
Equally, the descriptions of odd university traditions (asparagus races; to be ‘croqueted’; Parson’s Pleasure) gave the story a nicely voyeuristic feel – who doesn’t like to know about secret societies and ancient rituals?
However, I slogged through the second half of the story. In fact, I found myself picking up the book and putting it down so many times that I began to wonder why it had failed to keep my attention. I suspect that the sub-plot (a Japanese diplomat, dropping dead at a society dinner after eating puffer fish and the efforts of college students to unmask society members) was simply too long and detailed – lots of the subplot could have been done away with for a livelier tale. Equally, while as an ex-rower I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of boat races and the subsequent celebrations, one or two would have been sufficient.
Flitcroft’s writing style is methodical and impeccably detailed (no doubt a reflection of his professional career as a doctor). His style gives credibility to every aspect of the story, leaving the reader to question what is fact and what is fiction – you may want to have Google by your side as you read.
2.5/5 The writing is fine, the concept is fine but it just didn’t hold my attention. Dare I say that this is a story I would have enjoyed more as a film or as a play? A swift delivery would make it shine.
I received my copy of The Reluctant Cannibals from the publisher, Legend Press via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
“In the molluscan version of roulette played by every lover of oysters, there are inevitable losers. The oyster’s dietary habit of scooping up detritus from the ocean floor is decidedly less selective than the humans that are fond of eating them.”
To date, I have not been hit in oyster-roulette. May that continue. Serve freshly shucked oysters (beating hearts and all) with The Reluctant Cannibals.