On foodstuffs that look oddly human.

(The College Hill Independent, March 1997)


CANNIBALISM HAS a bad rep -- we use its name as an epithet, we saddle its significance with psychobabble, and we declare its practice more heinous than murder. But chew on this: despite the righteous noise, we have more of a taste for our own flesh than you might be able to digest.

Or let me put it this way: Right now, I'm gnawing on a human head. And I have many more right beside me. In fact, I possess a nicely marketed and smartly packaged set of sweet little kids that I can savor at my leisure--Sour Patch Kids, I believe we call them. But they're not all I have, no no no; I eat adults, too. I have eaten people of the gingerbread, gummy, chocolate, Jell-O, and ice cream races. Flintstones and Street Sharks, too. Even Jesus at Mass. And body parts! Lady fingers tickle my palate, while breast cookies and penis pasta excite my appetite. And where the foods aren't people, the marketers make them appear awfully close--don't those M&Ms seem unnervingly human when one of them has a Brooklyn accent? And doesn't the Pillsbury doughboy, beyond looking human, beyond that sugary, child-like laugh... doesn't he look, um, appetizing?

Certainly--and regardless of your current opinion regarding our contemporary lust for flesh--cannibals have a long, broad, and sometimes noble history. Some of the earliest evidence comes from southern France, where there are Stone Age settlements littered with human bones, bones bearing knife- and burn-marks indicating that their one-time owners were eaten.

Later on, the Stoics, in defining their Wise Man--the man we should all aspire to be (even Bill Clinton said he was a Stoic)--end their list of necessary qualities with this one: "And, on occasion, he will taste of human flesh." And for good reason, because in the Wise Man's day, some felt it was a heinous crime not to eat your dead relatives--indeed, some of the first arguments about cultural relativism concerned disagreement between those who burned their dead and others who cooked theirs.

For the cultures that practiced such ritualized anthropophagy (an academic term for cannibalism), some anthropologists theorize that the eating was a way to honor the dead, to ensure the continuance of their spirits. Others, though, give a more materialist explanation: it would have been a waste of food to discard such good meat. But both of these camps spring from more contemporary anthropology; the older (and less enlightened) literature on the subject concerns another sort of cannibal--a bloodthirsty, zealous cannibal, who eats people for the sheer taste and exhilaration of ingesting other sentient beings. Many contemporary anthropologists and cultural critics assert that these exaggerated accounts of cannibalism were an imperialist tool, used to set up the line between civilization and savagery, used to justify the classification of other people as beasts. And some contemporaries even assert that no cannibalism has ever occurred--a well-motivated claim that seems rather difficult to prove.

But all of this discussion points at a Western (certainly an American) fascination with the practice, for along with our creation of the bloodthirsty savage who made us feel both proud of our sophistication and afraid for our missionary brethren, we have spit up another sort of cannibal: the man of high taste, the man who eats only the choicest of flesh, the man who blurs--no, devours--that line between sophistication and barbarism that we claim to cherish. A Jeffrey Dahmer, if you will, who can rehabilitate the cannibalist cause into a culinary art; for Dahmer was a cannibal par excellence, without a stitch of culturally legitimate food in his apartment--only body parts and tasty condiments.

And we were disgustedly intrigued with him, even with less astute perpetrators of similar crimes, like the man who allegedly cut off another man's genitals, cooked and then ate them in 1980. These cannibal stories generate a long-term following--for while "Alive" fast became a blockbuster film, we have been erecting monuments to the Donner Party for a hundred years. So what does all of this interest--or salivating--indicate? I'll tell you. We have a problem with drawing lines around things that, deep down, we like--Americans have never really been good puritans simply because we find taboo too interesting. And of course, I'm far too sophisticated to be puritanical and pass judgment on this practice, especially since my earliest moral maneuvering can be summed thus: it's okay to kill animals if you're going to eat them. And aren't we just animals?

But, tossing aside morality, throwing the past out the window, what about the here and now? How can we--especially given our dying interest in the subject--do without this ritual sacrifice, without this honoring of our own flesh through ingestion? Or, more precisely: How can we live without savoring life, how can we understand humanity without ingesting a few morsels of it? There's only one answer: We can't. I mean, how could we?

SO I REPEAT: I am gnawing on a human head. It's a different head than before, I admit, but it's definitely a head. The sugar and sour crystals crunch like cranium between my molars, and I pull the head from the neck, tearing it off like overstretched rubber. I bite off the other appendages, leaving behind an almost circular torso. I pop that in my mouth, too. Don't you love to eat children?

If not, if you still can't identify with the appeal of gnawing on heads, if you don't admit you want to bite into the doughboy, then let me ask you this: whence the preponderance of these anthropomorphic foodstuffs? In the sea of foods to which we give new shapes and forms, why are so many humanoid? If it weren't appealing, if these foods didn't sell, they'd go off the market, but that's far from the case: in fact, many foods that aren't shaped at all like people are marketed to appear human. Look at a box of Nerds: those little sugar-balls run around with crazed looks on their faces. And M&Ms: the new computer-animated commercials remove the line between cartoon and reality--actors eat the candies while sitting next to them, talking like old friends.

It reminds me of a story (probably apocryphal, but that's even better for our purposes) I once heard about a girl, her goat-friend, and the ensuing college essay. This girl, she spent the summer in the mountains of some appealingly rustic country--mountain goats, goat cheese, herders with walking sticks--the whole postcards-from-Albania thing. Over the course of her stay, she became close friends with one particular goat, I mean very close. The two were always together, and the goat played a big role in her transformation from a Sheltered American Girl to one who understands the truly important things--like friendships with goats. And at the end of her stay, the family she was with decided to have a feast in her honor, a goodbye feast to send this girl back home. And for the feast, the family served goat, but not just any goat, no. They served her goat.

As she sat there eating her friend, this girl--or perhaps, now: woman--realized (or so she wrote in her essay) that she had the responsibility to enjoy the meal, to honor her friend through eating him with pride. To savor the deliciousness of his meat, to understand his being through our most essential, pure act: eating. There is no better way to honor someone; we are what we eat.

But is that true in the larger context? Are we attracted to anthropomorphic goodies because we want to follow in the long tradition of understanding through ingestion? There is definitely a linguistic basis for such a claim. Though many of our words for knowledge and understanding revolve around a visual metaphor ("I see what you mean," "Her explanation was lucid," etc.), words that convey more full understanding, and moreover appreciation for such understanding, seem to involve a digestive metaphor. For the really good concepts are juicy; I can sink my teeth into them. And I have to mull over, have to fully digest, certain thoughts before I feel like I can internalize them; it gives me time to savor them, just as I savor my experiences, just as I savor the taste of the forbidden fruit. And so, through eating images of ourselves, perhaps we hope to more fully understand and internalize the outside world--which is all historical beings like ourselves apparently want to do anyway; we are overstuffed with knowledge, and are usually ravenous for more. And writing about these goodies only makes me hungrier.

My eight-year old sister, Sophia, explains this predilection for auto-predation through an analogy to Chronos, who ate his children because of the prophecy that one would kill and dethrone him--as his son Zeus eventually did. "It's like Chronos," she said, and she's right: we're not really eating our enemies, we're eating our mass culture offspring, we're eating smiling, giggling, bouncing, innocent little-people.

But perhaps, after Chronos, we should be a little more wary. Or perhaps that would just be a waste of time.


Sam Schechner wrote this piece in 1997, when he was in college. He is currently a reporter at the Wall Street Journal.