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Feasts of the Macabre

Written By Avra Margariti

Avra Margariti is a queer author and Pushcart-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Strange Horizons, F&SF, The Deadlands, Vastarien, and Reckoning. Avra lives and studies in Athens, Greece. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).

Food is storytelling. Think of the resplendent fruits of the Goblin Market, the six pomegranate seeds Persephone ate that bound her to Hades and the Underworld, children being warned not to eat anything the fairies offer them or they will never return to the human world. The Ancient Greek Pantheon subsists on nectar and ambrosia. According to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the dead drink only dirt and eat only clay. Even the body and blood of Christ is mythologized in its own canon.

But beyond fictional storytelling, food, drink, and the unusual customs or circumstances associated with both can be found in the realm of human history as well. And those real-world stories can be just as strange, macabre, and marvelous.

The Ortolan

A small songbird traditional in French cuisine, whose popularity made the species go nearly extinct. The ortolan is consumed whole, but before that it is marinated in brandy and spices, while still alive. Eating an ortolan was considered a “decadent and disgraceful act.” As a result, patrons ate the bird while hiding their heads under a tablecloth, to avoid their shame being witnessed by “the eyes of God,” a practice that was popularized by a priest in a ritual of nearly pagan undertones.

Powdered Mummia

Also known as ground human remains from mummies that had been either embalmed or desiccated. This substance was exported from Egypt and sold by apothecaries as a miraculous panacea that could improve all aspects of a person’s life by imbibing it. In Victorian times especially, the mummia was a popular cure-all reserved for those with the means to purchase it. The rich were also known to nibble on small pieces of mummy flesh in social gatherings, also known as ‘unwrapping parties,’ to channel the mummy’s supernatural properties into themselves. Another category of mummy preservation was called “mellification.” Humans were steeped in honey, then eaten as a healing treat throughout history.

Snake Wine

Drunk in shot glasses and characterized by a high alcoholic content, this rice or grain beverage is made by infusing whole snakes through wine. In traditional practice, venomous snakes are preferred, as they are thought to contain the most therapeutic properties. The venom usually dissolves in the alcohol, but sometimes it might still be harmful to humans if the wine is drunk from the bottle too soon, although the envenomation is different than a direct snake bite. Similar elixirs can be made from steeping scorpions or even sea horses.

Ergot-Infected Grain

Ergot is a fungus found in rye and other crops that can cause ergotism in humans, a poisoning that occurs through ingestion. There is a theory that the dancing plague of 1518 was caused by ergotism. During that time, a village in modern-day France was overtaken by the irrepressible desire to dance wildly and without pause for several weeks. Historians can’t agree how many of those affected by the plague danced themselves to death. It has been proposed that, other than ergotism, other possible causes include mass hysteria and religious mania.

Figs

A natural process gives fig trees a macabre history inherent in the creation of their fruits. When fig wasps pollinate the fruits, they crawl inside the figs, until their bodies become trapped. An enzyme called ficin helps break down the wasp’s body, so that it acts as a fertilizer helping the fig to grow. The fig absorbs the wasp inside it, so by the time the fruit is ready to pluck, fig and wasp have become an inextricable whole.

Ambergris

Also known as grey amber or floating gold, it is a wax-like, but solid material created in the digestive system of sperm whales. Traditionally, it has been used in perfume-making because of its aromatic properties, especially as the ambergris ages. But ambergris, partly because of its value and rarity due to its difficult extraction, has also been used in food and drinks by the rich. King Charles II of England considered ambergris part of his favorite meal, combining it with eggs. During the Black Death, ambergris was thought to be able to ward against the sickness if carried close to its holder’s nose. As a result, plague doctors sometimes wore the substance inside the beaks of their avian masks so they could inhale its scent.

Feasts of the fantastic and the unexplained play an important part in the storytelling traditions of every world culture. But real-life foods and drinks are not lacking in strangeness compared to their mythopoetic counterparts.