Charles Darwin and the Glutton Club
He was the world’s most famous biologist. The discoverer of a multitude of new and exciting species but less well known about him is the fact that while he studied at Cambridge University, he was a member of a special society. A society known as the Glutton Club.
Charles Robert Darwin was born on the 12th of February 1809 at his family home in Shrewsbury, England.
He was the fifth of six children born to wealthy parents. His father was a doctor to other high society types and his mother likewise came from family money.
He showed an affinity for animals and nature from an early age and by age 8 was collecting many of his own specimens from the fields around his home. In that same year his mother Susannah passed away from stomach cancer.
In his teens he took his obsession up a notch and became an avid beetle collector. Even at such a young age he would sometimes pop a beetle in his mouth and eat it, in his mind to try and understand it better. He records in his diary that on one particular occasion he was incredibly disappointed when trying to scoff down a bombardier beetle. As he was putting up to his mouth the beetle fired acid all over his hand, giving it just enough time to escape. He was lucky that it didn’t spray him once already in his mouth as the superheated liquid reaches temperatures above boiling point and contains high levels of hydrogen peroxide. Because of this fact, bombardier beetles have no known predators on earth.
He seemed to have unknowingly stumbled upon a widespread practice in the botany world of sampling your case studies. Though it may seem counterintuitive to us, it has long been a tradition of scientists to record all facets of the animals they study, including what they taste like.
By the time he reached university his passion had only increased. It was here that he was introduced to and subsequently joined a Cambridge society known as the Glutton Club. They were a group of students devoted to devouring quote: "birds and beasts which were before unknown to the human palate.
One of the Glutton Club members, a man named John Herbert, described the group’s name as somewhat of misnomer. He says:
“We were none of us given to excess, but our little dinners were very refined, elegant & well-served. We generally wound up the evening with a game of cards.”
The name was in fact meant as a dig at another Cambridge food club with a rather more pretentious name. This other group pretended to eat sophisticated, elegant meals but instead, more often than not, found themselves at a local pub gorging themselves on mutton chops and beans.
The Glutton Club didn’t have the same kind of access to exotic animals as William Buckland did in our previous episode. They would meet on a weekly basis, sharing stories and sampling the meat of birds and small animals that they were able to get their hands on. They managed to catch and roast a hawk as well as a wading bird similar to a heron called a Bittern. It seemed the club members had rather adventurous palates, but that all came crashing down one fateful meeting. One of the men in the group had, during the week, managed to procure a brown owl captured by a local farmer. He brought it along with glee and presented it to his fellow Glutton Club members who were intrigued as to what this bird would taste like.
They set about cooking it and talking about their lives and plans as they went. Once it was ready and had been prepared as best they could, they sat down to the table and passed the meat around so that everyone had a piece. Together the signal was given and each man tucked into the flesh of the brown owl on their plates before them.
It took almost no time at all for their faces to screw up in disgust and because they were gentlemen, they didn’t just spit the food back out onto their plates. Rather there was a wave of men politely pretending to cough into their napkins as they disposed of the foul tasting meat. It was apparently so terribly off putting that they all lost their respective appetites for the club altogether, on the off chance that they might stumble upon something equally distasteful or worse.
Charles Darwin was dismayed at his fellow students' lack of culinary adventure. But he wouldn’t have to wait too long before his famous research voyage aboard the HMS Beagle set sail. On this journey he would be inundated with new and exciting animals to feast upon.
Darwin was just 22 years old when the HMS Beagle set sail. The journey that he was embarking upon would circumnavigate the globe and take 5 years to complete. He stopped at so many different places and spent so much time exploring and researching the plant and animal life that of those 5 years, only 18 months were actually spent on board the ship sailing.
At each destination they called in at, there would be new and exciting animals to explore. Some that were known all around the globe and some that he was discovering for the first time. He would record them, and then sample them, seemingly in honour of his time spent with the Cambridge Glutton Club. The Galapagos islands are well known as one of Darwin's favourite places on earth, an ecosystem abundantly bursting with life. It was here that he first tried his hand at cooking and eating the iguanas that he was studying. Another animal on these islands would become one of his favourite dishes, as it was among many sailors due to it’s delicious buttery flavour. I’m talking about the giant Galapagos Tortoises. They were so popular in fact that their species is now on the endangered list after so many of them were cooked and eaten. Not content simply to eat them, he would take it one step further by drinking the clear liquid found in the tortoises bladders. This was not a massive hit however as he described the taste as overwhelmingly bitter.
His travels took him to South America too and it was here that he dined on puma, which he described as tasting remarkably like veal. He would also eat armadillos which he claimed tasted just like duck.
It was when he arrived in Argentina however that one of the best stories of his culinary adventures happened. He spent his days discovering and classifying new animals, birds and insects. One of the birds he wanted to classify seemed to be either very rare or incredibly shy as he just couldn’t seem to catch one no matter how hard he tried. The bird in question is now known as the lesser Rhea, which is a South American version of an ostrich. Months went by and still he had no luck in capturing one to study.
The team that was with him had by now become very aware of his desire to consume rare creatures. It was December 1833 and they were docked in Puerto Deseado, or as we know it in English, Port Desire. This was a small fishing village in the Patagonia region of Argentina. The ships artist had managed to procure a very special treat and he made sure to save it for the upcoming christmas dinner. The 25th of December rolled around and the cooks laid on a feast for him and the crew. The meals were cooked and the guests were seated at the table. The first course came and went without incident, but it was the next that would be truly remarkable. The dishes were served and the cloches were lifted to reveal an indistinct meat on the platter, that had a somewhat gamey flavour. Darwin was intrigued and tucked in heartily. One mouthful, then two and slowly a creeping realization began to dawn on the botanist. He was eating the as yet unclassified and extremely rare lesser Rhea that he had spent so many months trying to study. He spat the food out of his mouth and stood up so quickly that he knocked his chair over. He held his hands up and shouted for the assembled guests to stop eating immediately. He was in a panic and grabbed a bag from a nearby counter top. He ran around the table, scooping the remains off both the platter and the peoples plates, trying his best to preserve what he could of the bird.
He managed to gather the head, neck, legs and many of the larger feathers from the bird and after brief study, he sent them back to London for safe keeping.
Of all the animals he dined upon on his travels, he definitely had a clear favourite as noted in his diary. It was a 20-pound brown coloured rodent, commonly thought to be what we know as the Agouti. His diary goes on to note it as “The very best meat that I have ever tasted!”.
It seems that Darwin started a trend from which many other scientists, botanists and naturalists have taken his lead.
In 1971 a professor named Richard Wassersug published a paper directly concerned with the taste of different species of tadpoles. He bribed his under-grad students with beer in order to get them to taste all of the different tadpoles. They didn’t ever actually eat them however, just swilled them around in their mouths and then apparently released them back into the wild. I’m not sure there is such a thing as emotional counselling for tadpoles, but if there was, these ones would certainly need it.
In another story involving the same professor, he once got into a salamander eating contest with a fellow researcher. He was soundly beaten after only managing to stomach one of the creatures while his competitor managed to put away six.
Another researcher with a doctorate in invasive species makes a great argument for eating the plants and animals she studies. Many of them actually taste great and there can never be the fear of over-harvesting them as they need to be removed anyway. She once attended an invasive species cooking competition where her favourite dishes involved house sparrow drumsticks and bullfrog legs with a side order of garlic mustard pate and himalayan blackberries.
One of the best stories comes from a geologist in the late 1970’s named Robert Thorson. He was on an expedition in Alaska studying rock layers in a bank of permafrost that had slowly begun to melt. No-one could have predicted what they would find in the melting permafrost. There, wedged into the bank was the frozen carcass of a 30 000 year old giant steppe bison that had been extinct for millenia. He and his colleague pulled on one of the bones and it broke away with a chunk of meat still attached to it. They looked knowingly at one another and immediately set about starting a fire. Thorson took the meat down to the nearest river and made sure to wash it properly, rinsing all of the silt and sediment away from the meat. He brought it back up to the fire and they set about roasting it as best they could. Once it was done they broke some meat off and together took their first tentative bites. It was certainly edible, but was by no means tasty. The meat was both stringy and leathery and had an strong pungent flavour of mild decay. I think it’s safe to say that neither man went back for seconds.
So next time you feel those hunger pangs strike, and there’s inconveniently nothing in the fridge, don’t despair. Simply head outside to the garden, where there is apparently veritable smorgasbord of edible options for you, if these researchers are anything to go by. And if you should choose to do this, I think it’s only fair that your friends and family start addressing you as professor.