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Let us look into some of the items which these professedly most refined eaters partook of with relish —though it is only fair to state that some of the ladies could not sufficiently overcome their prejudices to enjoy their meal.
The "Bird's Nest Soup" was, I believe, universally appreciated, and, personally, I thought that it was perhaps the most delicious soup I had ever tasted. Yet, from what is it made, ye dainty feeders? The nest of a small swallow, constructed by that bird principally by the means of threads of a viscid fluid secreted from its mouth. Does not that sound nasty enough? Yet what excellent soup is made therefrom, being not only delicious to the taste, but said also to possess great strengthening qualities, and to be an excellent specific for indigestion. The annual value of these nests imported into China and Japan exceeds £200, 000. Surely, considering the general approbation expressed of this soup at the Health Exhibition, it would pay some enterprising London merchant to import nests into England.
The "Visigo a la Tortue" was also an excellent soup, a kind of imitation turtle, made from the octopus or cuttle-fish. — The cuttlefish! Go to any aquarium; look on those hideous creatures and tell me, are not they loathsome? Do they look nice to eat?
"Biche de Mer a la Matelote Chinoise." — This was the dish which frightened the more delicate ladies. Why? Merely because its common English name is the "sea slug." There cannot be a particle of doubt that, if it had always previously been known only by its less common name of sea cucumber or Trepang, it would have been refused by none. What's in a name? The Trepang by any other name would taste as sweet! Those who partook of this dish all pronounced it to be excellent eating, although its ingredients did resemble in looks pieces of old shoe leather or large black slugs. Not that there could be any valid objection if it actually were made of either. Half the delicious calves' foot jelly in the world is made from old parchment and leather clippings, and slugs are no worse than oysters.
We have thus recently had an opportunity of tasting some of the varieties of a usual Chinese menu, and our verdict upon them was proved to be favourable by "the Chinese dinner at the Healtheries" becoming one of the fashionable entertainments of the season. There one had opportunities of watching, with wonder, the most refined ladies and gentlemen, in correct evening costume, sitting down to partake of a dinner, whose most attractive items, as shown in the menu, were such objects as bird's nest soup, cuttle-fish, sea slugs, and shark's fins, for no other reason than that it was the fashion to do so. I will venture to say that if it had been previously suggested to those people to have such items included in the menu at a country house, they would have expressed disgust at the idea. Fashion is the most powerful motive in the world. Why does not some one in a high place set the common-sense fashion of adding insect dishes to our tables? The flock would not be long in following.
After eating of those unaccustomed dishes at the Health Exhibition, and discovering how good they were, is it not a wonder that people do not look around them for the many new gastronomic treasures lying neglected at their feet? Prejudice, prejudice, thy strength is enormous! People will dilate upon the delicate flavour of one fungus, under the name of mushroom, while they stamp upon, or cast from them, the disappointing young puff-ball and a dozen other common kinds of fungi, all equally nice and wholesome, if people would only recognize it, as the one they gloat over. People will, in like manner, enjoy oysters and cockles, while they abominate snails; they will make themselves ill with indigestible and foul-feeding lobsters while they look with horror upon pretty clean-feeding caterpillars. All this would not be so absurd if it were only the rich that were concerned, for they can afford to be dainty. But while we, in these days of agricultural depression, do all we can to alleviate the sufferings of our starving labourers, ought we not to exert our influence towards pointing out to them a neglected food supply?
From almost every part of the inhabited globe instances and examples can be brought of the eating of insects, both in ancient and modern times, by people of every colour and nation. If I bring forward examples from ancient times, or from among those nations, in modern times, which are called uncivilized, I foresee that I shall be met with the argument, "Why should we imitate these uncivilized races?" But upon examination it will be found that, though uncivilized, most of these peoples are more particular as to the fitness of their food than we are, and look on us with far greater horror for using, as food, the unclean pig or the raw oyster, than we do upon them for relishing a properly cooked dish of clean-feeding locusts or palm-grubs. If we are to imitate in nothing these savage races, how is it that from their example we cultivate the priceless Peruvian bark or quinine; that we, rich and poor alike, feed daily on the imported potato; that we delight in curry; and that our men, each at first struggling against his natural aversion and sickness, accustom themselves by force of will to the soothing influence of the noxious weed, tobacco?
Beginning with the earliest rimes, one can produce examples of insect-eating at every period down to our own age. Speaking to the people of Israel, at Lev. xi. 22, Moses directly encourages them to eat clean-feeding insects: "These ye may eat, the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind." Again, John the Baptist is recorded to have lived in the desert upon locusts and wild honey. Some critics, however, apparently considering locusts unnatural food, and ignorant of how they are relished in the East, have gone out of their way to produce long arguments to prove that the word which has been translated "locusts" ought to have been rendered as the name of a species of cassia-pod. This is not so. Almost every traveller of note has given us an account of how the Eastern nations enjoy these insects. Pliny records the fact that in his day they were much eaten by the Parthians. Herodotus describes the mode adopted by the Nasamones of powdering locusts for the purpose of baking them into cakes.
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