The Original Peculiar Food Compendium
In recent years, we've seen a string of books on insects and other presumably disgusting foods. "The Curiosities of Food: Or the Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained From the Animal Kingdom" (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2001: $16.95), originally published in 1859, might have been the first.
As Alan Davidson explains in his introduction, the author, Peter Lund Simmonds, was a friend of William Buckland, famous in 19th-century England for being willing to taste literally anything. Simmonds recounts a couple of anecdotes about Buckland, including an experiment in cooking boa constrictor (Buckland said it tasted like veal, which seems to have been the 19th-century equivalent of "tastes like chicken"; lion, it turns out, "tastes like veal," too).
Simmonds was attempting to list all the animals used for food, not just the insects and rodents of more recent books, although he clearly had a taste for unorthodox. And there are a couple of other differences between his book and the ones you're likely to see offered as impulse purchases around Christmastime.
His prose is old-fashioned, naturally. You have to look up occasional terms like "train oil" (whale oil used in lamps - the Victorians were as surprised by the news that Eskimos ate whale oil as we are to learn that the Romans burned olive oil in their lamps). In Simmonds' anecdotes, people often speak in dialect, which was considered a jolly way of giving color to a story 150 years ago but is likely to get you in trouble today.
Another difference is his sources - largely amateur scientists, witty clergymen and the sort of all-out go-getters who flourished in the Victorian age. A certain Dr. Kane opined, "Fire would ruin the curt, pithy expression of vitality which belongs to [the] uncooked juices" of raw walrus liver. Another man, unnamed, planned to make his fortune by shipping salted rats from rat-infested western India to the rat-loving gourmets of China.
And finally, Simmonds was describing an age that couldn't have imagined the prosperity and convenience of our own. In his day, the ivory dust produced as a byproduct of carving ivory was sold for thickening gelatins. "Esquimaus" (Eskimos) were reported to make sledges from frozen fish; you could travel across the snow on them, and in a pinch you could also eat them. When Simmonds described the land crab hunts of the Caribbean and the South American trade in monkey flesh, they were not something distant and theoretical - they were the vigorous, lurid reality of the time.