March 28, 2024 | Samantha Henman

Weird Foods From History People Actually Ate


Bon Appetit!

For all the variety of delicious foods we have access to today, many of them have a relatively short history. Caesar salad, after all, doesn’t come from Ancient Rome—just from a guy named Caesar who worked in a Tijuana restaurant in the 1920s. It turns out, people throughout history were eating some stuff that was pretty twisted—and occasionally, pretty intriguing.

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Braised Flamingo

Chicken wasn’t always the poultry to beat. In the 5th century in Ancient Rome, wealthy diners could indulge in a dish of braised flamingo. They’d have to be well-off, considering the bird is native to Africa and they’d have to have it brought in. And, to top it off, the best parts of the bird were considered to be the brain and the tongue.

happy young man eating chicken meatLisa A, Shutterstock

Witchetty Grubs

It must have been hard to survive the rough terrain of Australian, with all the weird and wonderful wildlife they have there, before the modern era. In ancient times, one of their major sources of protein was the witchetty grub—fat larva found in the roots of the witchetty bush.

Children showing off their witchetty grubs.Swee Oon, Flickr

Mummies

Oh! Did we just switch lists from weird foods to classic movie monsters? No? Well, that’s unfortunate. People of the Victorian era were absolutely obsessed with Ancient Egypt, and they took it to extreme lengths, including eating recently unearthed mummies. But it wasn’t just them—even in the 16th century, some believed that ingesting ground-up mummy remains provided medical benefits.

Mummy in Glass CoffinVasily Yashkin, Pexels

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Virgin Boy Eggs

Trigger warning for the squeamish: this one is a lot. Virgin boy eggs are a delicacy that goes back hundreds of years in China. They are eggs hard-boiled in the urine of boys under the age of 10. It’s believed to have health benefits—and even better news: Some towns still make them.

Avocado and Boiled Egg on Toasted BreadNicola Barts, Pexels

Cockentrice

If it looks like a chicken from the back and squeals like a pig, it’s probably a cockentrice. And sorry, we were joking about the squealing. You may know the name cockatrice from Dungeons & Dragons, but in the Middle Ages, the cockentrice was an extravagant dish where the front of a pig was attached to the back end of a chicken, then cooked and served.

Roasted Pig Head.Alpha, Flickr

Locusts

Talk about making lemonade out of lemons. People took a Biblical plague and made it a yummy source of protein! In Ancient Greece, locusts were a tasty snack, and they’re still on the menu in some Asian countries.

Locusts dishDanangtrihartanto, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Dormice

Dormice are tiny, nocturnal rodents found in Africa, Asia, and Europe. And if you were alive in Ancient Rome, they were also a tasty snack. They didn’t just catch them wild—they would also keep them in clay pots and fatten them up by feeding them nuts. Then, they’d get roasted and eaten.

Dormice on the table.carnifex82, Flickr

Black Soup

The black soup we know today as a Nigerian dish is different from the historical black soup, a Spartan dish which combined pork meat, salt, and vinegar in a broth made from pig’s blood. The vinegar offered flavor and kept the blood from clotting. Double duty!

Feijoada (Brazilian Black Bean Stew) - 2013Elias Rovielo, Flickr

Ambergris

Ambergris is a waxy substance that is produced in the digestive track of sperm whales. Though it was mostly used in perfumery, it was also eaten and used in drinks. King Charles II of England loved to eat it with eggs, and it was used to flavor Turkish coffee in 18th century England.

Real ambergris from a whale - 2006Peter Kaminski, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Soil

If you find your kid eating a handful of dirt, it could be a playful mistake—or it could be a condition called pica, where people are tempted to ingest things that aren’t food. But the consumption of soil isn’t just a symptom of pica. For hundreds of years, it was considered to be beneficial among Native Americans, Africans, and South Americans cultures.

Close-Up Photo of Person Holding SandMuffin Creatives, Pexels

Broxy Meat

Desperate times call for desperate measures. In the Victorian era, the working poor might not have enough to get fresh meat, but they’d have enough to get broxy meat. That would be meat from previously deceased—as in, not slaughtered for consumption animals. It was a dice roll whether they’d died of somewhat natural causes, in which case you’d be okay, or if they died from a disease that you could possibly also catch.

Slices of Pork Meat Over a Brown PaperYash Maramangallam, Pexels

Posca

Sounds like a refreshing soda, doesn’t it? Posca. And while it’s certainly…a beverage, it doesn’t sound especially refreshing. Coming all the way from Ancient Greece and Rome, it involves a mixture of herbs and spices in a base of sour wine or water and vinegar. Actually, I could see this one taking hold once people move on from kombucha.

Posca DrinkAllyson Batis, Wikimedia Commons

Chewy Milk

Well, that’s not a name that’s telling me anything I want to hear. Ireland isn’t just known for its potatoes—they also raise cattle for milk, butter, and cheese. And in ancient Ireland, they made a type of milk that was yellow, bubbly, and chewy. And not just in the way you might get a chunk in your smoothie, no. It was not drinkable, and instead was something you ate slowly and chewed for a while.

Top view of sweet caramel toffees, fudges on a platemelima, Shutterstock

Cock Ale

If you think convenience food now has reached an apex, with products like Soylent that are supposed to provide all our nutrients in a drinkable form, well, the 17th century would like a word. A recipe from 1669 for cock ale has instructions to mix boiled chicken, raisins, and fruits and spice into beer. Now that’s a complete meal if I’ve ever heard of one.

Black man wearing green hoodie and making disgusting face.Cast Of Thousands , Shutterstock

Pig Udder Stuffed With Sea Urchin

At first glance, it sounds like something you might see on a super-gourmand, Michelin-starred, two-year-waiting-list, hyperlocal cuisine, small plates-only restaurant. But then, of course, you remember what an udder is. This one comes by way of Ancient Rome—and we wish it would stay there.

The whole suckling pigEwan Munro, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Deep Fried Maple Leaves

It sounds like something that might be served at a hockey game, but it actually comes to us by way Japan a millennium ago. They use the delicate leaves of the Japanese maple as they turn from green in the summer to red in the fall. Just as they the halfway point of yellow, they’re plucked from the tree and deep-fried.

Fried Maple Leaves Are A Tasty Autumn Snack In Japan - 2015Vichy Deal, Shutterstock

Garum

Did you know that the origins of ketchup are in fermented fish sauce? In that way, garum is something like a ancient Roman ketchup. It was made from fish left out in a clay pot with spices and herbs. Some preserved jars of it were even found at Pompeii and used by scientists to recreate recipes.

House-made garum (fish sauce)Edsel Little, Flickr

Fish Sauce Donuts

Speaking of—what’s the most likely food you’ve serve that garum with. Maybe a roasted meat or braised green of some kind? Apparently not. In Ancient Rome, people liked their fish sauce on deep-fried strips of dough. A savory donut? Maybe they were on to something…

Savory cheese donuts on the plateDaria Saveleva, Shutterstock

Horse Meat

This one is still consumed today and can be found in many different cultures—but for a long time, it was considered taboo. Why? Well, during the Middle Ages as Christianity spread, they considered it a “Pagan” food and thus, avoided it.

Horse meat on plate.Syced, Wikimedia Commons

Salted & Pressed Fish Ovaries

Cultures who lived by the water got incredibly creative when it came to using us every part of the fish. Most preparations were somewhat straightforward, but when it came to the ovaries—occasionally full of roe—they got creative. In Ancient Egypt, they’d cure them with salt. Sound gross? Well, if you’ve ever had a shower of bottarga over your pasta in an Italian restaurant, you’ve basically eaten the same thing.

Bottarga From Preveza GreeceHarrygouvas, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Sour Ram’s Testicles

Anyone who has seen the Iceland episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations will tell you that people from Iceland are built different. They have a long and storied history of food fermentation, and the results are not for the faint of heart. One of their traditional dishes was ram’s testicles cured in whey, then pressed into blocks and sliced.

Ram Sheep in the Cedar PointSteven Miller, Flickr

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Live Frog Pie

Well, this is more performance than delicacy. During the medieval era, some cooks would bake an empty pie crust and then put live frogs in it as a way to prank their guests. Frogs weren’t the only animals they used either! Seems like a good waste of a pie crust to me…

Frog sitting on the plateSergey Novikov, Shutterstock

Hakarl

Hakarl wasn’t just consumed hundreds of years ago by Vikings—it’s also the national dish of Iceland! It’s made of Greenland shark or other sleeper shark meat which is then fermented and left to dry over a period of months. Because of the high urea content of the meat, it’s said to taste like ammonia.

Fermented shark hanging to dry in IcelandChris 73 ,CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Beaver’s Tail

No, not BeaverTails, the pastry treat that contains no beaver and which you might find at Canadian tourist attractions, but actual beaver’s tails. In 15th century Europe, it was part of fast days where Catholics could eat fish but not meat (a technicality, if you’re asking me).

A Beaver TaleKeith Williams, Flickr

Fesikh

Fesikh is an ancient Egyptian dish made with fish. And that sentence is where the fun ends. What makes it different from other fish dishes? Well, it’s fish that’s fermented as it rots on the banks of the Nile. People have tried to bring this dish back since then, with varying results. One such attempt ended in a food poisoning outbreak that took 18 lives in 1991.

Fesikh - feseekh - Egyptian salted fish, traditional Egyptian food, attractively processed, super delicious.Thao Lan, Shutterstock

Ostrich Ragout

Like the braised flamingo before it, ostrich ragout was another delicacy in Ancient Rome which was often consumed by society’s elite due to its rarity. And let’s not forget that the ostrich was no small bird. Often in the 300-lb range, ostrich would be seasoned and then boiled and served whole.

A carver serves ostrich meat at the Carnivoreshankar s., Flickr

Roast Hedgehog

There are a number of animals who have adapted over time to gain defense mechanisms and other signals meant to say “Don’t eat me.” Humans have taken heed of these signals to varying degrees. For some reason, the tall spines covering the hedgehog didn’t quote do it for people of the Middle Ages, who liked to serve it roasted.

English: This photo of a Hedgehog was taken in JaisalmerAshLin, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Roasted Swan

Beauty was also not a deterrent during the Tudor era, when roasted swan might be served on special occasions. To really make sure no one got it confused with a measly duck, the chef would put its skin and feathers back on the cooked bird, and put a little gold crown on its head.

A swan in a dish.Blake Handley , CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Frog Blancmange

People in the past—and even in the last century—really had trouble differentiating between “main course” and “dessert” in my opinion. I’m thinking of my British family having mincemeat pie for dessert, and frog blancmange, served in the Tudor era. It took a perfectly good dessert, blancmange (very similar to panna cotta) and added frog meat. For some reason.

Yellow Blancmange.amazing_podgirl, Flickr

Tlacatlaolli

The direct translation of tlacatlaolli is “men shelled corn,” and it’s an older version of modern pozole. However, whereas pozole is made from corn and meat, usually pork, tlacatlaolli was made from corn and human flesh. It was a ceremonial food meant for the elite in Tenochtitlan society, and was later banned during Spanish colonization.

Pozole Rojo with Pork RecipeJames, Flickr

The Helmeted Cock

There was a lot of pomp and pageantry when it came to food for the upper classes in the medieval era. This is reflected in cockentrice, mentioned earlier, and something that would be considered a variation on the dish: The helmeted cock. In this version, the chicken sits on top of the pig like it’s riding it, and is posed with a lance and paper helmet.

What do I have to do to get my local Medieval Times to start serving this?

Roasted chicken with herbsvaivirga, Shutterstock

Toast Sandwich

The Victorians certainly got creative with what they had. One dish was the toast sandwich, which had a piece of dry toast between two pieces of buttered, untoasted bread. It might sound ridiculous, but if you have a lazy vegan in your life, ask them about the last time they had one. Their answer may surprise you.

Toast Sandwich On White PlateEwan Munro, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Ham And Bananas Hollandaise

Ahhh, you didn’t think we’d let the people of ancient Rome and the Middle Ages take all the blame here, did you? No, the 20th century was also the source of many weird foods, including Ham and Bananas Hollandaise, which is pretty much what it sounds like—mustard and ham wrapped around bananas, topped with hollandaise sauce, and then baked.

Ham And Bananas HollandaiseJames Vaughan, Flickr

Roti Sans Pareil

This dish, which translated to a “roast, unmatched,” lives up to its name. Created by a gourmand in the early 18th century, it has 17 birds stuffed inside each other by size, and then covered in three kinds of pork. Take that, turducken.

A chicken prepared with butter, lemon and bacon ready to be roasted in an ovenKolforn, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Pig Uterus

As the concept of “offal”—cuts of meat that were once considered unappetizing, like entrails and internal organs—became more popular on fancy restaurant menus, we’ve seen a resurgence of dishes featuring things like brain and tripe. But even the most adventurous modern diner might be afraid to get into things that the ancient Romans liked, like pig uterus.

Pig's trotters with vinegarJason D' Great, Flickr

Porpoise

Many cultures tend to avoid animals seem as “smarter”—though that doesn’t excuse our consumption of pork or octopus, I guess. While today, porpoise is hunted in Japan and by Inuit in the Arctic, at one point it was also within the culinary purview of the Anglo-Saxons during the Middle Ages.

Dolphin meat at market.Joseph Tame, Flickr

Liver Sausage Pineapple

From the same era as ham bananas hollandaise comes this delight, with a little more showiness in the mix. To make this, a cook would mix liver sausage and mayonnaise into a paste, mold it around a jar, and then frost it to look like a pineapple. Add a pineapple top and some chopped olives with pimentos for color, and you’ve got the hottest dinner party on the block in the 1950s.

Liver-sausage PineappleJodi Green, Flickr

Paraffin Cake

WWI and WWII rationing led to a lot of creativity in the kitchen, particularly in the area of baking. Without butter or lard to make cakes or pies, some home cooks turned to liquid paraffin to provide the “grease” for their cakes. Unfortunately, it’s not easily digested, so the results were…painful, to say the least.

Making a birthday cake.Library of Congress, Rawpixel

Vinegar Pie

Though this may sound like the product of war rationing as well, it actually has a longer history that dates back to the early 19th century in the US—though it still came from a place of ingenuity. It was nicknamed “poor man’s lemon pie,” which, if you think about it, it makes sense. If fruit or lemon juice was scarce or too expensive, you could make a type of custard or cream pie and flavor it with apple cider vinegar.

Vinegar Pie served on a white platejohnlck, Shutterstock

Corpses

Cannibalism is, famously, a cultural taboo that’s shared nearly universally. But what about when the person is dead? That’s different…right? Well, for the cast of Yellowjackets, yes—but also for some tribes in Papua New Guinea. They considered it a tribute to their deceased loved ones.

Asaro Mud Man Kabiufa Papua New Guinea - 2008Jialiang Gao, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons


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