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Surviving dinner

There's no accounting for some tastes. Flamed bat? Rat sticks a la Survivor? How about shrimp or pork? One diner's delicacy is another's punch in the palate.

By JANET K. KEELER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 22, 2000


If you can no more think of eating a rat for dinner than a stewed boot, count yourself among the majority.

That's not to say the long-tailed rodent isn't considered good eats in some parts of the world and on at least one TV show.

It is doubtful that rat, prepared any way, will turn up on American restaurant menus soon, even though Rattus cuisine was pushed to the fore last week by Survivor, CBS'Real World-meets-Gilligan's Island series. The much-hyped rat-eating episode showed three cast members gingerly nibbling barbecued Ben.

The verdict? Three thumbs up by the obviously hungry survivors. Thumbs down by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is protesting the show.

If rat is the most unsavory protein gobbled on the island of Pulau Tiga off the coast of Borneo, the Survivor cast and crew should consider themselves lucky. Remember the Donner Party, who fed on each other when a snowstorm trapped them in the Sierra Nevada on their way to California in 1846? Hungry people have been known to do some pretty desperate eating.

The truth is, people eat weird things the world over. Rat is just one entry on a list that includes owl, snake, raccoon, dove, squirrel, grasshopper, salamander, dog, cat, bat, porcupine, turtle and anteater. In Louisiana's Cajun country, a rodent called the nutria gets the gumbo treatment and nobody shudders to think.

The people of the Canton region of China are famous for eating everything that moves, or used to move anyway, including bear and tiger paws and even dried deer penis. In the early '90s, a restaurant specializing in rat opened in Guangzhou, cooking rodent 30 ways: Vietnamese Style Rat Hot Pot. Rats Wrapped in Lotus Leaves. Salted Rat with Southern Baby Peppers. Classic Steamed Rat.

In a village northeast of Bombay, India, about 10 years ago, I sampled bat cooked over an open flame. What little meat there was on its scrawny legs was redder than dark-meat turkey. It tasted slightly gamey. The porcupine was better, big chunks floating in a spicy curry. Still, I couldn't get the image of the quilled animal in better days out of my head. I did not have seconds.

On a stop at the local fish market, I watched my host gather handfuls of live "newties," dropping them wriggling into a cloth bag. It was amusing until I realized the aquatic salamanders were headed for that night's dinner table. Salamander masala. My stomach seized.

Drawing a line at newts

The culinary adventure stopped there for me; I drew the line at newts. We all have our thresholds, most of them shaped by community standards and cultural taboos, not by our taste buds. The taste of rat isn't what stops people from eating it; its role in spreading the bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the 1300s does that. Even years of sacrifice in the interest of medical science hasn't helped the rat overcome that bad rap.

Other animals are unappetizing because of different kinds of reputations. Some are okay to eat in one place, verboten somewhere else in the world. Cats and dogs are not food in the United States. Yet in some parts of the world, dogs are used for food or protection, not companionship. Snails? Snails we eat, but we call them escargot. Leave it to the French to overcome a univalve's sliminess. Cows are worshiped in India but offered up in huge portions in American steakhouses.

Origin of food taboos

David Himmelgreen, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, says food taboos often start for ecological reasons. For instance, some researchers think that in biblical times there was competition for food between humans and pigs, and because of that it became taboo for Jews and Muslims to eat pork. It wasn't until later, Himmelgreen says, when pork was said to be unclean that the taboo became part of religious doctrine. The cow's sacred status in India is rooted in ecology; the cow was more valuable as labor and as a source of milk, he says.

In the African nation of Lesotho, where Himmelgreen spent time in the '90s, people had parties where they drove rats out of fields and then cooked them over fires fueled by dried dung. That might not sound appetizing to most Americans, but at least one of Himmelgreen's Western culinary preferences grossed out his Lesotho colleagues.

"They thought it was really disgusting that I liked shrimp, crabs, clams, any shellfish," he says. "They look at them as scavengers, very dirty. Meanwhile, they love mutton and the sheep's head, the eyes especially."

The view from Pinellas

William Kern, urban wildlife specialist with the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service, spends part of his time telling people how to rid their yards and their homes of rats. He also has some ideas about how to cook them.

Kern suspects that the rats on Survivor are the common roof rat, the same type roaming Florida and other parts of the United States. They probably got to the island from a ship's cargo or floated there on logs from a neighboring island. It is possible, Kern said, that if the island was occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the rats there might be the meatier Norway rat. That rat is a favorite among people around the world who keep rats as pets. The species is called "fancy," and its owners feed it recipes such as Dottie's Own Rat-a-Tail and Yummy Rattie Rolls from the Rat & Mouse Gazette.

With any meat, be it beef, pork, chicken or rat, proper butchering techniques need to be followed to prevent contamination, Kern said. Island rats are no less likely to carry bacteria than city rats, he said, though urban rats could contain unhealthy levels of lead or mercury.

On Survivor, the rats were flame-roasted. Good if you're on a low-fat diet; bad if you're trying to stay alive on an uninhabited island, Kern says.

"If you are in a survival situation, you want to retain the fat because you need the calories," Kern says. Stewing the animal would be a better alternative, all its fat retained in the liquid. "It would probably taste better grilled, though."

Nutritional value

It is difficult to find nutritional information about rat, but it's probably close to its fellow rodent, squirrel, which is listed under the game section of many nutrition guides.

Four ounces of roasted squirrel is 196 calories and 5.3 grams of fat. If you are on the Weight Watchers points program, 4 ounces of roasted squirrel is 4 points. Eat up, Dr. Atkins dieters, because that 4-ounce serving will give you 34.7 grams of protein compared with 30 grams for the same amount of broiled flank steak.

Kern hasn't eaten rat but has sampled squirrel. Muskrat, too, has passed his lips. Squirrel is still eaten in many parts of the United States and was a staple, along with prairie dog, in the diet of the pioneers crossing the frontier in covered wagons. Squirrel was also eaten by many American Indian tribes.

Isn't that what's great about America? To each his own dinner.

* * *

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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