As a reader, I tend to go through idiosyncratic fads. It isn't unlike the collective reading patterns of the country as a whole. It mirrors, in a very small way, the general faddishness of America's literary culture. Much the same way that Americans as a group can suddenly and inexplicably develop an insatiable hunger for stories of lawyers uncovering conspiracies or tales of wizards in boarding schools, I often find myself suddenly reading everything I can about, to select some actual fads of the past, the pioneers of animation, the slave trade, deep sea exploration, the cultural critics of the Frankfort school, novels in which youth rebel against adults, utopian collectives of the 19th century, fiction in dialect writing, and so on. Just as often, I'll glom onto the works of a specific author. Recent authorial fixations have included recognizable names like Daniel Defoe and George Eliot (which I'll case down to texts like The Storm and The Lifted Veil) to less worthy fixations like Jonathan Valin, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Pietro di Donato (such fixes are often costly, requiring the purchase of out of print books from rapacious online dealers).
A few of these fads develop into genuine, long-term interests. May must suffer my ever growing collection of slang dictionaries, my unchecked library of books on con men and hoaxes and the like, and a modest but ever looming stack of books about turn of the century popular entertainers. Mostly though, these fads burn through and leave us with tiny little clumps of titles on random topics. Our shelves are littered with the remains of these short-lived reading compulsions.
Even more abstract qualities can get stuck in my brain pan. I've become a shameless addict of the Library of America's American Poet's series seemingly on the strength of its format. I also have very definite feelings about the importance of being able to hold novels in the ass pocket of your jeans and have been known to support series and authors solely on the basis of the fact that you can fit their books in your ass pocket (I'm looking at you Penguin Great Ideas). To be fair, I'm not the first guy to feel this way. Lawrence Ferlinghetti felt so strongly about the issue that he settled on the distinctive shape of City Lights originals – including the first edition of Howl - on the basis of the fact that you could fit them in the ass pocket of your jeans. Hence he name of his first line of books: the Pocket Poet Series.
Weirder still are those odd times when a subject, theme, or trope seems to pick me. For example, there was a short period of time were it seemed like every book I picked up included a talking cat. I wasn't looking for books with talking cats in them. I have no particular interest in talking cats. I'm not even, to be honest, all that interested in non-talking cats. Though, I guess, if someone where to ask which I was more interested in, I would probably go for felines with power of speech over those who simply purred, meowed, inexplicably ran into other rooms, posed for lollercat pictures, and did the other normal feline stuff. But this preference is simply a matter of novelty, not an expression of any real interest on my part in cats that speak.
I've always assumed, when I'm in the middle of one of these strange runs, that it isn't luck so much as some deeper logic is at work. Whatever element brings me to the various authors somehow also correlates with this strange other element I never figured on. If I'm, again, suddenly in the midst of a string of books that feature significant hand injuries, it isn't that I'm seeking out hand injuries so much as it is that the sort of author who traffics in whatever stylist quirk I currently dig is, unbeknownst to me, also just the sort of cat who enjoys throwing significant hand injuries into his work.
Which brings us to eating dogs.
Unintentionally, I've become somewhat of an amateur collector of info on dog-eating. It is nothing I've intended to learn about. I have no dogs, let alone dogs I intend to eat. Still, consuming man's best friend has become one of those curious themes that selects me rather than me selecting it. Should you be interested in expanding your own knowledge of culinary aspects of canine, I can direct to the genre of literature that would be most useful to you, sparing you the unintended circular efforts I made. Explorers, I've found, are a dog's worst friend. If you've got a problem with strays in your neighborhood, invite some explorers to poke about the ol' arrondissement.
The record of this trouble, as far as I've been able figure through my admittedly dilettantish unmethods, starts in a legal document that is elaborately titled, as was explicitist fashion of the day, The Journey of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his Companions from Florida in to the Pacific. Despite having a name that means "head of a cow," Cabeza de Vaca was appointed treasurer and chief legal officer (he was the bean counter from the uptown office) of the 1527 expedition under the command of Governor Pánfilo de Narváez. The goal of this operation was to conquer Indian land and establish Spanish rule over what is now called Florida. As it turns out, Cabeza de Vaca would be one of the first explorers of what is now the American Southwest. His journey would take him from Florida, around the Gulf of Mexico, through Texas, across New Mexico and Arizona, then down through what's now Mexico, until he reached the Pacific Ocean.
If Cabeza de Vaca explored so much territory, why then are his adventures so obscurely known? It may be because Cabeza de Vaca's expedition ranks as one of the most conspicuous disaster tales in the long, sad history of the European exploration of the New World. Of the 600 men who disembarked in Florida, only four men survived. The record we have of the journey is less a record of exploration than it is a legal document intended to prove that it was not Cabeza de Vaca's fault that the expedition was a horrific failure.
For the purposes of this diary, the significance of Cabeza de Vaca is that he's the earliest example I've come across of a dog-eating explorer. At one point during his journey, Cabeza and some of the sad few survivors actually "sell" themselves into something like indentured servitude to a tribe of Indians they call the Maliacones. They need the Indians' resources and the Maliacones, who must stop food gathering and fast whenever they need to work on their village's infrastructure, need the cheap labor. In order to not burn through what little currency they earn, the Spaniards subsist mainly off hide parings. That is to say, whenever they must tan hides, they shave the toughened skinned as close as possible so as to gather up proto-leather shavings. On such a diet, the explorers are eventually able to gather up enough capital (in the form of barter items) that they feel confident heading out again. To build strength and celebrate their hard earned financial independence, the explorers purchase two dogs from the Maliacones. Cabeza de Vaca reports that the explorers attempted to broil the dog meat, but this proved problematic. Apparently the Maliacones, with their lack of Western property assumptions and their assumption of superiority over the Westerners, would see the broiled pieces of dog meat and simply take it out of the hands of the vastly outnumbered explorers. "If we broiled it first," Cabeza de Vaca writes, "the first Indian who came along would snatch it away and eat it." This happened several times before Cabeza de Vaca and his companions settled on an simple plan: "It seemed useless to take pains, in view of what we might expect, nor did we care to go to any trouble in order to have it broiled and might just as well eat it raw."
Cabeza de Vaca makes no mention of the taste of the dog meat, though he does mention the healthful effects of canine flesh: "After we had eaten the dogs it seemed to us that we had enough strength to go further on, so we commended ourselves to the guidance of God, our Lord, and took leave of these Indians, who put us on the trail of others of their language who were nearby."
I should point out that eating these two dogs is significant enough in Cabeza de Vaca's tale that he actually entitles a chapter of his report "How We Departed After Eating the Dogs." This seems all the more striking considering that, earlier in the report, Cabeza de Vaca indicates that some of the men in the expedition resorted to cannibalism. They, in Cabeza de Vaca's almost poetic formulation, "sliced the dead for meat." (Name your metal band that.) But, worth noting, no chapter heading mentions cannibalism. At first I thought this was some bizarre indication of how curiously serious the consumption of canine meat was. However, I later came to consider that, within the context of this legal document, Cabeza de Vaca might well bury claims of cannibalism while foregrounding the consumption of dogs. The latter is a clear sign of the hardship you suffered, while the former is something you might only want to mention insomuch as not mentioning it, when another survivor might include it in their report, would be a good way to get the crown wondering about the veracity of your report. Considering that the sole purpose of the report was to convince the authorities that you didn't botch the expedition and lose 596 men to the wilds of the New World, you would want to emphasize your suffering while avoiding anything that might provoke he royals' natural wrath and, at the same time, maintain a claim to complete accuracy. What looks like a strange case of priorities might, in fact, be nothing more than sound legal strategy.
The behavior of the Maliacones in Cabeza de Vaca's report is interesting. Not only do they seem to be comfortable with the notion of dog eating, they appear to be downright finicky about it. They only grab up the broiled meat. Raw meat they don't bother with. I hope I'm not stepping over the bounds of the amateur historian (and, as of yet, the history of dog-eating would seem to be an entirely amateur exercise) to propose that this at least suggests that dog-eating may have been a fairly commonplace thing among the Maliacones. At least, it was not taboo enough that anybody thought twice about stealing a white man's dog meat. Which brings up some strange questions regarding the frequency of dog-eating in human culture. Though dog-eating is particularly reviled in the West (which will eat just about anything else – ask the Spanish about their cat soup and the French about the horse meat and Americans about Rocky Mountain oysters and the British about their nearly supernatural ability to convert any source meat into inedible rubber), it is hardly uncommon in other parts of the world. Racist joke makers take particular delight in lampooning Asian dog-eaters, though you'll rarely hear them lambasting the Swiss . According to Rheintaler Bote, a Swiss paper that covers the Rhine Valley beat, there are a few rural cantons that have a seasonal tradition of eating dog sausage and smoked dog jerky.
This is not so much the place to discuss the ethics of dog-eating or the crypto-racist assumptions of anti-dog meatists; I raise it simply to give a frame for the curious tangle it leads us to.
In his 2007 essay "What the Dog Saw," NPR human-interest pap engine Malcolm Gladwell points out that dogs are uniquely sensitive to humans. They've evolved to be accurate readers of humanity. As evidence of this, he sites experiments in which dogs asked to find hidden food will look to and read human signs about where the food is. Chimps, despite that fact that they share some 98% of our genes, seem incapable of taking the hint. It is this sensitivity to human indicators that registers as the emotive states – such as friendship and love – that humans project upon dogs.
In his 2006 survey of human evolution, Before the Dawn, Nicholas Wade goes this one further and suggests that a significant portion of the "domestication" of dogs was driven by their own selection processes and not through the efforts of humans. In short, dogs choose us.
This raises a question in my mind: Why would dogs choose humans if large portions of the human race consider them food? I don't have an answer. I've got a proposal for a just so story. Consider this possibility: What if dogs started hanging out with humans in a sort of semi-symbiotic way? We left scraps around. They ate our junk and kept the villages clean. They made noise when strange animals approached and that was good. Unfortunately for the dogs, the closer they got, the more likely they'd end up on the dinner plate. The dogs had to get better and better at reading us. The greater the threat got that we'd eat them, the better they got at reading us. So good, in fact, that it started, coincidentally, to trigger a portion of the human brain that, for entirely separate reasons, assigned emotional states to patterns and projected intentionality on the world. In short, the greater their fear that they'd be eaten, the better they got at loving us. Like I said, it is a just so story; do with it what you like.
The tendency of explorers to turn dogs into chow reaches it zenith or nadir, depending on your point of view, when we reach the golden age of arctic exploration. Being the sled dog of an explorer was not unlike being a professional shark-petter.
The apotheosis of this bad relationship would come in the person of Roald Amundsen. When planning his expedition, Amundsen didn't just consider the possibility that he would consume his sled dogs; he planned on it.
Dogs were treated like canine royalty on the Amundensen expedition. The explorer had a false deck constructed on his ship so the doggies wouldn't have to suffer the tropical sun as they sailed toward Antarctica. He was meticulous about their diets. If the dogs had been aware of the conditions other arctic sled dogs had been force to endure – it was traditional that the needs of the sled dogs were sacrificed before the needs of the men on the expedition – then they might have appreciated Amundsen's atypical largesse. Or, perhaps, because dogs are such keen students of human behavior, they may have been suspicious. Amundsen had calculated the weight his sleds would have to pull to South Pole. As the human and dog food stores were used up, the sleds would become lighter. This meant fewer dogs would be needed. As few dogs were needed, dogs could be used as food. Subtract those supplies from your original weight calculations and you can consider that time deducted from the overall trip. The healthy and happier the dogs were, the quicker you could expect to start eating them.
For all of his mental acuity, Amundsen was not a particularly creative cook. When his men slaughtered 24 of their dogs for food, he had the dogs cut into cutlets and boiled. Still, he saw no reason to complain. From the man himself: " The meat was excellent, quite excellent, and one cutlet after another disappeared with lightninglike rapidity. I must admit that they would have lost nothing by being a little more tender, but one must not expect too much of a dog. At this first meal I finished five cutlets myself, and looked in vain in the pot for more. Wisting [camp cook] appeared not to have reckoned on such a brisk demand."
It might be of interest to note that all these cutlets, enough to feed five with each man eating five or so, all managed to come from a single dog. A dog named Rex, in fact.
Amundsen's approach to dog-eating is spartan compared to the culinary creativity shown by the Iron Chef of dog-eating: Sir Douglas Mawson. Mawson's meager scientific-claim to fame – first man to use a long-distance radio in Antarctica – doesn't do justice to the insane lengths this now forgotten figure in arctic exploration went to in order to add nearly insignificant details to our knowledge of the frozen continent.
In 1912, Mawson and two other explorers – Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz – left their base camp to map out a chunk of ice and rock east of the region known as Wilkes Land. They harnessed 18 dogs to three sleds and left after a particularly nasty snow storm had blown over. During the first 300 miles of travel, Ninnis got an infected finger. It wasn't pleasant, but it was no reason to go back. Later, misadventure wrecked one of the sleds. They distributed the dogs, putting most of them on the heaviest sled, and ditched the broken sled.
On December 14, on a clear day, Ninnis disappeared. Metz on skis and was in the lead. Mawson and Ninnis were not far behind, each on a sled. Then, suddenly, no Ninnis. No sled. No nothing.
The two explorers looked around and, obscured by a tiny ridge, was an enormous gorge 11-feet wide and more than 150-feet deep (they dropped a line 150 feet in length down the gorge and it did not reach bottom). Resting on an ice shelf at the 150-foot mark were pieces of the sled and two of the dogs: one dead and one wounded. Ninnis was never seen again.
Ninnis sled had carried their ten-day supply of human food and all the dog food. According to Mawson, the large canvas bag that held the food could be spotted on the ledge in the gorge. At this point, the two remaining explorers at the six remaining dogs – Haldane, Ginger, Pavlova, Mary, George, and Johnson – were 300 miles way from camp with critically diminished supplies.
To get a little more work out of the huskies, Mawson fed them sliced up bits of leather gloves. The next morning, George the dog either refused to or simply could not stand up. Mawson shot the dog and they had his legs, fried. Mertz said the meat was bad. Mawson reports that the meat was "musty and exceedingly tough."
Mawson, fortified with leg of George, took George's place in the sled team.
Johnson was next to go, followed by Haldane and Mary. For all his lack of creativity, Amundsen was not entirely ignorant of the art of eating dog. He didn't know exactly why, but he knew that the Eskimo held that you should never eat the liver of a dog. That was close enough to a scientific reason for him. He avoided the liver. Mawson and Mertz were not so wise. Long after it was no longer relevant to polar explorers, we’ve discovered that huskies and other dogs adapted to the arctic store dangerous levels of vitamin A in their livers. The vitamin A in four ounces of a husky liver is consider potentially fatal. In their ignorant hunger, Mawson and Metz would work their way through six livers – about 30 toxic doses.
Pavlova was next. Before departing for the arctic, the famed dancer Anna Pavlova came aboard the ship and had a short conversation with Mawson. On her way off the ship, she stopped to pet one of the huskies. Mawson was so touched by her grace and generosity of spirit that he named that dog after her. Pavlova the dog, not the dancer, provided the base of their Christmas stew. As a little Christmas present, they used their silver of butter, somehow stored on Mawson's sled, to add taste to the meal.
Though Cabeza de Vaca found dog invigorating, the vitamin A rich dog livers these explorers were eating were killing them. They developed open sores. Their teeth and hair fell out in bunches.
Ginger was the last to go. They killed her with a spade because they had to get rid of the gun – too heavy. They boiled her head. Mawson is specific about the time it takes to boil a husky's head: one and one half hour. Assume you must boil your dog's head more or less depending on the size and toughness of the breed. Her brains they had for dinner, the rest of the head for breakfast. Her bones they turned to jelly. To get jelly out of a dog's bones, simmer the bones of the animal in your stock-like broth (from the stew made earlier) for at least four hours. After four hours, remove the bones and discard. Refrigerate the liquid. In the morning, you'll have a clumpy sort of jelly with any fat as a white film on top. Scrape off the fat. You can eat this straight, or warm it so that it goes back into soup.
Mertz went nuts. On January 6th, he shouted that some of his fingers were frostbitten. He then removed his glove, chewed off his little finger, and spit it out. That night, he complained of an ear ache, lost control of his bowels, and died in his fitful sleep.
Mawson made the remaining 100 miles alone. He lived off chipped dog meat and dog jelly. Once he made dog-paw soup. At various points he rescued himself from the face of an ice gorge and prepped the ropes of his sled for the soup pot. He never had to eat the ropes though; he made it to camp before that. By the time he made it back, most of the soles of his feet had sheared off, dead from frostbite. His toenails, black and crusty, fell off. He credits the poetry of Robert Service and Omar Khayyám, which he recited to himself, with saving his sanity. Serious. I'm not kidding. He also lost all his hair.
His expedition determined, in case you're curious to see what all this suffering accomplished, that east of Wilkes Land is a lot of rock and ice.
Song title: They Might Be Giants' Mammals
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