Pigs' heads: the closest Will Self has come to cannibalism. Photo: Getty
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More and more people are turning to cannibalism. I blame the loathsome foodies

Real Meals by Will Self. 

Is picking your nose and eating the dividend a form of cannibalism? How about sucking blood or chewing scabs? Do nail clippings count, or the occasional piece of dead skin? I only ask because there’s a strong case for arguing that eating yourself is the realest form of meal there can possibly be – after all, is not the body constantly consuming itself through apoptosis? Cannibalism, I concede, generally gets a bad press; although, that being noted, my first exposure to this universal but taboo mode of dining was through the Observer Magazine and I thought it sounded rather piquant.

Back in the 1970s the Observer serialised Piers Paul Read’s Alive, an account of a plane crash in the Andes. The Uruguayan national rugby team, their friends and family were on the plane – 45 people in all – and only 16 survived. When after a few days rescuers didn’t arrive, the survivors realised they would have to eat their dead companions if they, too, weren’t to perish. This they duly did, and as I recall, Read’s account of their cuisine was generally sympathetic: the rugger-buggers began at the buttocks, finding them the least “human” portion, and described the taste and texture (as has become commonplace in such stories) as being something like pork.

“Long pork” is apparently how certain anthropophagi describe their favourite food; I should have thought “pulled pork” would be more apt, as this is one dish that requires vigour to bring it to the cooking pot. There’s a lot of pulling in Robinson Crusoe, which some savants think is the first English novel. It may be that the emphasis placed on cannibalism is non-accidental: our noble castaway saves the indigene he dubs Friday from those who might eat him, but the civilisation he joins is predicated on slavery, a form of human consumption pulled on by an insatiable, imperialist sweet tooth. I’ve never eaten human flesh, apart from a few calluses nibbled in provincial station waiting rooms late at night when the buffet’s shut, but I’m not sure I object to it quite as strenuously as I probably should. In recent years there have been a number of cases of cannibalism in which the internet has played a conspicuous role: would-be anthropophagi advertise on the web for their dinner, and the dinner duly appears at their studio flat in Dortmund or Dorking and obligingly lays its head in the oven.

What the virtual dimension adds to the horror is beyond me – would it be any better if cannibals put cards up in newsagents’ windows, as presumably they were previously compelled to do? Somehow I doubt it. My hunch is we wouldn’t have all this people-eating if it weren’t for the rest of our loathsome foodie culture; once gourmets have sampled fugu fish, or live frogs, or locusts in honey, their jaded palate starts crying out for even more outrageous fare. Snacking on the hairy calf of someone you’ve entrapped online is only the next logical step. The way things are going there will be a dedicated website soon enough – I’d call it “Just Eat People!” assuming the domain name hasn’t been snaffled up already.

The Monty Python team was ahead of the game back in the Alive decade. There was a ditty in the book they published that went: “Much to his mum and dad’s dismay/Horace ate himself one day . . .” and then ana­tomised this consumption of anatomy, until the predictable ending: “And there he lay: a boy no more,/Just a stomach on the floor . . .” I don’t want to stuff this stanza with too much by way of semantics, but it does occur to me that if we keep on the way we are going with our colossal greed, all that will be left of human civilisation is a planetary stomach on the floor of the cosmos.

The closest I’ve got, in experiential terms, to eating someone was when my friend Michael and I ordered the pig’s head at St John, the restaurant helmed by Fergus Henderson that advertises itself as the home of “nose-to-tail eating”. Michael was brought up in a kosher household so you might have thought he’d forswear shortish swine on that basis alone. As for me, I had no principled objection to eating something with a face, but I’d never considered chowing down on the face itself. The pig’s head arrived and it had the glistening, lifelike appearance and crisped eyes you associate with government ministers being interviewed on the television news.

Rather like the poor rugby players marooned in the Andes, we began with the cheeks, reasoning that these were the least pig-like feature; but the meat was so beautifully cooked that soon enough we were hacking away at the head with gusto. The Rubicon was crossed when I found myself chewing on a corner of the snout that included a nostril. Eating really doesn’t get much more corporeal than that.

Among traditional peoples there are all sorts of beliefs about what happens when you ingest human meat: you possess the strength of the opponent you have just vanquished in battle (or, more troublingly, his weakness). Well, ever since I ate the pig of restricted height I’ve been more of a swine than ever – for real. 

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser