"Frank Buckland had already developed a taste for natural history....He delighted to trap field mice...and used to cook them over a fire of twigs from the neighbouring farmer's fields, until complaints forced him to cook the mice in College." (p. 25)
"Buckland once remarked that Englishmen always connected the idea of food with their researches into natural history." (p. 136)
Frank Buckland (1826-1880), son of the eminent geologist William Buckland, set standards for the sensory appreciation of British wildlife, especially vertebrates, that have seldom been matched and never exceeded. Not content to confine his fascination to the more usual diagnostic characters (appearance, morphology, and the like), Buckland also set himself the challenge of demonstrating, not the mere edibility, but the actual palatability of British and exotic wildlife.
Like Father, Like Son, Like to Lick
William Buckland set the stage for his son's lifelong appreciation of taste as a diagnostic character in natural history. Guests at the Buckland house might be, and were, served anything from mice to ostrich, along the way including hedgehog, puppy, crocodile and snails. According to Burgess, Richard Owen spent a queasy night after a dinner of roast ostrich at the Bucklands', but John Ruskin regretted having missed the toasted mice. William Buckland himself does not appear to have hesitated in the use of the sense of taste in analyzing the natural world. Visiting a cathedral at which spots of saints' blood were said to be always fresh on the floor, never evaporating or vanishing, Dr. Buckland, with the use of his tongue, determined that the "blood" was in fact bats' urine. He mused in print as to whether the common mole or the blue-bottle fly tasted worse. His approach left quite an impression on young Frank.
Frank grew up with a lively appreciation of wildlife. In later years he recounted an episode in which a coachman brought William Buckland a near-dead crocodile, which failed to revive when placed in "the pond in the middle of the quadrangle at Christ Church." Frank wrote "...he refused to be revived, so I rode about on him, Waterton fashion..." (p. 22) At school he conducted numerous animal dissections and preparations, cooking and eating "the smaller bodies" and macerating the larger ones. He was heard at Oxford to complain that earwigs were "horribly bitter."
Right: Buckland, as fisheries commissioner, treating a sick captive porpoise with salvolatile and water. [AUTHOR'S NOTE: Yes, I am aware that a porpoise is not a fish.]
After Oxford, Frank Buckland trained as a surgeon. Burgess notes that "He would often visit the local hospital in Winchester where he was on friendly terms with some of the staff and would exchange pieces of human anatomy for eels and trout." (p. 26). From 1859 on, Buckland devoted his life to economic fisheries, the development of a fisheries museum, and popular writing in journals and papers.
Biodiversity and Dinner
Buckland's generation was concerned about the loss of agricultural land to commercial purposes in the UK and the resulting loss of domestically-produced animal food sources. The Society for the Acclimatization of Animals in the UK, of which Buckland became a leader, investigated the feasibility of introducing various exotic animals into the UK for domestication as food sources. One Society dinner featured holothurian echinoderms ("strong in flavour, and excited a divided opinion"), kangaroo, lamb, wild boar, Syrian pig, and curassow. (p. 94)
Buckland's métier, however, was economic fish culture, improving the cultivation and propagation of a wide variety of traditional and non-traditional food fish and other marine and aquatic organisms. He also engaged in various culinary experiments, the results of which he reported to his readers. He and a friend took some slices of flesh from the head of an old porpoise; they boiled some and fried the rest. Buckland announced that it tasted like ...'a broiled lamp wick.'
Not Completely Unlimited
Even Buckland had limits. In 1868, an all-horse banquet was served to 160 people, including Buckland, as a means of publicizing a campaign to encourage the increased use of horses as food animals. After working his way through the entire meal, Buckland wrote "In my humble opinion... hippophagy has not the slightest chance of success in this country." Burgess notes that even calling the meat "hippocreas" failed to increase its charm with the public. (p. 137)
Left: Frank Buckland, in typical sartorial splendor, holding an oyster breeding tile.
Frank Buckland, at his death, was famous as a popularizer of science, not as a scientist. His museum collections were broken up and largely disappeared, and much of the work he did is forgotten. Exotic game introduction for domestic use in the UK has been shunned following the example of Australia. Perhaps Burgess had Frank Buckland's most notable lifelong pleasure in mind when he wrote the elegaic line, "One must ask the question whether his life, which began with so much promise, was frittered away extravagantly and to no good purpose."
All citations are from The Eccentric Ark: The Curious World of Frank Buckland, G.H.O Burgess, The Horizon Press, New York, 1967.
This article is republished with permission from the November-December 2000 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.