First, the disclaimers: We would never suggest trying it, would never condone eating it, and even thinking about the prospect of either gives us the creeps. But as omnivores—and the prefix omni- means “everything”—the morbidly curious among us wonder: What do humans taste like? Are we dark meat or are we light meat? Are we closer to pork or beef? Do we taste like chicken? (No, we don’t want to taste us, we just want science to answer the question.)
One can’t go down this rabbit hole without mentioning the C-word.
As humans, so we’ve created rules and rituals and identities around eating. The Food And Drug Administration has established guidelines on how many maggots are allowed in a can of tomatoes. Catholics take Holy Communion and eat a wafer they believe is body of Christ. There are dating sites specifically for people who are vegans. And somewhere in this history of rules, rituals, and identities, there is cannibalism.
David J. Watt, an archaeologist with Tulane University, enlightened me via email on the long cultural history humans have with cannibalism. He broke down cannibalism into three types. The first, mortuary cannibalism, takes place at the funeral rite of a family or community member as an act of affection, renewal, and honoring the deceased. The second, warfare cannibalism, is the consumption of an enemy or foe. This could be a way to honor your opponent, display power over them, or to gain the strength of the fallen. Lastly, there’s survival cannibalism, which is the consumption of people during times of starvation where resources are so scarce it seems the only option (for example, the 1972 plane crash with the Uruguayan rugby team onboard, and more famously, Captain George Pollard, whose ship the Essex drifted for 92 days, during which time the crew resorted to cannibalism—the story inspired Herman Melville to pen Moby Dick.)
Fortunately, none of those practices are what you’d call widespread in the modern era. “I’ve never eaten or attempted to prepare a person,” is how Alex Gido, a Chicago cook and butcher, prefaced our phone conversation. “But we’ve talked about it in kitchens. With other chefs, we’d joke”—he took a pause and course-corrected the wording—“we’d talk about what the best way to prepare it would be.”
If you’ve ever spent time in a restaurant kitchen, you’d know gallows humor is de rigueur. And Gido wanted to be clear: This was an especially dark thought-experiment between co-workers, but to answer the question, they decided it would probably be best smoked—specifically, seasoned with salt and pepper and then smoked for 12 to 14 hours like a brisket, he said. He’s never seen a skinless human pectoral, but assuming they may be similar in nature to the meat of beef breast, a cut that consists of two different muscles, a larger end that’s more marbled or fattier and the flank end that is drier, smoke barbecue human brisket would be the way to go. This is complete speculation, though, mere kitchen talk.
While it’s not technically illegal to participate in cannibalism in the U.S., there are laws surrounding the act of cannibalism that make aspects of it illegal. According to Cornell Law School, “Murder, for instance, is a likely criminal charge, regardless of any consent. Further, even if someone consents to being eaten and kills himself, the cannibal may still be liable for criminal or civil actions based on laws governing the abuse or desecration of a corpse, which vary from state to state.” For example, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was convicted on murder charges, but not for cannibalism.
In recent times, several—we shall call them the very curious—have in the name of science and entertainment sought to find out what human flesh tastes like, or just merely what it smells like (without resorting to murder, of course). In 2016, the host of a BBC show called The Secrets of Everything had a small piece of muscle tissue removed from his leg (his name, no joke, is Greg Foot). Since the sense of tasting food is mostly aroma, he opted to “cook” the contact lens-sized tissue and smell the result. As Foot describes: “Really meaty, a lot richer than pork or chicken. It’s like beef and ale stew, or something.” The lab scientist conducting the experiment suggested to Foot that the taste likely is “trending towards red meat... a bit towards lamb and the pork.”
There was, of course, the 2011 incident where two Dutch television hosts claimed to have eaten each other. On the BNN-TV show Guinea Pigs, a segment aired where a surgeon appeared to have a piece of flesh from the abdomen of one host and from the buttocks of another. A chef then prepared it by frying it in sunflower oil, and the two hosts were seen tasting each other’s flesh. There have been some confusion whether this actually was human flesh—one of the hosts claims there’s a scar to prove his flesh was indeed surgically removed, while BNN-TV would later say it was a hoax to bring attention to organ donation.
Recently, when Reddit commenter IncrediblyShinyShart claimed in an Ask Me Anything that he ate a portion of his own amputated leg, commenters had a lot of questions. The meat was prepared as brunch tacos and served to him and 10 of his closest friends. This was all technically legal. His friends were willing, consensual participants. He described it as tasting like buffalo, but chewier and rated it a 6.5 on a scale of 10 compared to the other forms of meat. He wrote in the Reddit thread, “So it’s way better that a hot dog or regular burger. Maybe equal with regular bacon, which is pretty decent.”
Wading through the thread of questions and comments, it seems that the experience for this Reddit user was not just about finding out the taste of human meat: It became an intimate experience he shared with his friends, akin to the tribal cannibalism described above. He alludes to it giving him some sense of closure after having gone through a horrible motorcycle accident that resulted in amputation with the people that helped him get through that time of his life. He did, however, report one of his friends spit his flesh out into a napkin, so it’s not like it was a beautiful, meaningful meal for all participants. Or just maybe... it was all bullshit. It wouldn’t be the first time on the internet.
Calorically speaking, though, there’s really not a lot human meat can offer. (I’m very small, please don’t eat me.) Nutritional speaking, Indianapolis dietician Matt Grieser told me he doesn’t think human meat would be much different than any other mammal meat. In terms of safety, eating human glands or brain can pass on a prion disease, such as kuru and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It would be like mad cow disease, but for humans. Neither would be fun to go through.
So let’s just not do it, you guys. Oh, you weren’t going to anyway? Good.