MURDER BEFORE BREAKFAST… Cannibal Lecture
I don’t think we taste like chicken.
Despite all the hype of Hollywood movies and thriller authors, I’m guessing, based on a large portion of evidence, that we humans actually taste very bad. It doesn’t mean we are bad people.
Let’s look at the facts. In New York and in every other state around the country, you can’t even get a ticket for munching human flesh. That’s right, one of the top taboos of our society is not supported by our own laws. As long as you did not kill the person, it is not a crime. It is, however, illegal to have sex with a corpse. That should tell us something about human nature but that is a subject for another day. Perhaps Valentine’s Day.
No law stops us from eating each other, so I’m guessing Zagat’s would pan us as a dish because cannibalism is, so to speak, rare. There are very few cannibals arrested in this country, which is why it produces such big headlines when it actually happens. That inspires another loon out there to try the other white meat – to see what all the fuss is about. (no racial issue here – we’re all pink on the inside.) Then Hollywood does another flesh-eating flick and the process begins anew. Cannibalistic Zombies are currently very hot. I have covered two real cannibals in my years as a newspaperman and each case proves that being a cannibal is not what it is cracked up to be in the movies.
In 1989, Daniel Rakowitz killed his topless dancer girlfriend, Monika Beerle, and made a stew of her, which he fed to homeless poor people in Manhattan. Please note that after he tasted the soup of his poor victim, he served the rest to others – who were very hungry and not in a position to complain about the forbidden fare. Rackowitz did not hoard it like a precious delicacy for himself, to be savored, as did the delicious fictional gourmet cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He gave it away.
The year before Rakowitz’s terrible act, the Thomas Harris novel, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, was published, a sequel to his 1981 RED DRAGON, also featuring the good doctor Hannibal the Cannibal. The author said that his inspiration for Hannibal was a Dr. Salazar, a Mexican doctor who committed cannibalism and was interviewed by Harris in the 1960s.
But, tantalizingly, although there was no mention of Dr. Salazar being a gourmet chef, just such a gourmet chef and effete gourmand cannibal was arrested with a lot of publicity in 1979 in New York just two years before Harris’ first Hannibal book was published.
That would be the charming, soft-spoken teacher named Albert Fentress, who was busted after he chained up an 18-year-old boy in his basement and cut off his victim’s genitals. Fentress, a middle school social studies teacher who liked to dress up as George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt for his students, sautéed his grisly prize in his kitchen and served it up as an entree for one. But he later claimed he was disappointed and did not finish his repast. He maintained he did not finish his unholy meal because it was tough and inedible.
At one of his sanity fitness hearings on Long Island, Fentress, nattily-dressed in a navy blazer, blue rep silk tie and shiny cordovan penny loafers, gave me a gourmet rundown on all the local restaurants in the Riverhead area where he ate lunch. (That’s right, he was free in public, with just one unarmed state mental hospital worker as his escort.) Albert was quite particular about his food preferences and very critical of the local eateries. I took notes until his horrified lawyer, the late Kim Darrow, heard the subject of our hallway chat. Darrow, a descendant of the great attorney Clarence Darrow, ended the interview, certain it would be on the front page. I later gnashed my teeth when my tabloid newspaper, to my great surprise, had no appetite for my story and would not print the convicted cannibal’s culinary picks. Go figure.
One thing is clear. We not only do not taste like chicken. We suck as food. At least, we think so. I can’t speak for lions and tigers and bears. In real life, the only people who eat human flesh are those shipwrecked, castaway or marooned high in the Andes; who do it as their only alternative to death by starvation, plus a handful of lunatics who fell for the satanic hype.
We don’t taste good. I know we all want to be loved for our bodies, as well as our minds, but we’ll just have to get over it.
That said, cannibals will always be a primordial feast for thriller writers (including me) and filmmakers because, for some reason, nothing pleases readers and moviegoers more than a villain, who, like a responsible hunter, eats what he kills.