Brit Lab presenter and general freak Greg Foot recently attempted to answer a question many have asked but few have really grappled with: What does human flesh taste like? But finding out wasn’t as easy as carving out a chunk of a corpse’s thigh and spit-roasting the thing. “The truth is, it’s illegal to eat human flesh,” Foot explained in his video. “Even your own.” He was telling the truth, but only because he was filming in the U.K.
He would’ve been able to chow down almost anywhere else.
There are actually very few laws against eating human flesh, a fact that forces us to consider the possibility that cannibalism is not a uniquely grotesque act. Cannibalism is something one does after illegally attacking someone, desecrating a corpse, or, well, making arrangements. So why be so perturbed by this one violation? The biological argument is that human flesh harbors species-specific viruses, like those that cause hepatitis, HIV, and Ebola, and human brain carries prion diseases akin to mad cow. But willfully exposing oneself to illness is not an extreme violation. It’s just really dumb. Something else drives our revulsion.
The full-body cringe elicited by the sight of Greg Foot’s pale thigh getting impaled with a flesh claw tells us a lot about where that repulsion comes from. It’s the same sensation — albeit a watered-down version — of watching Hannibal Lecter slice open Krendler’s skull for brain tartare. What’s most nauseating is the savagery of the thing — the idea that, to acquire flesh to cannibalize, one has to first forcibly subdue its owner and then carve up the body. Ultimately, we’re repulsed by violence against our fellow humans.
That is a good thing.
This is why there are no anti-cannibalism laws in the United States. Existing laws against murder and corpse desecration cover it. Our concern is ultimately violence against each other’s persons and our legal system reflects that concern. U.S. state laws against the desecration of corpses prohibit the consumption of already-deceased human flesh. A cannibalism statute would really only apply to autocannibals like Greg Foot and consensual cannibals (in 2003, Armin Miewes’ lover, Bern Brandes, famously asked to be eaten). The law wouldn’t come up much: Most instances of human flesh eating involve murder.
What does this mean for Greg Foot? He can eat his own flesh, an act that involved neither murder nor the desecration of a corpse. He just has to do it in America. (The British anti-cannibalism law was famously applied in the 1884 Regina v. Dudley and Stephens case when two sailors were tried and found guilty of eating a friend while lost at sea.)
Greg Foot wimped out.
Rather than come stateside, Foot decided to answer his question by analyzing the protein content and scent composition of his leg meat. Human thigh muscle, it turns out, is made up of roughly half of the same muscle fibers as chicken breast and also contains a lot of the same fibers as those found in cuts of beef. An analysis of the scents emanating from the cooked flesh — 80 percent of flavor stems from aroma, after all — revealed that it would probably taste like a combination of lamb and pork.
Of course, he could have just asked Armin Meiwes and avoided the whole ordeal altogether. Meiwes, who made the wise choice of cannibalizing in Germany, where there are no existing laws against human flesh consumption, famously reported how his lover tasted: “The flesh tastes like pork, a little bit more bitter, stronger.”