Human flesh and other limits

Andrew Zimmern’s off on a new adventure on his Travel Channel show tonight, but it’s last week’s episode I can’t get out of my head. Bizarre Foods: Madagascar climaxed (sorry) in one of that island nation’s poorest villages with the ritual circumcision of a 5-year-old.

Zimmern blogged about the behind-the-scenes at Here’s what happens: His wife flies in to lend moral support because the Zimmerns have a 5-year-old son. They watch in near-keening sympathy as the child cries in pain and fear, held down by his uncles (the poor dad can’t watch; he’s 50 feet away), and then they watch as the freshly circumcised foreskin gets passed to the paternal grandfather, who’s supposed to eat it.

At this point Zimmern realizes that the paternal grandfather can elect to transfer this supreme honor to a guest in the room, and in Zimmern’s recent history of being flown all over the world to remote places with few to zero foreign guests, he usually is the honored guest.

He’s standing opposite the paternal grandfather in the tiny room. He braces. He’s struggling over how to respond. And for a professional foodie who’s drunk fresh bile and eaten live worms fished out of rotting wood, and who is unfailingly and especially gracious when offered foods of honor in the humblest homes, that’s a huge statement.

That village in Madagascar is one of the poorest he’s ever seen. Everyone has come out to celebrate this coming-of-age ritual. Zimmern’s keenly aware of his place of honor and grateful for the hospitality. And here’s the paternal grandfather with the little boy’s foreskin, grabbing a banana (part of the custom) and slapping the flesh on top.

What would you do? Would you carry out the part of the gracious guest and eat it? Would you decline this immense honor as politely as you could? Would you throw up?

I can’t get this out of my head because I don’t know what I would do. Once in Thailand, some student monks who subsisted on alms they collected walking the streets every morning invited us to their dormitory and bought us kebabs of syrupy beans covered in an exotic-looking spice that turned out to be dead ants. I ate them. And in Vietnam’s remote Mekong delta, an old couple living in a coconut frond hut with a dirt floor offered fresh coconut juice out of a mildewy bucket; I drank it.

But human flesh? In front of the little boy it’s just been cut off? Seriously, what would you do?

For the record, the paternal grandfather didn’t pass the foreskin to Zimmern. Nor did he eat it himself. He passed it to the maternal grandfather, who chomped off the capped banana and swallowed it quickly. Phew.