Stories of cooking humans have been around pretty much forever. In most cultures it symbolizes a horrific and transgressive act, and we can’t seem to leave it alone. We scratch at the theme like a scab: from witches popping children in their cauldrons, to Hannibal Lecter dining on liver with fava beans, to lurid re-tellings of real life cannibalism.
I picked the titles below for a range of cooking methods, reasons for cooking, and the ways in which the author deals with the subject. Bon appétit.
Stew in “The Juniper Tree” by the Brothers Grimm
A woman is “prompted by the Devil” to behead her stepson when he sticks his head inside her apple chest. She manages to fool her own daughter into thinking she killed him, then forces her to help get rid of the body by putting him into a stew. The boy’s father, happily ignorant of the situation, comes home to a lavish feast and can’t stop eating:
‘Give me some more,’ he said. ‘I’m not going to share this with you. Somehow I feel as if it were all mine.’
If that wasn’t enough for you, look up “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering” in The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, edited by Jack Zipes.
Pie in The String of Pearls: a Romance by Thomas Preskett Prest
What would this list be without a mention of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett? The String of Pearls is the first penny dreadful that features the murder-and-pie duo. Sweeney Todd constructs an ingenious chair that tips his customers headfirst into an underground passage; Mrs. Lovett picks the corpses up to feed her booming pie business. No further introductions needed, but interesting reading for those only familiar with the musical or film.
Sandwich in Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite
Serial killer Andrew meets decadent playboy Jay. They click. They go off on a cannibalistic serial killer spree that is both beautifully written and at times extremely difficult reading: Brite goes into poetic, graphic and minute detail. Contains a packed lunch in the form of a sandwich with a piece of flank lightly fried in butter.
Barbecue ribs in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café by Fannie Flagg
Abusive husband Frank Bennett returns to his estranged wife to steal their child, but is stopped by café employee Sipsey who kills him with a frying pan. To hide the body, Big George does the logical thing and puts Frank on the barbecue. The detectives who show up to investigate Frank’s disappearance are delighted by the best barbecue they’ve ever had in their lives. Satisfaction and disgust in one neat package.
Cake in “The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov
I mentioned that cooking people is a horrific act in most cultures. Not all. Markov’s story is different in that it describes a consensual act, and that the cooking is used to tell a story about the life of the deceased. A warrior has died, and his loved ones carefully and lovingly bake his body into a cake, which will then be offered to the gods. For every part of the process, new details of the family’s life are unraveled. Uncomfortable and beautiful, it’s one of the best stories on this theme I’ve ever read.
Honorary mention: Chicken Little in The Green Butchers (film)
I put this here for all the fans of Hannibal and Mads Mikkelsen, as Hannibal wasn’t Mikkelsen’s first go at cooking humans. In the Danish film The Green Butchers, Mads plays a butcher, Svend, who commits accidental murder and hides the evidence by selling the flesh as “chickie-wickies.” When they turn out to be a massive success, Svend expands his business, with among other things “a little Swede I found in the park.”
Karin Tidbeck is a resident of Malmö, Sweden. She is the author of the award-winning short story collection Jagannath and her short story “Sing” can be found on Tor.com. She has also written three pieces of fiction that involve cooking people.