Last year Carole Travis-Henikoff invited about 60 of her pals to her University Village graystone for a smorgasbord representing disarticulated human body parts. At the top she laid a suckling pig head with angel-hair pasta tresses and a beef tongue. There were veal sweetbreads around where the thymus glands would go, and a braised beef heart was surrounded by barbecued pork ribs, a roasted veal breast, and an abdomen of liver paté. Pork shank forearms ended in banana hands. Toward the other end of the 12-foot table there were eggs for ovaries, lamb fries and Italian meatballs for testicles, and a long narrow platter of assorted sausages placed between two legs of lamb.

Travis-Henikoff is an independent scholar and gastronomist who cooks in a Rush University Medical Center lab coat rather than a chef’s jacket (her husband, Leo, was Rush’s CEO for 17 years). She’d just inked a deal with Santa Monica Press to publish her anthropological history of cannibalism, and the smorgasbord was her way of celebrating. Her friend Jean Joho, chef at Everest, lent a hand with the carving.

The party reflected the streak of wicked humor that runs through Travis-Henikoff’s otherwise scholarly book, Dinner With a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Taboo, and wit makes one of her major premises—that most of us are closer to the taboo than we think—easier to swallow. “When I was a little kid I practiced autophagy all the time,” she says. “I used to roller skate and just get the worst scabs on my elbows and knees.” She argues that most of us have cannibals in our ancestral closets, and in the book points to Viking bones in Copenhagen’s Museum of Natural History that show evidence—cut marks and breakage—of having been cannibalized. “A thousand years ago, my Viking ancestors had a two-course meal: stone-baked clams and roasted Sigvaard,” she writes.

Travis-Henikoff’s father, Carl F.S. Andersen, was a chef who trained not too far away from those old bones in the Den Kongelige Skydebane, or Royal Shooting Society, where the apprentices regularly cooked for Danish royalty. He used an inheritance from his father to emigrate to the U.S., landing in Hollywood and eventually buying the restaurant he found work in, Chatam, in LA’s Brentwood section.

She grew up in her father’s place, cooking for and mingling with the Hollywood showbiz types and UCLA academics who frequented it. She was also a voracious reader, and even in adulthood, after she’d married, had children, and was helping to run the restaurant, she continued to study and hobnob with the scholars who dined there: “I got my education across the dinner table,” she says. She was particularly interested in archaeology and paleoanthropology.

In 1975, after a divorce and remarriage to an oilman she’d met in the restaurant, she moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and published a cookbook, Star Food, which contained many of her father’s recipes. (You’ll find one of them on our blog the Food Chain.) In the early 80s her husband, a frustrated anthropologist, was diagnosed with leukemia. To deal with his illness, she buried herself in her books. After his death she joined the Paleoanthropology Society and began attending academic conferences, making connections with scholars, and doing her own research. In 1991 she met Leo, and now the couple split their time between their ranch in Wyoming and Chicago.

About seven years ago she began looking into a hypothesis that Neanderthal man’s extinction was brought about by prion disease—a class of neurodegenerative disorders like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy—induced by the practice of cannibalism. “I went to bed one night and realized I didn’t know enough about cannibalism,” she says, and the more she read the further she strayed from her original subject.

Much of her research was directed in reaction to William Arens’s influential 1979 book The Man-Eating Myth, which argued there was no evidence supporting the idea that cannibalism ever existed as an accepted social practice. Today Travis-Henikoff and the scholars she admires view that book as a politically correct whitewash, and more than a few of her fellows provided jacket blurbs for her book. Arizona State’s Christy G. Turner, who caused a ruckus by presenting evidence that the southwestern Anasazi practiced cannibalism (the subject of his 1999 book, Man Corn), wrote the introduction.

Though parts of it are pretty grisly, Dinner With a Cannibal isn’t a sensationalist freak show of Dahmers and Donners. Travis-Henikoff employs the methodological approach of cultural relativism (itself a frequent target of the anti-PC police) to argue that throughout history cannibalism has existed (and still exists) in the context of belief systems, from the Aztecs’ belief that their sacrificial victims were feeding the sun to the post-Renaissance European practice of ingesting bits of excavated Egyptian mummies for medicinal purposes.

Though she maintains a scholar’s objectivity, of the nine different types of cannibalism she examines, she finds “survival cannibalism” the most palatable. “I mean, if I was truly in a situation where I was absolutely going to die unless I ate other bodies around me,” she says, “I’m going to eat human flesh. I won’t want to, but I’m not going to die.” The body on her dining room table notwithstanding, the form of cannibalism she’s least curious about is “gastronomic cannibalism,” practiced without attendant ritual or need.

“I’m quite sure it’s probably a very good meat,” she says. “I know the liver is gonna taste like any other liver, or very close to it. I do not think it would taste bad. I’m positive it would give me sustenance. But I have no desire for it whatsoever.”v

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