I read The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals on a train to Amritsar, and wrote most of this piece in my hotel room later that day. Short version – it is very silly and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
A version of the piece below appeared in the Left of Cool column in last weekend’s Sunday Guardian.
According to a wise man, from the beginning of time mankind has had two basic questions when confronted with something new. “Can we eat it?” and “Can we have sex with it?”
Bestiaries have existed for centuries. They describe various exotic animals, both real and imaginary, often completely erasing the line between the two. Early bestiaries were not scientifically rigourous; they relied on rumours of rumours of hearsay. They gave us the manticore, the unicorn, the bonnacon (a bison-like creature that defended itself with explosive, projectile faeces). But while a worrying number of bestiaries addressed themselves to the second of the questions posed above, few tackled the first.
Indians are familiar with a variety of traditions of what is and is not edible. Does it contain onions or garlic? Is it halal? Is it wrong to eat beef if it originated from a foreign cow? In The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, Ann Vandermeer sets out to discover whether or not a selection of fantastic beasts are fit for the consumption of a practising Jew. It turns out that this question is less simple than it appears.
For example, what of those chimerical creatures made up of parts of more than one animal? If a part of the animal is kosher, does that extend to the whole? Does the reverse apply? Clearly one cannot contemplate eating a mermaid, but what about her fishy tail? Chickens are kosher, but does that mean that the cannibalistic Pollo Maligno, found in Colombia, is allowable despite its predatory, cannibalistic instincts? And what does ‘cannibal’ even mean here; does this chicken feed off other chickens or off humans? And if the former, shouldn’t those chickenesque abominations that we’re told go into fast food be non-Kosher as well? At the end of the world the righteous will apparently feast on the great beasts of the sea, land and air (respectively Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz), but does this mean that those creatures are kosher only in the case of an apocalypse? Are angels kosher (or even imaginary), and what sort of terrible person would want to eat one in the first place? Theology is a deeply complex matter.
These weighty issues are rendered accessible by the format of the book. In the tradition of Socrates, these philosophical debates take the form of dialogues between Vandermeer herself and “Evil Monkey”, the blogging alter-ego of her husband Jeff. The Evil Monkey persona seems to know very little about the subject and acts as something of a foil for Vandermeer’s own persuasive arguments to educate the reader.
Frequently Vandermeer cites other authorities, including Dr Jorge Luis Borges, author of that great scholarly work The Book of Imaginary Beings. Or Thackeray T. Lambshead, compiler of a guide to eccentric and discredited diseases. Towards the end of the book another expert is called upon; Duff Goldman, the star of a cooking-based reality TV show. Goldman gives us his opinion on how these creatures are to be cooked, if they are to be cooked at all. From him we learn that the Mongolian Death Worm might make a delicious sushi; that Tribbles, seen in the Star Trek universe, are probably kosher (I have my doubts) and definitely tender; that while it would be predictable and dull to prepare H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu as calamari, he’d be perfect broiled, garnished, and served with a sweet white wine.
One of the best things about The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is that it does not confine itself to traditional creatures of myth, showing a far more global, inclusive approach. So we see the Japanese Abumi-Guchi (not kosher), the Tokoloshe of Zulu myth (not kosher) and the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (kosher, and frequently seen by Welshmen on their way back from the pub). Occasionally Evil Monkey’s flippant comments detract from the tone of what is otherwise a serious theological work, but despite this occasional lapse The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is a thoughtful analysis of religious dilemmas that may be far from imaginary.