Charles Darwin and the exotic food clubs of the 19th century

A Renaissance Writer
5 min readApr 29, 2020
Charles Darwin (coloured)

“[to consume] birds and beasts which were before unknown to human palate.” — Charles Darwin on the Glutton Club

Coming together over food has been something humanity has done since the beginning. In the grand scheme of things, at least from a western perspective, nothing is off limits when it comes to our dining habits. But whether through availability, squeamishness or ethical issues there are a great many food stuffs that various peoples, for whatever reason, across the world simply don’t eat.

In the past though, three clubs have sort to change that. The Glutton Club, the Acclimatisation Society and the Ichthyophagous Club. The mantra of these three clubs was essentially to sample all the world had to offer in terms of foods. It led to some truly bizarre dining experiences.

The Glutton Club

First, and perhaps most famously, the Glutton Club. Compared to later entries, the tastes of the Glutton Club can seem positively mundane, but it is distinguished by its most famous member — Charles Darwin.

Darwin was apparently an abysmal student for much of time studying at Cambridge, preferring instead to sample ‘strange flesh’. The club is known to have dined on hawk and bittern (a kind of bird, the loudest in Britain in fact). They are said to have lost their appetites after a time though, following a particularly nasty dining experience when eating a brown owl. The stringy meat put many of the club members off and the club seems to have developed a less exotic palette as a result.

Darwin wouldn’t abandon his fascination with ‘strange flesh’ during his travels aboard on the HMS Beagle either. He purportedly ate armadillos and an unknown but large (20lbs/9kg) rodent, the latter of which he found particularly delicious.

The Lesser Rhea

Controversially, for Christmas diner in 1833, he also ate a Rhea, a large, flightless bird native to Patagonia and Altiplano. While they are not considered endangered today, in Darwin’s own time, they were increasingly rare. He writes in his own journal that once he realised what he was…

A Renaissance Writer

I love all things Italian Renaissance, cooking and writing. I can often be found reading, drinking espresso and working on too many things at once