What does a human taste like? There seems to be no definitive answer to this quandary. Short of empirical evidence, which is socially difficult to attain, the modern cannibal fantasy can draw on several sources. There is Alfred Packer, who was stranded in the Rocky Mountains in 1883, imprisoned for killing and eating his fellow travelers, escaped, imprisoned once more, and finally pardoned in 1901. Packer claimed human meat is extremely sweet. Omaima Nelson, who failed to send her husband down the disposal and instead threw him out with leftover Thanksgiving turkey in 1991, confirmed Packer’s account of sweet human flesh.
Then there is Armin Meiwes, arrested in 2002 for killing and devouring a willing victim found via the internet. Meiwes claims human flesh most resembles pork, though bitterer and stronger. Issei Sagawa, who murdered and cannibalized a Dutch student in Paris in 1981, was subsequently imprisoned but released a year later due to a paperwork error in his transfer to native Japan. Now a fellow restaurant reviewer and minor celebrity, Issei has said human tastes like raw tuna from a sushi restaurant. Yet according to Alexander Pearce, Irish convict who devoured fellow escapees in 1820, “[human meat] tastes far better than fish or pork.”
In the 1920s, journalist William Seabrook spent time with the cannibalistic Guere tribe of West Africa. The Guere chef was unable to describe the taste to Seabrook’s satisfaction, and he later obtain a chunk of human meat from a cadaver at the Sorbonne to try it firsthand. In his 1931 book Jungle Ways, Seabrook reported that the meat “was like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef. It was very definitely like that, and it was not like any other meat I had ever tasted.”
Disagreement remains, one suspects because a victim’s taste is as varied as his or her diet. But one thing seems ubiquitous: the taste is like no other meat. That the taste is entirely unique on this earth makes cannibalism an act of fascination and fantasy for the callow tongue. This mysterious taste, retold in countless narratives both tragic and fetishistic, inspired Jonathan Seabrook to take up his great-grandfather’s interest in the cannibalistic dining experience. Seabrook the younger, an experienced chef in his own right, last month opened New York’s most controversial restaurant People Eatery.
The restaurant caters to the morally cognizant, discerning cannibal without all the fuss of murder and inhumanity. The menu consists of various plates of Hum’n, constructed mostly from undisclosed amalgams of plants and grains. But in four variations (simply labeled #1-4 on the menu, ostensibly replicating the various purported flavors mentioned above), through some culinary wizardry Seabrook has managed to infuse the tastes of human flesh.
You can spot the place from two blocks down by the crowd gathered outside. The mob is not the one usually found outside popular new foodie destinations populated by the indrawn hipster set. No, this spiteful mass emits a steady din, boiling over into staccato shrieks when any said indrawn hipster approaches the doors. Soho foot traffic meets the mob at a bottleneck on Broadway, and as the crowd swells, bystanders spill dangerously off the pavement into oncoming traffic.
It is a surreal mix of protestors. There are religious figures of nearly every faith decrying the cuisine as ungodly. (People Eatery has applied to many and heard no response from any rabbi to bless the reproduction meat products.) Others have more general moral objections, like the naturalists that decry the cuisine, claiming that some basic human impulse prohibits the taste of fellow human. Still others imply Seabrook’s knowledge of human taste was dubiously obtained. These fine conspiracy theorists claim the master chef followed literally in William Seabrook’s steps, retracing his ancestor’s travels into the neocolonial heart of darkness, found the remnants of the Guere tribe, and indulged in the local cuisine.
A common strain emerges among the objections. Many protestors fear “The Hunger,” that insatiable appetite for human flesh that drives its way into the brain after just one unnatural bite. The taste that begets only further hunger. Differing perspectives on whether the taste is authentic or artificial seem not to undermine their camaraderie. So they form a vitriolic line, holding strong against the slippery slope to cannibal anarchy.
The crowd gathered early, but as the sun came into alignment with the street and the buildings rescinded their shadows, the rising temperature made the mob increasingly feral. By my arrival in early afternoon, they thrust their signs high, peaking above the torrent of heads: THE FLESH IS FALSE, BUT THE SIN IS TRUE and SOYLENT GREEN IS HUMAN, YOU SHOULD BE TOO and IT ISN’T SOY.
I orbit the crowd waiting for my moment to sprint through. When the opening arrives, I shove my head beneath my jacket and make a break for the entrance. The tall doors offer cold, pressure sealed embrace, an absolute partition between out and in. Through floor-to-ceiling windows, the protestors appear as a silent movie. But in an odd inversion, the outside world remains in color, while the interior of the restaurant pulsates the somber tones of grayscale. Long ribbed steel walls rise to a cement ceiling, evoking a sort of 22nd century cave. Light tan chopping block tables and deep red accents add the only color to the room. A series of bar stools line a floating bar against the windows, giving a few brave, combative diners front row seats to stare down the protestors.
The sparse decorations otherwise give little distraction, and no music plays in People Eatery. Intimidated by the edited décor or by the reporters in their midst, customers remain guarded against eavesdroppers. Barely a word passes over the tables, and customers occupy their ritual duties with vigor. The meal apparently requires immense contemplation, a mental exertion reminiscent of that dire decision in genuine cannibalistic misadventures.
Occasionally, a snippet of the mob’s outraged roar leaks in when the doors swing open. Some new diners stumble into the fog of rigorous consumption, speaking a few words before taking the cue to quiet. Except these brief moments, the room is filled only with the sounds of eating: chewing, cutting, dishes clattering, crunching, and an elusive communal murmur.
The diners are as bizarre a mix as the protestors. There are locals from Soho and the Village with hair coiffed and shawl collar cardigans hanging long, enticed away from their usual haunts for weekend brunch. The Broadway crowds keeps away anyone too chic, but the hype still draws a few in Alexander Wang t-shirts and Prada heels. NYU students and faculty avoid each other’s gazes, but plan to make the same cracks in class about meat pies or modest proposals. A few confused tourists assumed the venomous mob outside just typified New Yorkers and cut through the horde seeking a truly local experience to retell like a trophy back in Skokie or Tularosa. Finally, the crowd is rounded out by a spattering of fellow gonzo reporters in jeans and faux barn coats or grey blazers, their eyes filled with equal parts arrogance and ambition.
As the maître d beckons me to follow, his lanky gestures a bit too much like Lurch not to be comical, I do some recon on others’ meals. Plates of Hum’n arrive on tables in mounds that resemble meatloaf. A deep crimson coating gives way to an interior baked to an appetizing brown, though I wonder if it was browned in cooking or emerged from a test tube like this. The four variants seem indistinguishable, with no attempt made to replicate actual meat products as some meatless foods are wont to do.
From afar the texture remains suspicious. There’s a rigidity around the edges that betrays the construction, making me wonder if the meat might wobble like jello to the touch. Yet other diners seem to find it surprisingly firm, and I watch as they cut into their roasts to produce abundant manufactured blood. I plan to go with the mashed sweet potatoes as a side, handy in mopping up the mess. Those with kale chips do not fare so well.
My server Taylor is quick to dispense with pleasantries. She wears a blazer unbuttoned over a black t-shirt that reads in white block lettering “To serve man.” She fits in well among the no-nonsense aesthetic, addressing my concerns coldly and without charity. Her initial answers seem like stock responses, but Taylor doesn’t make any excuses for the restaurant. Her remarks are delivered with sly derision, though it is difficult to tell if her scorn is targeted at the owners, the other customers, or me.
It’s food, Taylor says. She’s worked plenty of waitress jobs and she claims this one is no different. The job puts food on the table for her kids, and no she doesn’t take leftovers home from work. Taylor has never tried the fare she serves, nor does she have any interest in doing so. She tells me she doesn’t go for fast food either; all that shit is addictive, whether it’s injected with sugar or covered in bacon.
I ask about the kitchen. I ask what really goes into the food. If Seabrook’s really got half the descendants of the Guere tribe back there cooking up Hum’n as rumored. She parries, admits only that rumors add to the hype and bring inquisitive reporters round seeking answers. Disappointed by the staff’s tight lips, they often end up stuffing themselves on the food instead. They leave satisfied, Taylor adds, one way or another.
Finally, I ask about “The Hunger.” Taylor tells me she has noticed some recurring faces in the restaurant. They’re working their ways through edible bucket lists, learning the world by eating it, trying everything on the menu though honestly it all looks the same. Some bring friends as excuses. Others have become regulars, arriving alone and ravenous. It’s the thrill, what they outside call the hunger. She doesn’t air quote the phrase like others do. Taylor figures if they weren’t eating this, they would be eating something just as bad. Like a release valve, I ask. She shrugs and returns to her shift.
I place my order: variant #1, or that based on William Seabrook’s reports. Each time I see Taylor bearing food, my heart quickens, and as she sets down the plate down on some other diner’s table, I let out a sigh of relief. I feel each time as if I’ve dodged a bullet, that I have delayed the ultimate moment of deciding to eat. Yet as that fatal moment of my first taste draws closer, one question rises above all others: How do you know what human tastes like unless you really have tasted it before? Maybe this question is a deflection: It’s not so bad, who knows what this taste might be. Or maybe it’s a justification: Seabrook couldn’t know, this has got to be fake, The Hunger is a placebo effect of the controversy. Either the restaurant is an intricate ploy or the chef is a cannibal. Neither seems appealing.
From my table I watch those seated along the window. Whether they are simply combative or entertained by the protestors, or unlucky enough not to score a table away from the display of fury, they all stare out. They don’t hide their faces in shame, though even if they wanted to, their plates would offer little sanctuary.
While I’m relieved not to be seated there, in a way, those seats provide the restaurant’s quintessential experience. The hot seat. The thin glass perch between People Eatery’s grand complex and the raging mob. My food arrives, but the scene at the window holds me arrested. As the patrons sit longer staring into that fantastic abyss of scorn, a palpable energy rises among them. The accompanying noises of feasting begin to churn, amplified by the ribbed steel, splashing back against the windows, washing over all of us. The diners at the window chow down antagonistically now, provoking the protestors with a gluttonous exhibition. They stab their food with such force that blood coats their sleeves and chests.
The display is too much for the protestors to bear, and they charge the window. Their shouts now penetrate the barrier. Some have discarded their paraphernalia in favor of bare fists pounding against the window, causing the entire structure to vibrate. Some of those on stools pound back. Others from the tables join them, shouting now, food spilling from their mouths. Someone throws a loaf, variant #2 I think, splattering it on the walls and floor.
The mob outside rushes the doors, but diners are there barricading the entrance. I can see onlookers across the street with their cell phones drawn, taking videos of the protest as it becomes a riot. The cops arrive but the adrenaline soaked horde fends them off with ease. Taylor is by me, shrieking, at the customers or at the protestors. Inside, diners smear their faces with food. They strip their cardigans and blazers and smear their bodies, climbing over one another in a heap of carnal indulgence. Outside, the protestors are collecting their signs in a mound around the police car. They create an altar, and begin to eat a fellow protestor in effigy like an Aztec sacrifice. Inside, the kitchen staff emerges, no members of the Guere tribe among them. They stare aghast at the scene.
And there he is. In an instant, standing on my table. Seabrook, his grey ponytail coming undone, his flowing black apron hanging open, his circular shades askew. He glares down at me, pressing me back into my seat. I hear the windows shatter and the deluge of carnage breaks loose, but my eyes are locked with Seabrook’s. He leans down until I can feel his thick breath on my mouth, points to my untouched meal and says, “You simply must try it. It is not like any other meat. I have no words.”
Addendum: Since this article was published, People Eatery has closed its doors pending a FDA investigation concerning sanitation.