A Billion-Dollar Appetite for the Bizarre and Illegal

By Eric Estroff, The George Washington University

“If it walks, crawls, swims, flies—somebody eats it, collects it, wears it or wants to.” —Joseph Johns, a federal prosecutor of environmental crimes.

His big blue eyes glared straight through my soul. When he snorted, every gurgle in his throat made me flinch, and as the drool rolled down his face, filling the crevices of his wrinkles, he knew.

He knew I had done the unthinkable. Buck knew, and there was no turning back now. I had eaten one of his friends while I was abroad in China.

I had unknowingly eaten dog meat.

Judge me, label me a psychopath who preyed on man’s best friend, but don’t assume I did this on purpose.

In China, respect is everything. When you are invited into someone’s home you are expected to eat what is served and do what is asked of you. When one of our homestays served a sautéed dish of “gou” with noodles and brown sauce, of course, I ate it. Did I know at the time that I was eating a relative of my beloved French bulldog back home? Of course not, but this decision haunts me to this day.

Contrary to what one might assume, consuming man’s best friend is legal in 44 states in this country. And taboo or not, that’s just the tip of the iceberg—there are a lot of bizarre and interesting foods that make up America’s pantry. There are thousands of different types of restaurants, and every restaurant one is trying to be more creative than the last in hope of creating the hottest new boutique and reaching your taste buds in ways that no one else has before.

Related: Forbidden Food: From Fried Tarantulas to Fido

World famous Spanish restaurateur José Andrés announced that he might be serving something similar to Buck the Bulldog, another family pet. Andrés is hoping to feature guinea pig, the cute fuzzy classroom pet, on the menu at his new eatery, China Chilcano, scheduled to open in Washington, D.C. this fall. Cuy, or guinea pig, is a delicacy in many parts of Asia and in Peru.

While eating dog and guinea pig may not be illegal in all states, there are plenty of other foods that are banned from individual states across the country. One of the most interesting bans is Louisiana’s ban on consuming blood, be it human or animal. I’ll let you judge if it’s ironic or not that the vampire T.V. series True Blood takes place in small-town Louisiana.

Blood certainly isn’t the only ban. While dog meat may still be legal, shark, wild beluga, and horse meat are very much illegal across the country. These bans could be because of safety concerns, issues over the treatment of animals, environmental impact, or a number of other considerations. The next time you find something funky on the menu of a restaurant that may be off the beaten path, check to make sure what your eating doesn’t land you in jail.

And don’t worry—Buck and I have rectified our differences and we are rebuilding our trust. He is happy, chubbier than ever, and, yes, alive.


An Expanding Trade

As our appetite has expanded, so has our thirst for the untouchables, those foods and staples that are the most exotic and hardest to find. There is a multi-billion dollar business involving the unlawful harvest of and trade in live animals and plants for ivory and skins, but also for foods and traditional medicines. Endangered animals and plants are often the target of wildlife crime because of their rarity and increased economic value.

This problem is so rampant that the United States brought together 179 countries in 1973 to combat the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade. There are now 207 special agents and 126 wildlife inspectors stationed all around the country to help prevent this unsavory business, but it is still booming:

— Last March, Cheng Zhuo Liu of Chula Vista, Calif., pled guilty to smuggling frozen sea cucumbers over the Mexico border. The 100 pounds of sea cucumbers, worth up to $10,000, were found in the spare tire compartment of Liu’s Hyundai.

— In central Europe, hundreds of thousands of songbirds are illegally shot and exported every year, including endangered species such as the Red-breasted Goose and many other songbirds.

Eric Estroff is a junior majoring in Political Communication at The George Washington University.

This story is from our Planet Forward Campus Voices program—an opportunity for students to celebrate and explore our complex relationship with what we eat and where our food comes from.