Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Page 31: Monkey Brains

According to persistent urban legend, a delicacy in some exotic land—typically in the Far East—involves restraining and attaching a live monkey to the underside of a table with a hole in it, through which the unfortunate monkey’s head protrudes. This allows a chef to remove the skullcap so that diners can eat the still-living animal’s brain. (Apologies to the squeamish: I didn’t make this up!)

Although eating live monkey brains is an urban legend, doctors nevertheless advise against it.
This graphic appears as part of a humorous series of pregnancy tips
which have appeared on a number of websites, e.g. here.
This legend plays on people’s fear or dislike of foreigners and a lack of understanding of their cultures. It basically maligns said outside group by associating it with a gruesome and deplorable custom. According to one writer,
Americans say the Taiwanese do it. Indonesians say the Taiwanese do it. Taiwanese say that Hong Kongers do it. Hong Kongers say it is rural Chinese on the border with Vietnam. Historical versions by officials from Beijing (in the North) report that it is Southerners who do it. […T]his classic legend is probably as old as time itself, first told by Java Man to Lucy about the exotic eating habits of barbaric Peking Man.
While all kinds of animals are eaten around the globe, there have been absolutely no documented cases of people eating monkeys alive. Oziewicz (1983) reports that “stories about monkey brain feasts are, if not in most cases fictional, at least greatly exaggerated.” Schreiber concurs that it is merely an urban legend, originating with a cheeky 1948 columnist who also claimed that “the Chinese eat everything in the water except submarines, everything in the air except airplanes and everything with legs except furniture”: the author had no idea that his fanciful invention would gain so much traction as an urban legend.

A notorious yet popular restaurant scene from the 1978 film Faces of Death—in which diners with hammers beat a monkey to death then eat its fresh brain—was later admitted to be faked with harmless foam hammers and a “brain” made of cauliflower, gelatin, and red food coloring. 

In The Billionth Monkey, this myth serves not only as a captivating—if gross—example of urban legend, but the story serves as a #MonkeyReference which gives rise to Niels Belanger’s nickname of “Monkey Boy”…which is itself a #MonkeyReference. It's a twofer!

For Further Reading

“Live Monkey Brains,” July 17, 1998; rev. May 11, 2005. At http://www.utexas.edu/courses/stross/ant393b_files/ARTICLES/monkey_brains.html

Wikipedia article on monkey brains.

Stanley Oziewicz, “Eat the Brains, But Please Don't Hurt the Monkey,” Globe and Mail, Jul 16, 1983, 9.

Mark Schreiber, “Debunking Strange Asian Myths: Part II,” Japan Times, August 8, 2002.

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