Saturday, February 27, 2010


When Might of Right first heard that the Italian Chef and TV personality Beppe Bigazzi, the white haired, 77-year-old host of a popular morning program that offers food tips and recipes in a country renowned for its cuisine, had recently proclaimed - whilst on the air - the virtues of Tuscan Cat Stew which he had “enjoyed many times”, we were both bemused though mostly disgusted. Bigazzi continued by offering detailed, seemingly hands-on advice on how to tenderize cat and then admitted, "I've eaten it myself and it's a lot better than many other animals. Better than chicken, rabbit or pigeon." We initially surmised that this had to be a lighthearted, even comedic, prattle gone terribly awry. But, the more we heard and saw it was obvious that this guy went totally off into some culinary La La Land where even if true, shouldn’t be the topic for polite company let alone a contemporary European TV food show. Interestingly, Bigazzi is the author of Cooking with Common Sense, an ingredient sorely lacking in his current persona and approach to this issue.

Whatever his motivation, Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), the Italian public service broadcasting network indefinitely suspended and now has dropped the good chef from their show. Beppe in an apparent attempt to spin his very public, on air revelations and recover himself (phase one) stated that he had only been joking about the recipe, and that he had been misunderstood. Now (phase two) he states that he was offering it from an historical perspective. We, however, think his original TV presentation while abhorrent was sincerely offered. We note that his producers and co-host during a commercial break tried to get Bigazzi to apologize and recant. He refused.

The skin of his teeth, mercurial and self affected Bigazzi though just doesn’t know when to quit given that after offering that he was joking added: “Mind you, I wasn’t joking all that much. In the 1930s and 1940s, when I was a boy, people certainly did eat cat in the countryside around Arezzo.”

Can’t you just see Master Chefs like Dean Fearing, Mario Batali, Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagazzi, Paul Prudhomme, Alton Brown, Wolfgang Puck, Gerry Garvin, Rachael Ray, Gordon Ramsay (maybe) or three late, great masters of the culinary art including an iconic and much parodied Julia Child, the great Cajun Cook Justin (Nutria Piquante) Wilson or an eccentric James Beard even in their heydays addressing this issue? Don’t think so… If we think highly of Chef Bigazzi then we should pursue the explanation that this was more an exercise where he waxed nostalgic like he was digging into a nice Cornish Muggity Pie invoking some past survival mode culinary practice in tougher economic times – again, one no longer in practice. We guess that this could also be a terribly misplaced intellectual curiosity where he was ultimately sold down the culinary river by some very titillated and amused hedonistic faux kitchen historians. We choose the former.

Bigazzi offered that this recipe for cat stew was a famous and very popular dish in the 1930s and 1940s in his home region of Valdarno in the valley of the River Arno in Tuscany. We note that historians have confirmed that other cities in northern Italy such as Vicenza reasonably devised cat recipes in times of economic hardship including those same war years. What’s good for Valderno is apparently OK for Arezzo and Vicenza noting that the inhabitants of Vicenza were ultimately derisively known to other Italians as magnagati, “cat eaters.”

Foraging and scavenging for food in WWII Europe especially in Italy, France, Germany, Spain and other countries was serious hunting and gathering revisited and often the difference between life and death, witness the documented behaviors reflected in The Pianist. That meant finding sustenance by any means. You made do with what you could beg, borrow, steal or found or caught. We suspect that anything four legged or not was in the bulls eye and that included cat.

We noted one food forum with the following comment, “WWII cat was on the menu in Chianti, this seems to be a common pattern of behaviour during periods of food crisis. Once normal food supplies resume, the old taboos mostly come back quite quickly. Not in all cases though.” We understand that even to this day some butcher shops sell rabbits with their feet on to assure buyers that they are not cats.

Consistent with not so kinder times for our Feline Friends Ruperto de Nola, chef to the king of Naples in his 1529 treatise on cookery, Libro de Cocina, recommended and offered his infamous recipe for roasted cat, 'Gato asado como se quiere comer'. I have seen references to other cookbooks that feature gatto/cat. It is estimated that millions of cats from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century (thanks to the Catholic Church) were exterminated because of the sinister belief they were involved in witchcraft. In fact, this less than enlightened practice saw many of their owners meet the same fate.

So, what does the Bible of Cookery, Larousse Gastronomique, say all about this? My 1961 Larousse, the original English translation of this most renowned encyclopedia of food was a rite de passage gift from my Mother (surely anticipating this day) and offers critical perspectives on the table of the world. Yes, cat is there - “Cat. Chat – Domestic cat whose edible meat has a flavour halfway between that of rabbit and that of hare. Cat’s meat has often been eaten in periods of famine or of siege. Legend has it that in the cook-shops the cat is often used in the making of rabbit fricassées. Examination of the bones would easily enable one, in case of doubt, to distinguish between the one animal and the other.” There is no recipe for cat and the gauntlet is surely cast identifying it mostly as a last resort source of protein for humans.

Fast forward sixty years from World War II and you have a different world. Post war Europe and Tuscany are not in the midst of war or famine and the culture that fomented and nourishes a much appreciated and admired contemporary cuisine has moved on. Not so the good the jaundiced Chef Bigazzi who apparently still embraces a vicarious survival mentality in an era of plenty.

If we buy into Beppe’s explanation then this writer still wonders when the last time this geriatric culinary whiz prepared and ate cat. His initial revelation smacks of a contemporary experience. Let’s check his passport and find the last time he was in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia or Vietnam where cat remains an integral part of their diet. Or, maybe we should note when he last went home to Arezzo…

We see credible reports on the Internet that cat was consumed in Great Britain (roof rabbit) and is still consumed in Peru and Switzerland. If you want a really chilling glimpse at the current demand for this product you can slide on over to Kitty Beef
the, “online Premium Cat Meat Supermarket, where you can order your meat, and have it delivered in vacuum sealed freshness directly to your door.” Yep, this company operates what they call “free range cat farms” the source of their “premium grade cat”. Or, if you really want to get grossed out – and despite the protestations and serious advice of Asian medical doctors - how about some Korean, “Liquid Cat” for your arthritis?

Just when I thought I could take no more, my anthropologist genes kicked in. After some serious research I soon came to the conclusion that the consumption of cat is not an ancient practice, rather a recent invention born of necessity. Primordial Man probably consumed anything he could lay his hands on though the archeological record reflects that Man and Cat have been hanging out (even buried) together for 9,500 or more years. However, if this animal was consumed in ancient “civilized” times it may have been mostly a deviation from the norm then as it is today.

The Egyptians literally worshipped the cat while ancient Greeks and Romans associated the cat with the goddesses Artemis and Diana respectively. We have seen references to the domestication of cats by the Etruscans even to the painting of cats on the walls of their tombs.

Closer to my cultural home the Norse Freya, goddess of love, beauty, and fertility who is referenced in other Scandinavian cultures is depicted riding in a golden chariot drawn by Bygul and Trjegul, her two revered silvery Norwegian Forest Cats. The presence of cats was a good omen and even the thought of eating a sacred icon would have been unfathomable and, yes, abhorrent. In some cultures if you killed a cat, your life was immediately forfeit.

Cats have been and remain sacred and venerated in many other cultures though we are aware of the aberrations cited in this post. We, like our Feline Friends, continue to evolve and the cat for many including this writer is our connection with nature and our own primordial past. Man’s relationship with the Cat has persevered through ancient times and the Middle Ages to the present where from educated eyes we know them to be magnificent companion creatures who in a true symbiosis have protected, entertained and comforted us since they chose to be civilized.

Having said that (I’m no ethnocentric), I do not begrudge other cultures their affectations and that includes their diets and choice of foods. We do, however, need to keep in context Bigazzi’s remarks in an Italian contemporary frame of mind. One of the ancient cited cultures which once revered the cat is now consuming it as a culinary delight? It would appear that the good and now openly eccentric Chef Bigazzi’s troubles have just begun and he is no doubt destined for more hard times. Cats are protected in much of the civilized world and Italian law forbids killing and cooking cats in Italy - punishable by up to 18 months in jail, hence his protestations. We have been assured that the local version of the Italian Chamber of Commerce has their spin doctors at work.

Waste not, want not. Think I’ll go and have some Haggis and Monkey Toes with a side of Hunan Rabbit Ears while reading Swift’s A Modest ProposalThe vegans are loving this….

Love and Kisses from Ms. Sophie Baggins, a very large Maine Coon, 3rd cousin, thrice removed to Catti Mohr a 24 pound naturalized Highland Norwegian Forest Cat from Ben Nevis who loves lasagna, ravioli and tacos.


Ned Buxton

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