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Lunch with a cannibal - and how to survive it

A response to the Vocal+ story “Why does everything taste like chicken?”

By Jon McKnightPublished 3 years ago 7 min read

Having lunch with a cannibal is not without its hazards. Missionaries, according to legend, found they were the main item on the menu themselves when they remarked on the size of their cannibal hosts’ cooking pots - and protesting that you’re a vegetarian and don’t believe in eating meat is likely to be met with an unsympathetic response on the lines of “Well, I’m not - and I do!”.

The simplest way to avoid becoming a cannibal’s lunch is to politely decline the invitation, obvs, but that only works if you know he’s a cannibal in the first place.

And they’re not always easy to spot.

You could have had lunch with countless cannibals already without even knowing it, just as you’ve almost certainly met murderers and all sorts of unsuitable lunch companions whose availability was mostly due to them not having been caught yet.

My cannibal was different.

He was already famous or, to be more precise, infamous, and one of the consequences of his notoriety was that his mantelpiece wasn’t exactly sagging under the weight of dinner invitations.

I was a TV researcher at the time, and needed to find someone who could give us an insight into the mind of another cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer, who, inconveniently for us as programme-makers, had been killed in prison after murdering 18 people himself.

My cannibal was the obvious choice. Like Jeffrey Dahmer, he’d been obsessed with the macabre since his formative years and he’d also committed cold-blooded murder out of what he’d described in court as “intellectual curiosity” - ie, to discover what it felt like to kill someone.

He chose his prey by befriending someone via Minitel, the French forerunner of the internet, and getting himself invited to his victim’s home.

The man answered the door, invited him in, and in the second it took to turn his back, the cannibal murdered him on the spot.

Whether he planned to eat him later was never revealed, but the cannibal was caught shortly afterwards as a result of foolishly using his victim’s bank card at a cash-point.

He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, served only seven, and was a free man by the time I caught up with him.

My brief was to arrange his travel from France to England, and that also meant making the catering arrangements. For a cannibal!

In the background information I’d read about him, he’d claimed to be a reformed character, so I wondered whether that extended to his eating habits, too.

“Are you by any chance a vegetarian now?” I asked him, tentatively.

He didn’t even need time to chew it over and exploded with raucous laughter on the phone.

“Of course not,” he reassured me.

I met him at the Eurostar terminal in London and accompanied him to Trafalgar Square, hoping to God that it wasn’t Bring Your Cauldron To Work Day and the place would be full of them.

It wasn’t and, even more fortunately, the director decided we’d have lunch on the hoof. So, while she set up the cameras and went off to film us from a discreet distance, I chatted away to the cannibal and bought us each a hot-dog at the stand there.

In between sentences, the cannibal bit into his hot-dog with relish, then wiped his hand across his mouth with genuine satisfaction.

Had I been making a programme about table manners, I might have gone for another take, but it was exactly what the director wanted - a slo-mo sequence of a cannibal biting into meat then wiping his mouth - and it’s what I believe more experienced people than me in TV refer to as the money-shot.

As we ate lunch, the cannibal told me how he’d been working as a mortuary assistant in Paris and, among other duties, was supposed to sew up bodies after the pathologists had performed post-mortems.

Then, one day, he dropped a bit. A piece of human flesh.

It landed with a squelch on the floor though, being a mortuary, the floor really was clean enough to eat your dinner off.

Now you, or I, would have picked it up the piece of flesh, popped it back in, and carried on sewing up the cadaver.

But the cannibal didn’t.

Perhaps because of the great French culinary tradition, or overcome by sheer curiosity, he pocketed the piece of human flesh, took it home, and cooked it with what he described later as a rather fine sauce.

Once he’d eaten that, there was no stopping him. He helped himself to choicer cuts (he referred to human meat rather as a butcher might) and kept doing it until he was caught.

His employers were usually too horrified to go to the police because of the reputational damage it would do to them, so he was allowed to leave quietly each time and simply applied for a similar job at another mortuary, working at one after another as he ate his way around Paris.

The director had arranged for us to film in a theme pub with a creepy, dungeon-like basement, though none of the artefacts was quite as unsettling as the cannibal himself. Unless you’re used to them, which I already was.

Despite French being his native language, the cannibal was so fluent in English and so highly intelligent that he could not only appreciate the film crew’s jokes but top them, instantly, with all the aplomb of Paul Merton.

It’s always a good idea when filming an interview to keep your most controversial question until last, so if the interviewee does storm out, at least you’ve got most of what you came for in the can.

I was asking the questions while the TV director did the filming. Had I had the slightest idea of what was going to happen next, I’d have set up a second camera to record the director’s own reaction.

Whispering that she had everything else she needed on tape, the director told me to ask the final question - a question I already felt I knew the answer to.

“So,” I asked the cannibal, “what does human flesh taste like?”

But before we hear his answer, let us pause for a moment.

If you were to ask a thousand people at random what they thought human flesh might taste like, they’d probably answer “Like chicken” for, as Vocal+ creator People! Just Say Something! writes in the excellent story Why does everything taste like chicken?, that’s the most common description people give when asked about any unusual meat from iguana to crocodile.

But back to our cannibal.

Overhearing me whisper the word “chicken” to the director, the cannibal looked straight into the camera and shook his head.

“No,” he said, “it takes exactly like horse-flesh.”

So now we know.

But while I was digesting that, so to speak, I glanced at the director.

Her face was an absolute picture, with a look of horror that must have given the cannibal more satisfaction that he cared to admit.

For while the director could cope with the knowledge that the French man she was filming was happy to eat humans, she was standing there in stunned disbelief at the revelation that French people in general ate horses.

French high streets have always included a boucherie chevaline, or horse butcher’s shop - but the very idea came as a total shock to her.

Looking very pleased with himself, the cannibal went off. Perhaps he was going to eat - but what, or whom, he never said.

In the meantime, I had time to reflect on the risk-assessment I’d had to carry out just before the cannibal stepped off the Eurostar.

I’d been taught how to do them two weeks earlier by a lecturer who travelled about from company to company, trying to interest press-ganged employees into paying attention to a subject that many considered boring and treated with indifference or contempt.

I took it seriously, especially when he pointed out that, in the very rare cases when something terrible happened during filming, the head of the person who carried out the risk-assessment would be on the block.

That would be mine. And, as it happened, my first risk-assessment was for filming with the cannibal.

So, under the heading “Risk”, I wrote on the form that the contributor was a convicted murderer and a cannibal, and I assessed the risk to myself and the film crew as being “substantial” - not least because we only had his word for it that he was reformed.

All that was left to do was to say what actions or precautions I’d taken to minimise or eliminate that risk.

“I ensured,” I wrote, “that the cannibal was well-fed before filming commenced.”

• If this has given you food for thought, why not Like it (press the little heart below) or even share it on social media to encourage me and other Vocal+ creators to keep on writing. Thank you.

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About the Creator

Jon McKnight

I have left Vocal.

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