Like most of us, Mikey Robins had never sat down to a Christmas lunch featuring antelope and truffle terrine on the menu. But when he heard about a festive dinner that had, it inspired his first solo book project.
During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, “a group of well-heeled French officers wanted a Yuletide banquet, however there was no food available in Paris at the time”, explains Robins. “Sadly, there was also no feed available for the animals at the zoo …”
The result was a 12-course meal that included “Stuffed Ass’s Head, Roast camel in The English Style, haunch of Wolf with Venison Sauce … and one dish that was simply titled Cats garnished with Rats”, says Robins, who shares the story of “one of the most unsettling Christmas meals of all time” in his book Seven Deadly Sins, a laugh-out-loud exploration of culinary history through the lens of the titular sins. (We Ate a Zoo falls under Wrath.)
Collecting weird, food-related stories from history came naturally to the Sydney comedian.
“I’ve always been a bit of a history nerd, I love my food and I’m constantly drawn to stories about bizarre human behaviour,” Robins, 56, tells The New Daily.
In the introduction to his book, Robins declares that while he’s not an historian, chef or theologian, he was fronting up to Weight Watchers meetings at the age of 10 (his only other regular appointment was Sunday Mass, which led him into “associating pleasure and guilt from an early age”).
“My one lasting memory was a sense of dread just before the weekly weigh-in,” says Robins, whose book touches on his weight struggles and decision to have gastric-band surgery in 2006.
These days “I eat a lot less red meat and when I do it has to be pretty tender. Apart from that, I eat the same just in smaller proportions, a soft spot for chocolate and wine is the main reason I carry extra kilos these days.”
Researching his book sent him down the “rabbit hole of culinary history sites”, where one story usually wound its way to another.
“What had started in the morning as research on how modern, high-end chefs are using ash as a cooking ingredient, had by mid-afternoon morphed into a story on how Roman gladiators are credited with inventing the world’s first ever sports drink,” says Robins, who called that yarn Gladiator Gatorade.
Occasionally, the author ate strange stuff in the name of research. While he stopped short of trying “Sweet Sue Canned Whole Chicken”, he did sample testicles and found them “pretty tasty”, though, “the hardest part is not eating them, the hardest part is slicing them”.
And his own guilty pleasure? That’s easy, he shoots back: “Always has been and always will be potato scallops, unless of course if I’m in Victoria then it’s potato cakes or South Australia when I have potato fritters … with malt vinegar and normal salt.”
Tame fare, compared to some of the folk he writes about in Seven Deadly Sins. Extreme eaters, past and present, get a look-in, including peanut-butter freaks Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando, and Tarrare, an 18th-century Frenchman who once ate his own weight in beef.
“I find the story of Tarrare fascinating,” Robins says.
“It contains espionage, Napoleon, gross eating and more than just a small amount of farting. Four things I always look for in an historical tale.”
Seven Deadly Sins and One Very Naughty Fruit, by Mikey Robins, Simon & Schuster, RRP$35