Crunchiness redux

by Henry Farrell on April 3, 2005

Jared Diamond tells us more about rat by-product consumption in the Old West in Collapse:

In 1849, hungry gold miners crossing the Nevada desert noticed some glistening balls of a candy-like substance on a cliff, licked or ate the balls, and discovered them to be sweet-tasting, but then they developed nausea. Eventually it was realized that the balls were hardened deposits made by small rodents, called packrats. that protect themselves by building nests of sticks, plant fragments, and mammal dung gathered in the vicinity, plus food remains, discarded bones, and their own feces. Not being toilet-trained, the rats urinate in their nests, and sugar and other substances crystallize from their urine as it dries out, cementing the midden to a brick-like consistency. In effect, the hungry gold miners were eating dried rat urine laced with rat feces and rat garbage.

These middens are quite valuable to paleontologists interested in finding out about local vegetation in specific periods; they serve as rough-and-ready time capsules. Diamond seems to have an interest in rats as food sources; he also tells us in passing about recipes for laboratory rat that circulated among British scientists during the post-WW II period of food rationing.



Stentor 04.03.05 at 12:57 pm

I took an archaeology class in Australia, and in our first lab session the professor had set out a bunch of artefacts on the table. One of them was this glistening black rock the size of a fist. I was the only one who was willing to pick it up after she told us it was solidified rat urine.


Tom 04.03.05 at 2:02 pm

_The_ book, if you’re interested, is:

Betancourt, Van Devender, and Martin. 1990. Packrat middens: the last 40,000 years of biotic change. U of Arizona Press.

Back in the days before tight airport security, we found a sample in an undersampled area of the Great Basin (few cliffs for preservation), and one of their colleagues had to decide whether to put it in his checked bag with his clothes or carry it on for his flight back. I’m not sure you could do either today, as the high N urine would likely set off the explosives detectors.


abb1 04.03.05 at 2:31 pm

Well, I thought it has already been proven empirically by Farley Mowat that a diet of rodents is nutritionally adequate if you eat them whole. And that was what? – 1960s?


Elaine Supkis 04.03.05 at 6:40 pm

Bugs taste good, too. My mother used to say, “Vitamin B–bugs are healthy!”.


Skippy McGee 04.03.05 at 7:22 pm

Since Jared Diamond and his fellow propagandists would soon have you on just such a diet, better print off a copy of that recipe.

Diamond is great for prepping the rubes to watch passively while the last remaining few dollars of the economy are siphoned off before the collapse. Jared is all about telling the reader that all this is a natural phenomenon, just sit back and enjoy it.


Louis Proyect 04.03.05 at 9:27 pm

It would be useful to have a deeper and more comprehensive discussion of Diamond’s goals here rather than on the risks of eating rat byproducts.

I am writing a series of articles on “Collapse”. The first two installments are at:


Jay Conner 04.03.05 at 10:08 pm

I don’t have the book here now…I come from an ancient culture which sources its information from books… but as I recall, entrecore de la bordelaise originates with grilled rat prepared by the cellarworkers of Bordeaux, hence the term “cellar rat” ?


Jay Conner 04.03.05 at 10:31 pm

excusez-moi, c’est entrecote A la bordelaise.

Cooking Rats and Mice
… Grilled Rats Bordeaux Style (Entrecote à la bordelaise) … In West Africa,
however, rats are a major item of diet. the giant rat (Cricetomys), …

Jay Conner


Skippy McGee 04.04.05 at 12:43 am

Louis Proyect, you used a socialist book to prop up some more socialist advocacy. Isn’t this exactly the kind of toxic self-referential gibberish that has defined Marxism for the past 100 years?

f y thnk s hghl f th lfstyl f ndn svgs, wh dn’t y st gd xmpl nd ld th w n dptng thr stn g pprch t lf?

I expect some odd sophistry about how you are needed here to educate the rest of us. Funny, that. Funny, indeed.


ajay 04.04.05 at 5:02 am

No thread about eating rats can be complete without –

-[suspicious] What’s on the menu?
-Rat. Saute or fricassee.
– Oh, the agony of choice. Saute involves…?
-Well, you take the freshly shaved rat, and you marinade it in a puddle for a while.
-Hmm, for how long?
-Until it’s drowned. Then you stretch it out under a hot light bulb, then you get within dashing distance of the latrine, and then you scoff it right down.
-So that’s sauteing, and fricasseeing?
-Exactly the same, just a slightly bigger rat.

(from Blackadder Goes Forth)


kgoesh 04.04.05 at 10:06 am

Louis – just my take, but I see Diamond as more of an apologist for the inevitable and less an oil puppet


abb1 04.04.05 at 12:12 pm

Hey, I can’t decrypt a word in troll’s middle paragraph and it bothers me. In ‘ndn savages’ – what’s ‘ndn’ stand for? Help!


Phil Armstrong 04.04.05 at 1:35 pm

Louis: forgive me, but an article which starts with the admission that you haven’t actually *read* the author’s previous works but you’re going to criticise them anyway on the basis of secondary sources doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the quality of the rest of the article.


aretino 04.04.05 at 2:10 pm


Indian, for sure.


abb1 04.04.05 at 2:17 pm

Of course. Thanks.


pierre 04.04.05 at 2:24 pm

Hmm, I thought it was

“the lifestyle of the undine savages”

undine, (nden´, un´den), in folklore, a female water sprite who could acquire a soul by marrying a human being.

Possibly a reference to Ariel in “The Tempest”? But it still doesn’t make sense to me either way.

Whoops, gotta go, my acorn bread is getting too close to the camp-fire. (Lotsa antioxidants, btw.)


Louis Proyect 04.04.05 at 4:00 pm

To Phil Armstrong,

Sorry I don’t inspire confidence by not having read Diamond’s “Guns, Steel and Germs” before taking on “Collapse”. By the same token, I read Hardt and Negri’s “Empire” and decided that it was nothing but bullshit without having read any of their previous work. Life is too short to read the entire oeuvre of such frauds before making informed judgements.


Skippy McGee 04.04.05 at 9:48 pm

Mn, ths brd s gy. Flmng qr prtnts blwhrds I can’t believe you actually selectively censor lines of posts because they are too penetrating and too honest.

Louis, if you admire the native indian lifestyle, who not set a good example and live that way yourself? Or do you feel it is a moral imperative to remain here and instruct us in how superior it is to the Western world’s post-neolithic civilization?

Now we’ll see if the line above gets censored by the extraordinarily gy moderator.


Barry Freed 04.05.05 at 2:03 am

Regarding the original anecdote, that sounds like pretty typical blue-state behavior to me. I think they must still be using it to artificially sweeten their Kool-Aid too.

On eating insects, a friend of mine whose grandfather fought in the North Africa campaign in WWII once told me that he put her off chewing Dentyne gum as he noted that it tasted exactly like cockroaches, an unfortunate emergency ration he had to survive on for several months.


Phil Armstrong 04.05.05 at 4:06 am

Louis @ 17: Why mention it at all if you’re just going to bash it based on someone else’s critique? It doesn’t add anything new to the discussion, and gives the distinct impression that you’ve decided that the newer book is bad before you’ve even read it. “This book is bad because the author has suspect politics, m’kay.” may convince those who share your politics, but it isn’t going to convince anyone else.

Skippy @ 18: It appears that the extraordinarily perspicacious moderator expunges the vowels from certain words. Something that I first saw done over at Making Light…


Louis Proyect 04.05.05 at 8:42 am

To Phil Armstrong:

All book reviewers have politics, even when there is an extravant pretense that they do not. Just read any review of a left-of-center book in the NY Times Book Review for corroboration. The only difference between me and a liberal or conservative book reviewer is that I am upfront about my politics.


Nabakov 04.06.05 at 2:10 am

“The only difference between me and a liberal or conservative book reviewer is that I am upfront about my politics.”

And of course the fact they actually read the books they’re reviewing.


adam 04.06.05 at 6:16 pm


I’m going to start calling that the “Fox News” defense: everyone is biased, so it’s not only pointless but downright underhanded to try to maintain objectivity.

Both you and Jim Blaut miss (or misrepresent) Diamond’s take on culture. It’s not irrelevant, but it is highly conditioned by environment. Diamond is interested in ultimate rather than proximate causes, and concludes that culture is more the latter than the former.

Did you even read the chapter on the Greenland Vikings? Diamond cites culture as one of the major factors in their failure.

Upon further reflection, you obviously did not read that chapter, because your comparison of white Montanans with the Blackfeet reads much like Diamond’s comparison of the Vikings with the Inuit. Except that Diamond actually makes a point.

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