“I had never had anything so exquisite,” wrote François Levaillant
It was a breakfast fit for a king, he wrote. One morning in the mid-1780s, the French explorer and naturalist François Levaillant sat down to a meal unlike any he had ever eaten before. Later, he rhapsodized: “Never have our modern Luculluses seen anything comparable upon their tables.” It was the ultimate in sensuality, a dish worth more than rubies, the most succulent of meats. It was elephant feet, baked to a mush in a subterranean oven by a community of nomadic Khoikhoi people. It was the very best breakfast he had ever had.
Levaillant was born to French parents in 1753. It was a wild, colonial upbringing—his parents had eloped to Surinam, then a Dutch colony and the smallest country in South America. As a boy, he spent most of his time enraptured by the animals, birds, and plants he saw in the vast swathes of tropical rainforest. The family returned to France when he was about ten. As a young adult, he later spent three years studying ornithology and learning more about the winged creatures that had fascinated him as a child. But the books weren’t enough. In 1780, he traveled with the Dutch East India Company to southern Africa, where he remained for most of the next decade, studying birds and collecting samples to bring home.
In Africa, Levaillant cut a particularly striking character. He was accompanied by a tame baboon and sometimes as many as 100 gaping local followers, often with pets of their own. In addition to a hat with white ostrich feathers, wrote the academic David Lloyd, “on special occasions he donned a powdered wig, a velvet coat with polished silver buttons, knee-breeches and silver shoe-buckles, as if he were on his way to an audience in Versailles.” He was delighted by everything he found—the landscape, the animals, and the people—and recorded his discoveries in a series of books.
It was during this stint that Levaillant met the Khoikhoi, a group of hunter-farmers who moved across the continent with herds of goat and sheep. He quickly fell in with them, writing later in his Travels from the Cape of Good Hope how “mild and amiable” they were compared to “degenerate” Europeans. He was especially fond of a man called Klaas, who traveled with him across Africa and whom he described as “my equal, my brother, the confidant of my hopes and fears.” (The iridescent Klaas’s cuckoo, which Levaillant was the first European to discover, bears his name.)
While traveling, they stumbled across the footprints of an enormous elephant. Five of the best marksmen, along with Levaillant, were quickly dispatched. For three days, they followed the animal, to no avail. Then, on the third day, Levaillant was ushered into a knoll of bushes, and instructed to shoot. At first, he could see nothing at all, staring past a large rock into the middle distance, and trying to make out the elephant in the jungle. Then, all of a sudden, the boulder began to move. “The animal’s head, and tusks, turned anxiously to face me,” he wrote. With one shot, he hit it square in the middle of its forehead.
Later, Levaillant and the Khoikhoi snacked on grilled trunk cutlets, and he remarked to Klaas that though this was his first time eating elephant, it would not be the last. “I had never had anything so exquisite,” he wrote. “But Klaas assured me that, once I’d eaten the feet, I’d forget the trunk in no time at all.”
People have eaten elephants and their ancestors for millennia, whether as flame-broiled mammoth or barbecued mastodon. It’s even been suggested that an appetite for pachyderm meat is what drove human beings into the Americas in the first place. These days, with fewer than a million elephants remaining, it’s unthinkable—even if elephants weren’t known to distinguish between human languages, show empathy, and mourn their dead. For European colonizers and explorers of the time, however, it was an exotic treat akin to modern vacationers’ deep-fried crickets. The Venetian explorer Alvise Cadamosto, for instance, sampled the meat in the Gambia both roasted and boiled, but “found it hard and of an unpleasant relish.” All the same, he brought back a salted elephant ear for his Portuguese royal patron.
But if multiple accounts are to be believed, the real delicacy was the elephant’s feet, a treat worth enjoying as the most important meal of the day. And so, the morning after their elephant trunk dinner, Levaillant’s hosts presented him with these appendages, slow-cooked overnight in a hole in the ground. They had covered with red-hot stones and baked them until they were barely recognizable. “The cooking had enlarged it considerably; I could scarcely recognize the form,” he wrote. But it looked so tasty and gave off such a delicious smell that he could hardly wait to dig in. The dish did not disappoint. “I couldn’t see how an animal as gross and heavy as an elephant could could make for such a fine, delicate meal,” he wrote. But it did, and he wolfed it down without even pausing for bread.
About 80 years later, another European explorer was treated to an elephant-foot breakfast. David Livingstone, of "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" fame, was a missionary, anti-slavery crusader, and scientist who traveled across Africa. In Mozambique, in 1864, Livingstone and his men were served elephant’s foot as a hero’s treat. He described it, seemingly slow-cooked as Levaillant’s had been, as “a whitish mass, slightly gelatinous, and sweet, like marrow.” It was delicious, he said, but could provoke a trumpeting upset stomach if unaccompanied by a long walk immediately afterwards.
Whether Levaillant had the same tummy troubles as Livingstone, or indeed ever ate elephant again, is a mystery. But the experience seems to have given him a taste for large and exotic beasts: Months later, Levaillant breakfasted on the “succulent” slow-cooked feet of a hippopotamus, which was apparently more delicious still. “I thought it was even better than the elephant, with a more delicate flavor,” he wrote. “I have never eaten anything that gave me more pleasure.”