Mystery Meat
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Moving his hands carefully, Dibbler opened the special section of his tray, the high-class one that contained sausages whose contents were 1) meat, 2) from a known four-footed creature, 3) probably land-dwelling. (The Truth)

"Here, a butcher can be hanged if his sausages are not all meat, and at that it must be from a named domesticated animal, and I perhaps should add that by named I do not mean that it should have been called ‘Spot’or ‘Ginger’…" (The Fifth Elephant)

Terry Pratchett

Basic Information

Possibly the spiritual ancestor of the Protein Item, and a frequent part of iron rations mystery meat is … some kind of meat. It's just best not to ask what kind. Mystery meat is also found in sausages (especially those sold "inna bun" by street vendors), bubbling stewpots in the wrong part of town and the sort of kebab that no sober person buys.

This sort of food generally requires a degree of urbanisation - in the countryside, you tend to know where the meat came from … possibly by name … and have a decent (for a given meaning of the term) view of the few pathways that it can take to your table. In the city, on the other hand, you are liable to be buying pre-dressed meat from a butcher, which allows a certain leeway in the preparation and presentation even before you start to get into processed meat like sausage or cooked foods (for example once dressed cat and rabbit carcasses are virtually indistinguishable). Besides species substitution, it can be hard to judge the age and health of the donor animal until it is far too late … and once the meat has "hung about" for a while, even more so1.

Once meat starts being preserved things get worse (in many ways) … the (comparatively well fed) British Royal Navy had a long tradition of suspecting its salt beef of being horse (not to mention at least one song on the topic) and when presented with tinned mutton in the late nineteenth century, named it after a famous murder victim (specifically Fanny Adams, a young girl whose killer hacked her into a great many pieces, to the delighted horror of contemporary tabloids). Another famous purveyor of tinned mystery meat was the Italian Administrazione Militare (War Office) of WW2 - whose "A.M" stamp was variously interpreted as asino morto (dead donkey) (by their own men) or arsche Mussolini (Mussolini's arse) by their German allies. Even in civilian life, dubious tinned meat has a long provenance … arguably why suppliers with a strong reputation for not doing so (such as the Fray Bentos company) could manage to sell brand-named tinned beef across the developed world.

There may be times when the mystery of the meat doesn't matter - if you're hungry enough, most mammals are safe (if not always pleasant) to eat if thoroughly cooked and random game potluck is a staple of any society that hunts for a significant portion of its meat. This, however, will not apply to anyone with significant food taboos (such as halakka or kashrut) or where there is a risk of humanitarianism.

Where the material in the tin is not necessarily land dwelling, it may be substituted by the equally mysterious Other fish … a species as yet unidentified by scientists, but making up a significant proportion of "prepared seafood products".


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Anywhere PCs are amongst the urban poor, the mysteries of meat may come into play (that or its absence).
  • Can be played for laughs - such as a variant D&D world where (as in The Order of the Stick) a regenerating hydra is used as an endless meat supply … trolls could serve the same function in most D&D settings but, being sapient, would probably cause more objections.
  • Numerous plots about what, exactly, is going into the meat supply and its downstream effects. Especially if the PCs have been eating tins of that meat.
    • The cPRG Fallout 4 has a plot involving some very mysterious canned meat … Fallout 2's less industrialised setting did something similar with jerky.
  • The "brown" potluck stew served in the eating houses of Flea Bottom in A Song of Ice and Fire was well known to (sometimes) contain dog … and not at all well known to contain musical criticism.
  • As per the old joke of attaching kebab shop flyers to missing pet posters, the trail of a missing pet could indeed end up in someone's cookpot … whether foisted on paying customers or simply eaten on a subsistence basis may vary.
  • "Correct species" will be cultural - traditionally the Pacific Rim has seen no issues in cooking and eating dogs, and continental Europe considers horse a viable foodstuff, both approaches which would horrify the traditional Anglo, whereas, as noted above, those with strong food taboos are best off avoiding street food that isn't served by their own culture. Taking it back to the Pratchett, his dwarves neatly invert the matter when Mr Gimlet narrowly avoids being hung up by the bura'zak-ka when he is found adulterating his rat meat supply with beef. (Being hung up by the bura'zak-ka is a common dwarven punishment on the Discworld - whilst not usually fatal, it does tend to prevent reoffending. The Ankh Morpork city watch, guided by their most senior dwarf Captain Carrot, have taken steps to point out that this punishment cannot be permitted in Ankh-Morpork.2).
  • Speaking of cultural, probably best not to eat where the gnolls do … or any other scavenger based species. Ghouls, for example, are unlikely to be tolerated as ethnic restaurant owners.
    • Tcho-tchos on the other hand, may be. This will normally prove to be a mistake.
  • The question of labelling also comes into play - once the standard paper label has become wet, it is highly prone to either rot or fall off (or both) leading to mysterious unlabelled tins. Small children, the senile and the insane also have a similar effect on tins. "After the end" mystery is probably more likely than certainty.
    • Of course, if you can't tell what sort of meat it is once you've opened the tins, you're back to inherent mystery.
    • Historically - and probably currently in some places - retailers have been known to sell tins that have "become mysterious" in storage at rock bottom rates. Characters with an origin in the underclass (or who are pathologically mean) may have some added ability to judge mystery tins ("square ones are usually some kind of meat, as round, flat ones, bigger cylindrical tins are often fruit or dogfood, the little ones vegetables. The intermediate ones could be anything though…") but this may just be part of some "Survival: urban" or "streetwise" skill.
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