THE variety of food substances that men have obtained from the animal and vegetable kingdoms is really wonderful. One might say, "There are many men on the earth, and every one will eat what he can get the most of and at the cheapest rate, and so they have tried and tasted them all." We may grant this, but the most curious fact in the matter is, that the strangest dishes are not foods of the masses of the people, but are rather the costly dainties of the wealthy classes. Nowhere have such rare tastes in food been developed as among the Romans in ancient times and the Chinese. There may be found in the bills of fare of the latter people addled eggs, fat grubs, caterpillars, sharks' fins, rats, dogs, Indian birds' nests, and—the finest of all their delicacies—trepang. What is trepang?
Trepang or tripang is a collective name by which a considerable number of species of most curious sea animals are designated; they are also known as sea rollers, sea cucumbers, in French as cornichons de mer, and scientifically as holothurias. They are among the most sluggish of animals. Only the fixed or stationary animals are slower than the holothurias. They lie like gray, brown, or black leather pipes or cylinders on the bottom of the sea. One might watch them half a day long, if he had nothing better to do, and hardly see them change their position; and they rarely move more than a foot or two in several hours. Fig. 1.—Serpent, or Brittle Starfish. Their class relatives, the other spiny-skinned animals or echinoderms, are much more active. A sea urchin or a starfish is able to get away from a spot quite nimbly, and the serpent-stars, the most active members of the whole order, are capable of using their long, slender, many-jointed arms as legs, and are as quick and alert as crabs.
One would not suppose, at the first glance, that the sea cucumbers are relatives of the sea urchins and starfishes; for while the skin of the latter is thickly armed with scales of limestone, and they possess a radial structure that is easily distinguished, the appearance of the others is very different. The skin of most of them, including the trepang, is always leathery, compact, and closely adherent to the muscular system.