Museum of Comparative Zoology
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Photos by A. Kaswell
The field of culinary evolution faces one great dilemma: why do most cooked, exotic meats taste like cooked Gallus gallus, the domestic chicken?
It is curious that so many animals have a similar taste. Did each species evolve this trait independently or did they all inherit it from a common ancestor? That is the burning question.
A meat counter featuring some of the author's favorites, including turtle, emu and boar.
Evolutionary Theory: Some Background
First, some tasty technical background.
The different traits of an organism (its hair or lack thereof, its teeth or lack thereof, its lungs or lack thereof, its taste, its color, etc.) can have distinctly different evolutionary origins. Some of an organism's traits are inherited from many, many, many, many (thousands, or millions, even) generations of ancestors. Other of its traits developed late in the evolutionary history. If you compare the traits of two different kinds of organisms, you may find that:
1. Some of the things they have in common were inherited from a common ancestor; while
2. Other things they have in common were not inherited from any common ancestor-but happened to have developed independently for each organism.
Modern evolutionary analysis helps us try to sort out and understand the true origins of all sorts of traits. Here's how you do it.
Cat tastes mammalian. In essence, it tastes like tetrapod.
First, you need to make a diagram showing which kinds of organisms evolved from which other kinds of organisms. (How to make this kind of chart is a whole question in itself. For a good introduction to it, see Phylogeny, Ecology, and Behavior: A Research Program in Comparative Biology, by Daniel R. Brooks and Deborah McLennan. University of Chicago Press, 1991.) Such a chart will usually turn out to be tree-shaped, and so it is called a "tree" of evolutionary ancestry (the jargon phrase for this kind of "tree" is "a phylogeny").
If you are interested in a particular trait, you can go through the tree and mark every kind of creature which has that trait. These markings on the evolutionary tree then show you whether:
1. The trait developed just once, and was then inherited by the creatures that subsequently evolved. (You will see that the trait is spread over connected branches of the tree. The name for this is synapomorphy.)
2. The trait developed independently more than once. (You will see that the trait only occurs in isolation, on tree tips. The jargon phrase for this is convergent evolution)
Here is an example of a synapomorphy. Crabs taste like lobsters because they both evolved from the same group of crabby-lobstery-tasting crustaceans.
Here is an example of convergent evolution. My finger is "rubbery" to chew on. The stalks of certain plants, too, are "rubbery to chew on." This "rubbery-ness" that the plants and I share has nothing to do with common ancestry. A chewy gristle evolved long ago among my animal ancestors. By happenstance, an unrelated, but equally chewy, substance evolved in the ancestors of those plants I mentioned.
By the way, if a trait appears on nearly all branches of an entire group of organisms, then it is called a plesiomorphic trait. This means its appearance is best explained by a single event in the ancestry of the entire group. For example, all animals have muscles (meat, if you will).
This type of analysis (as well as this type of jargon) is at the heart of much of evolutionary biology today.
Tasting the Tetropods
Swan tastes avian. In essence, it tastes like tetrapod.
For the current study, I examined a sampling of tetrapod (see Table 1A). Just so we have our jargon straight: tetrapod means "four-legged," and vertebrates means "animals that have back bones."
Many kinds of tetrapod are sold as exotic meats in marketplaces around the world. Being an affirmed carnivore, I have tasted nearly all of these species (prepared from fresh, canned or, in some cases, frozen meat). I judged the flavor of each kind of meat. In cases where I was not able to try the meat first hand (so to speak), I have consulted experts or used common knowledge. I tried to do most of the sampling myself, so as to reduce the variation in data from different tasters (n = 1, variance = 0).
As you might expect, most of the birds (Aves) have a "chicken-like" taste. The exception here is ostrich, with its "beef-like" flavor. Its meat was darker than the darkest chicken I have ever had. However, it may have been too heavily seasoned for an adequate assessment.5 With only this exception, all birds I sampled "taste like chicken."
A Menu of Mammals
Patterns of flavors for cooked mammals are not as clear-cut. The origins of "beef-like" flavor coincide with the origins of hoofed mammals. However, it is impossible to tell whether "beef-like" flavor evolved before or after "pork-like" flavor did. Of course, this argument rests on the hearsay evidence that humans themselves have a "pork-like" flavor.6 I leave it as an exercise for interested readers to settle this point.
Several meats were excluded from this study, for evolutionary or ethical reasons (see Table 1B), but we can make predictions about their cooked flavor.
Based on a variety of factors, we can predict that cooked salamanders would "taste like chicken." Their relatives all do.
Munching on Mice
Mice present a different problem. I will not eat them raw (are you surprised?), and nor can I predict how they would taste cooked. Their relatives, so far as I have been able to determine, have either "chicken-like" (in the case of the rabbit) or "beef-like" (in the case of the muskrat) flavors. Farley Mowat, in his book Never Cry Wolf, rates mouse meat as "pleasing, if rather bland."
Were Dinosaurs Delicious?
But the most intriguing hypothesis that I can propose is for the flavor of dinosaurs. The only source of dinosaur in current times would be fossils.. I made several calls to the Field Museum, in Chicago , seeking to borrow merely a single bone from their recent acquisition ("Sue" the T. rex, a large skeleton with many bones). My request is still entangled in red tape.
Fortunately, we now have knowledge that bears on the question of dinosaurs taste. Based on recent evidence for the close ancestry of dinosaurs and birds, chances are that T. rex "tastes like chicken!"
A Slogan for Our Times
As a result of this study, I must conclude that cooked flavor is a result more of ancestral inheritance than of convergent evolution. Many animals taste similar because they evolved from a common ancestor that tasted that way. The meat of our argument is that "chicken-like" flavor is ancestral (that is, plesiomorphic) for birds and many other vertebrates, as well. Indeed, the emphasis on chicken in the statement "tastes like chicken" is misleading. The common ancestor of most tetrapods would have tasted similarly, if we had only been there to cook and eat it.
I therefore propose that the use of "taste like chicken" be banished from common speech in favor of "tastes like tetrapod."
A Theory With Legs
This study puts the theories of ancestral flavor in tetrapods on a solid footing. It is tempting to propose further a theory of flavor based on leg number.
Do insects (6 legs) taste like spiders (8 legs), or do they taste more like lobster (10 legs)?
Are millipedes ten times tastier than centipedes?
These questions are under current examination in a joint research effort with other investigators to get a leg up on the broader implications of flavor evolution.
Figure 1: A phylogenetic tree with the characteristic flavors mapped onto it.
Two technical notes:
1. I have marked all characters with their earliest hypothesized evolution date.
2. Organisms with boxes at the tree tips were used as data input into the model; branch tips without terminal boxes were assigned a flavor (their branch or group was assigned the flavor) inferred by the program based on shared ancestry (MacClade, ver 3.06; Maddison and Maddison 1992).
Copyright © 1998 The Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). All rights reserved.
_____________________This classic article is republished with permission from the July-August 1998 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!
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