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What's for Dinner? 

We’re thinking more and more about the food we eat, but are we coming to any conclusions?

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Gods can eat whatever they like without ever getting full.
— Tom Disch

What’s for dinner, then?

Could be anything. Plenty of people eat bugs. In urban legend, people eat live monkey brains. People eat what they call Foods of the Future: Hemp Hearts… Quorn… Chia Seeds…. We’re all eating more plastic than we should, though mainly on the molecular level, as yet. Edible sake bottles made from sun — dried squid are making a resurgence in Japan, you’ll be glad to know. There’s been a resurgence of eating light bulbs in the United States, though it hasn’t reached the circa 1980 point when a perhaps apocryphal baseball player demanded a trade to the West Coast because “they have a better quality of bulb out there.”

Placentas have been eaten by some folks, enough in the ‘70s (well, sure, the ‘70s) that Saturday Night Live cooked up a (never-aired) sketch concerning a product called Placenta Helper, for those occasions when there just isn’t enough to go around.

Seeking food is at the heart of what may be the oldest human story: The One That Got Away (or perhaps, considering our likely less-than-exalted position on the food chain of the time, The One I Got Away From).

So, where do we draw the line if we want to eat right these days? Should we go seasonal? Local? Vegan? Freegan? Should we consume Frankensnacks? Slow food, raw food? Red fish, blue fish?

Or maybe grilled Bighand Thornyhead Fish with Pepper Sauce? Along with White Asparagus and Truffle Soup, washed down with La Seule Gloire Champagne? These are selections from the menu at the 2008 G8 summit where the gathered leaders expressed their “deep concern” about world hunger while taking especially fine care of their own.

Could be anything for dinner, although for plenty of people, anything is sometimes nothing at all.

Where to draw the line? To help sort out these issues, I tried to come up with a meal that ascended the evolutionary ladder from Primordial Soup all the way to the Food of the Gods (leapfrogging, of course, the egregiously transgressive: long pig, ladyfingers…). The idea was to move from simple to complex, and examine the implications of each stage along the way.

Plus, it just seemed like a cool thing to do, phylogeny recapitulated by cuisine. Call it, Dinner á la Darwin. Or, if you have a twist for medieval theology, the Great-Chain-of-Being Banquet.

The enterprise started off well. Since I was unlikely to run across in some Tureen that Time Forgot a measure of the original mix of methane, ammonia, lightning — and millennia of hot rain, I looked for — and found — a reasonable substitute for Primordial Soup right away: Spirulina, a type of cyanophyta (blue-green algae) that’s really low on the evolutionary pole. I mean, for anything lower and simpler, you’d have to offer a hearty helping of fresh virus, and no one wants that.

Now, spirulina is apparently one of the richest sources of nutrients around, and a great hope to curb global hunger and malnutrition. Not only that, the earliest fossils of any kind ever discovered — 3 billion years old — are at least cousins to spirulina. That’s plenty primordial, in my view. Not only that — I couldn’t believe my luck — for all of its ancient pedigree, spirulina is an official (United Nations, 1974) Food of the Future!

Oh, those Foods of the Future!  Remember the Meal-in-a-Pill? Remember Soylent Green, the staple food of the eponymous movie?

Yet for all the futuristic glories of spirulina, there’s no getting around the fact that what we’re dealing with here is… pond scum. Sludge. I mean, how do you eat it? How would you market it? As primordial pté, maybe? (Possible slogan: Time for Slime™.)

Checking out Huckleberry’s spirulina offerings, I discovered I could buy the stuff dried as a powder or petrified into pills. Or I could purchase a drink that headlined the spirulina connection in the brand name, though the actual stuff was 16th on the list of ingredients — right behind crystalline microcellulose. And even that that minute amount of spirulina was smothered in chocolate. 

The more I researched, the more I didn’t know. Is spirulina cost-effective? Can you take too much? Will it cure, as aficionados claim, everything from acne to zonulitis? Will eating spirulina help with that global hunger and malnutrition? I mean, more than Bighand Thornyhead Fish? After all, spirulina has been a Food of the Future for 36 years now, and can we really say that it’s made any true inroads?

Taking a cue from chocolate, I decided to take a break and skip to the other end of my scale, to the Food of the Gods. You see, chocolate grows on the chocolate tree: Theobroma cacao. And that’s what theobroma means: Food of the Gods. Now I knew Huckleberry’s carried products from Dogfish Head Brewery. And I knew Dogfish Head had replicated a 3,000-year-old brew made with chocolate, annatto, honey, and chilies… and christened it Theobroma. Sounded like just the ticket. Sadly, when I wandered over to the beverage section, they were all out of Theobroma.

So on my way home, I made a donation to Second Harvest instead.

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