Tally of a lost world

Reading Delicious: The evolution of flavor and how it made us human by Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez for New Scientist, 31 March 2021

Dolphins need only hunger and a mental image of what food looks like. Their taste receptors broke long ago, and they no longer taste sweet, salty or even umami, thriving on hunger and satisfaction alone.

Omnivores and herbivores have a more various diet, and more chances of getting things badly wrong, so they are guided by much more highly developed senses (related, even intertwined, but not at all the same) of flavour (how something tastes) and aroma (how something smells).

Evolutionary biologist Robb Dunn and anthropologist Monica Sanchez weave together what chefs now know about the experience of food, what ecologists know about the needs of animals, and what evolutionary biologists know about how our senses evolved, to tell the story of how we have been led by our noses through evolutionary history, and turned from chimpanzee-like primate precursor to modern, dinner-obsessed Homo sapiens.

Much of the work described here dovetails neatly with work described in biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s 2009 book Catching Fire: How cooking made us human. Wrangham argued that releasing the calories bound up in raw food by cooking it led to a cognitive explosion in Homo sapiens, around 1.9 million years ago.

As Dunn and Sanchez rightly point out, Wrangham’s book was not short of a speculation or two: there is, after all, no evidence of fire-making this far back. Still, they incline very much to Wrangham’s hypothesis. There’s no firm evidence of hominins fermenting food at this time, either — indeed, it’s hard to imagine what such evidence would even look like. Nonetheless, the authors are convinced it took place.

Where Wrangham focused on fire, Dunn and Sanchez are more interested in other forms of basic food processing: cutting, pounding and especially fermenting. The authors make a convincing, closely argued case for their perhaps rather surprising contention that “fermenting a mastodon, mammoth, or a horse so that it remains edible and is not deadly appears to be less challenging than making fire.”

“Flavor is our new hammer,” the authors admit, “and so we are probably whacking some shiny things here that aren’t nails.” It would be all too easy, out of a surfeit of enthusiasm, for them distort their reader’s impressions of a new and exciting field, tracing the evolution of flavour. Happily, Dunn and Sanchez are thoroughly scrupulous in the way they present their evidence and their arguments.

As primates, our experience of aroma and flavour is unusual, in that we experience retronasal aromas — the aromas that rise up from our mouths into the backs of our noses. This is because we have lost a long bone, called the transverse lamina, that helps to separate the mouth from the nose. This loss had huge consequences for olfaction, enabling humans to search out convoluted tastes and aromas so complex, we have to associate them with memories in order to individually categorise them all.

The story of how Homo sapiens developed such a sophisticated palette is also, of course, the story of how it contributed to the extinction of hundreds of the largest, most unusual animals on the planet. (Delicious is a charming book, but it does have its melancholy side.)

To take one dizzying example, the Clovis peoples of North America — direct ancestors of roughly 80 per cent of all living native populations in North and South America — definitely ate mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres, bison and giant horses; they may also have eaten Jefferson’s ground sloths, giant camels, dire wolves, short-faced bears, flat-headed peccaries, long-headed peccaries, tapirs, giant llamas, giant bison, stag moose, shrub-ox, and Harlan’s Muskox.

“The Clovis menu,” the authors write, “if written on a chalkboard, would be a tally of a lost world.”

Visit a hydrogen utopia

On Tuesday 3 December at 7pm I’ll be chairing a discussion at London’s Delfina Foundation about energy utopias, and the potential of hydrogen as a locally-produced sustainable energy source. Speakers include the artist Nick Laessing, Rokiah Yaman (Project Manager, LEAP closed-loop technologies) and Dr Chiara Ambrosio (History and Philosophy of Science, UCL).There may also be food, assuming Nick’s hydrogen stove behaves itself.  More details here.

Sausages of the Anti-Christ

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A visit to Cravings, at London’s Science Museum For New Scientist, 28 March 2015 (Incredibly, the subs let that headline go through on the print version)

SOME years ago, I was friendly with a family who ran a venison smokery. They were expanding their product line to include a venison salami. On one visit, they presented me with piles of sliced sausage: which recipe did I prefer?

My first mouthful was a disappointment. The sausage tasted of generic salami, hardly even of meat, and though I knew otherwise, it was hard to imagine that any deer had perished in the making of it. My second was just as bad. The body language of my hosts was revealing. My weak-beer praise simply confirmed what this conscientious family already knew: no tweaks were going to save their experiment.

The keen home cook’s first-aid kit includes fat, salt and sugar. But the food industry also uses (among many other extras) acids, enzymes, texturisers, blood plasma and grim-sounding powdered dairy essences. In Swallow This, the latest of a string of superior industry exposés, food journalist Joanna Blythman explains how far manufacturers will go to produce cheap foods that taste consistent, while retaining that “just-cooked” feel.

Her page about salami, for example, features company literature describing a meat glue made from the enzyme transglutaminase, blended with animal protein and vitamin B9: “Salami Dry Express B9 decreases ripening time by up to 20 per cent, creates a more… appealing colour in less time, offers improved casing peeling and… sausage aroma. Improved slicing properties reduce wastage by up to five per cent, while shorter processing and storage times also provide financial advantages.”

Each promise listed sounds reasonable. But taken together, they suggest an approach to food that can only disgust consumers. And this, chiefly, is why the food processing industry is growing ever more secretive, ever more insincere, and, more worryingly still, ever more removed from the real science of nutrition. Its prime concern is not food, but keeping up appearances.

Everyone imagines they want an authentic home-cooked meal, even as they “require honeyed cakes, unguents and the like”. This nice turn of phrase belongs to the Greek Cynic Diogenes, one of the philosophers in Michel Onfray’s slim, sly volume of essays called Appetites for Thought. Rather in the spirit of Bruces’ Song, Monty Python’s dipsomaniacal summary of the Western philosophical tradition, Onfray dishes out morsels under chapter headings like “Nietzsche; or The Sausages of the Anti-Christ”.

His simple thesis, that our minds are ruled by our stomachs, acquired a graphic reality in 2006, when Molly Smith, a 16-year-old from Cambridgeshire, UK, received a life-saving transplant. She had been born with much of her intestinal tract missing, and had never experienced hunger, thirst or any food cravings. When Molly finally ate her first solid food – a banana – she felt the stirrings of new sensations. Her guts were beginning to talk to her.

Molly’s is one of the more startling stories told in Cravings, at London’s Science Museum. The rich, mysterious, two-way dialogue between gut and brain that so entertained Onfray is its central theme, and serves as a playful entrée to health advice.

Though the exhibition is full of cautionary information about fat and sugar levels in many processed foods, it left this visitor hankering for the museum café. This is no bad thing. Food, any kind of food, is better than the alternative. And an exhibition about appetite ought to pique it.

Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Joanna Blythman (4th Estate).
Appetites for Thought: Philosophers and food, Michel Onfray (Reaktion Books).