Cooking the Tree of Life

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Tomorrow is the final day of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday month. Most people only get a daylong birthday celebration, but most people didn’t put forth a revolutionary theory that’s influential two centuries later, now, did they?

One of the more interesting food-related events commemorating the bicentennial was a series of cooking demonstrations at the New York State Museum, in Albany, called Cooking the Tree of Life. Each Wednesday in February, a local chef was paired with a biologist to present foods and facts relating to one of four branches of the tree of life: vertebrates, plants, invertebrates and fungi/yeast.

I would have liked to attend the events but, as I mentioned in my last post, I live in the boondocks and couldn’t justify a 5-hour round trip. Instead, I got the rundown from Roland Kays, the museum’s curator of mammals. I also found another, more conveniently located blogger who gave her own account.

“The overarching idea is that everything we eat is alive,” Kays told me. Hmm, even sugar-free Cool Whip? I didn’t think to ask.

The first demonstration featured vertebrates, and paired Kays with Chef Tony DeStratis of the Lake George Club, in Bolton Landing, New York. Among the dishes prepared were swamp gumbo, with frogs' legs and alligator tail, two animals that have changed little since the Mesozoic Era more than 100 million years ago (perhaps the dish could have been named Primordial Soup?). The Evolution Omelet contained fish eggs, chicken eggs and milk, representing three advances in vertebrate reproduction: amniotic eggs, cleidoic eggs, and lactation. You can see a video from that demonstration, complete with techno music, here.

Plant Night had the most diverse offerings, Kays said, since so much of what we eat, from grains to vegetables, comes from the plant kingdom. Timothy Warnock, corporate chef for U.S. Foodservice, prepared 11 dishes, organized according to the evolution of humans' use of edible plants. There was Hunter-Gatherer Salad, with greens, berries, flowers, nuts and amaranth. Then came Three Sisters Salad, using the common Native American trio of squash, corn and beans. The evening culminated with chocolate, which, as Amanda told us during Chocolate Week, has been used in Native American cultures for at least 1,000 years.

Dr. George Robinson, a professor at the University of Albany, explained some of the evolutionary features of the plant kingdom. For instance, the reason plants produce delicious fruit is so animals will eat it, go on their merry way and, ahem, deposit the seeds elsewhere.

Invertebrate night could have gotten ugly, but chef David Britton, of Springwater Bistro in Saratoga Springs, New York (you may have seen him as the sidekick on the Food Network program Dinner Impossible), intentionally kept to the more appetizing side of the category, like shrimp and lobster. In other words, no bugs. There were, however, escargots, or snails—a dish I’m happy to leave to the French.

The series ended with fungi and yeast, which, Kays told me, are more closely related to animals than plants. Chef Paul Parker from Chez Sophie, in Saratoga Springs, cooked up lots of mushrooms, of course, but also wine, bread and corn smut, a fungus that grows on corn and which sounds better in Mexico, where it’s called huitlacoche. The biologist of the night was Cornell University professor George Hulder, author of the book Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, which Amazon called “a hugely entertaining introduction to spore lore.”

Kays said the presentations were so popular, drawing 150 to 200 people a night, that the museum would like to do something similar for Darwin’s 201st birthday.

In the meantime, if you want more on the interplay of evolution and food, check out this fascinating article from the Economist, which explains the role of cooking in the evolution of modern humans.

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