Let me begin by saying that the “adventurous eaters” referred to in the title of this post are not the people who try out the new Danish-Ethiopian fusion restaurant before there are any YELP reviews. (“☆. I didn’t like having to eat aebleflæsk wth injera, and the wot-seasoned krebinetter was too spicy.”)
The adventurous eaters I’m talking about are our ancestors, the brave men and women and Neandertals who were the first beings to eat various things.
For instance, consider lobster. Google “history of lobster,” and you’ll see a lot of articles about how plentiful they were when settlers first came to North America, so much so that they were fed to prisoners and apprentices (the lobsters, not the settlers), which means that interns in the 17th century ate better than they do today.
From the search results, it would almost seem as though lobsters didn’t even exist before people came to the new world, but of course they did, albeit without rubber bands on their claws. I did find some references to ancient Greeks and Romans eating crustaceans, but then came the Dark Ages, when folks forgot how to melt butter.
But none of that answers my question. I don’t care how long ago lobster was first eaten, or by whom. I want to know how people figured out how to eat it, or why they thought something that looks like a lobster was edible at all.
I mean, think about it: ten or eleven thousand years ago, somebody–let’s call him Neandertal Nick– is wading in the ocean with a metal detector* which, in those days, was a child who was held underwater until he found something valuable or drowned. (Neandertals are now known to have been tool users.) Looking down, Nick sees this monstrous-looking thing and shouts (Neandertals are now known to have had language skills, possibly at a slightly higher level than President Trump), “Hey look what I found!” or perhaps, “Ow, ow, ow” because the lobster has grabbed his toe.
Nick trudges back to the beach with his find (the fossilized bones of his metal detector will be discovered thousands of years later) and shows it to the rest of his tribe. Keep in mind that, back then, the lobsters were probably much bigger than they are now, possibly even much bigger than Nick, although maybe not as enormous as this 6.5 foot behemoth from 480 million years ago.
So here’s my question: What would have made Nick’s people think for even one minute that this thing was food? How bad must the hunting and gathering have been that year for them to even attempt to eat it?
Anyway, let’s say somebody decides to see if there’s anything inside the hard casing, so they bang it against a rock. It cracks open and–wow–there is a meatlike substance enclosed, and they make a nice meal out of it, and millennia later their bones will be found near those of the metal detector, only theirs will show signs of various bacterial, viral and parasitic infections.
Fast forward some indeterminate amount of time until ancient Rome shows up, and Ur-Italian Sal finds a lobster while on vacation at the shore. The locals, he learns, have a legend about this horrifying creature, about how it kills anyone who tries to eat it, but only after the predator suffers from diarrhea so bad they want to die. “Ah,” says Sal, ”but those ancients were too stupid to cook it first. Also, fire hadn’t been invented yet.**”
So Ur-Italian Sal chops off the lobster’s head to kill it, and grills the rest of it over a blazing fire on the beach, and paleontologists use carbon dating to learn that Sal died long after Nick and his buddies and his metal detector. Because everyone (now) knows you have to cook the lobster while it’s alive.
Do you see what I mean? How many people had to die so that we could enjoy a nice fra diablo?
And that’s true of many of the foods we eat. My son-in-law is an ardent mushroomer, and mostly knows the edible ones from the poisonous ones (although one batch that he said were good gave me a headache). But what about all the people who died while figuring out which was which?
How many Japanese people died learning which fish were suitable for sushi? What could have possessed ancient Russians to devour the tiny, yucky, squishy balls they found inside of sturgeon–and on crackers no less?
Once Eve tried an apple, how many people died from eating the seeds before someone said, “You know what? Let’s not eat the seeds.” How did people find out when a lychee was ripe rather than deadly? Who figured out you had to peel an orange before eating it? Why do people even today think kale is edible?
You see what I’m saying here? Our ancestors had to discover what they could eat, when they could eat it, and how to prepare it. And the only way they could do it was by ingesting stuff and not dying.
Yes, the FDA has its faults, but it’s a better system than that.
I’ll tell you this: if it had been me back then, everybody would have wondered about the creepy guy who watched them eat and then followed them around for a day or two.
See you soon.