“Darwin Does Dining”
by Evan Peacock
I have a theory concerning the origins of contemporary eating habits among human beings. Long, long ago, on a rocky shelf in front of a cave in east Africa, two of our distant ancestors were squatting around being even more distant than usual. It seems that times were slow for the average Australopithecine: leopard hunting season (or, more precisely, “leopards hunting” season – the leopards, of course, being the hunters and our ancestors the prey) was pretty much over, cable television hadn’t been invented yet, and our paleo-protagonists were, to put it quite simply, bored right out of their tiny, thick, hairy, not-quite-ape but not-quite-human-yet-either skulls.
“Hey,” said one (I’ll call him “Rock-in-a-Hard-Place,” because, after all, it’s my theory and I can call him anything I want). “Hey,” said Rock to his companion. “I double-dog dare you to eat that little twisty thing there.” He pointed to a snail crawling slowly up the side of a stone, thinking in his small head that this might provide a brief moment of amusement in an otherwise dull day (remember, he’s primitive).
“What little twisty thing?” asked his companion (who we’ll refer to as “Fruit-in-the-Gloaming,” because that’s a pretty cool name for an early hominid). “And what’s a double dog?”
“It’s sort of a two-legged animal that flies through the air and sleeps in trees,” Rock replied.
“I thought that was a bird,” Fruit responded.
“Uh…oh yeah, guess you’re right. I need a bigger head, I reckon. Anyway, that little small guy making a trail up the rock, there. Bet you won’t eat him.”
“I don’t eat anything that doesn’t have a name yet,” Fruit answered primly.
“Oh, all right, we’ll call it…a driveshaft! I dare you to eat it.”
“I don’t think that name will stick,” said Fruit.
“Oh, just eat the damned thing, you rock-art pansy!”
At that, Fruit-in-the-Gloaming plucked the snail off the rock and popped it into his mouth. Immediately, his face contorted as his primitive eating apparatus tried desperately to eject the unwelcome visitor. Rock-in-a-Hard-Place, having eagerly scrutinized this operation, burst into raucous, primeval laughter, thinking that perhaps his head wasn’t so small after all. The noise attracted the attention of several of their cave mates, who ran over to see what all the fuss was about.
“What’s all the fuss about?” asked one, whose name was Lord Admiral Alexander Lederhosen Poptart III.
“I got goofus here to eat something without a name!” Rock howled. “How is it, Fruit ol’ boy?”
Fruit-in-the-Gloaming, noticing the growing crowd, and noticing especially an obviously intrigued and rather comely female named Purple Haze, immediately cleared his features and swallowed. “Delicious,” he replied with dignity.
“Wow,” said Purple Haze. “That’s cool. Wanna procreate?”
Fruit-in-the-Gloaming did, and in the ensuing months, as his fame spread, his genes began to fill up the deep end of the pool. Other males, jealous of his good fortune, began to pluck and eat anything that was at all pluckable, whether or not it looked even remotely edible. Soon the females got into the act as well. And so it was that Fruit-in-the-Gloaming, the first biped brave enough to eat a driveshaft, began a trend that has been with us ever since: omnivoraciousness, the equivalent of gastrointestinal bunjee jumping.
The power of this theory is that, besides providing an evolutionary link to cajuns, it explains why people today persist in eating things that really aren’t appetizing at all. Think about it. There are several sorts of cheeses, for example, that smell suspiciously like the feet of an overweight NFL linebacker considering retirement in the quiet dampness of the locker room after a pre-season warm up in mid-July. And souse – why in hell would anybody in their right mind eat souse? I’m not even sure what a souse is – something to do with the head of a pig, I think -but I’m damn sure I don’t want to put one in my mouth. Gefilte fish also swim to mind, as do Brussels sprouts, caviar, rutabagas, any cereal with tiny, stale, multicolored marshmallows, raw oysters, unflavored yogurt, and of course any meat product wrapped in a visible cloak of pure animal fat. Yet people have been observed actually wolfing each of these items down with apparent gusto (well, except rutabagas, maybe; even a wolf won’t wolf down a rutabaga). Why?
The answer is this: many people believe that if you eat things that no one in their right mind would even consider touching, let alone eating, you will attract a mate. Not, perhaps, the mate of your dreams, the mate you could take home to mother, the mate to make you break Olympic relay records or pull those crumpled notes out of the drawer and actually write up the Great American Novel; nor even, perhaps, a mate who practices good hygiene with regularity. But a mate, nonetheless; one who, impressed by your masticatory bravery, will consent to assist you in producing viable if somewhat small-headed offspring. The urge to procreate is a monumentally powerful drive, strong enough to allow you to suppress your gag reflex, actually put frog legs in your mouth, chew them up, and swallow. Darwin, after all, was no rock-art pansy.
As supporting evidence for this bit of insight, I would like to describe the nightly scene that takes place in any number of ill-lit, run-down, disreputable beer joints and taverns found scattered about the North American continent south of the Ohio River and east of the Rio Grande. Making your way past legions of battered Pintos, Chevy Impalas, and the odd, vintage Trans-Am with the Confederate Flag or garish yellow flame icon painted on the hood, you push open the door, step inside, and survey the dim scene within. Immediately your eyes fix upon several large, once-clear gallon jars displayed like holy sacraments in the center of the bar. Edging closer, your ocular equipment begins to process images of near-unimaginable horror. All of the jars have one thing in common: a viscous, weenie-colored fluid fills them three-quarters full; a fluid that, if left out in its jug in the sun, might produce the first hard evidence for the spontaneous generation of life. A fluid that even alchemists would think twice about dabbling with. A fluid that might serve as holy water for the damned. And half-floating within those jars of pink-tinged liquid are items reminiscent of every cheap, grainy, black-and-white Mad Scientist film ever shown on the Friday night late-late-late show: the severed limbs and body parts – I kid you not – of a variety of filth-eating, mud-wallowing, cud-chewing, self-licking farm animals.
As your brain struggles to assimilate this astounding bit of data, you behold one of the nation’s finest making his way up to the bar. His endangered-species-of-snakeskin boots, four pound pewter belt buckle with an embossed game fish motif and snap-button plaid shirt hardly detract from the fact that he himself seems to be the possessor of a large and rather thoroughly masticated cud. “Mabel,” he drawls, “Reach in that there jug, lil’ punkin’, and fetch me out one o’ them there pickled pigs’ feet.”
Mabel, her features a startling chiaroscuro of cheap pastel face paint and dime store lip gloss, obligingly unscrews the lid from one of the jars, plunges her hand into the unspeakable fluid within, and grandly withdraws an object that looks like a month’s supply of fatty, waterlogged bacon glued to…to…yep, to the by God, Grade-A, genuine cloven hoof of a pig. Her dripping, red-painted nails look like bloody vampire teeth fastened to the neck of a long-drowned hobbit as she proffers the trophy to her cud-chewing patron.
“Here ya go, Billy Joe Ray Bob,” she says with a smile and a wink. “That’s a buck twenny-five, sugar.” She accepts the money, thereby sealing the unholy pact, and watches with proprietary satisfaction as Mr. B. J. R. Bob begins gnawing the swollen meat treat with some abandon.
Now, if you were raised on a farm, you would probably be thinking at this point about where that ol’ pig’s foot might have been during the career of its owner. Pigs, after all, are not known for avoiding pathways that might lead them off the sterilized straight-and-narrow, as it were. This does not seem to have occurred to Mr. Bob, however; nor does Mabel seem overly worried that her customer is becoming orally intimate with what looks like a formaldehyde-impregnated lab specimen. In fact, she begins to treat Billy Joe to a heavy-lidded, almost reptilian, stare. Her breath begins to come in short gusts, causing her to reach reflexively for a menthol cigarette. Billy Joe, noticing the interest, begins to chew his ourdeurve’s tough outer skin more slowly. Soon, his half-eaten meat yummy in one hand and Mabel’s nosferatu-nailed digits in the other, he heads out to the dance floor. There, he and Mabel perform the necessary gyrations preparatory to heading back to his doublewide trailer and getting down to the serious business of producing illiterate legions of young denim-clad vampires and snakeskin-booted cud-chewers.
So, where does this evolutionary cafeteria line lead? Are we all doomed to submit our gastrointestinal systems to endless abuse simply in order to assure continuance of the species? Will there be endless parades of three-legged pigs sashaying around Farm Aid concerts in a pathetic search for stray grains of subsidy corn? Or will our heads ever get big enough to stay this madness, to admit that pop tarts do, after all, taste like cardboard wrapping over a toxic heavy metal fruit paste?
Probably not. Pass that rutabaga, honey, and meet me in the doublewide.