Thursday, February 12, 2009

Celebrate Darwin Day with a Phylum Feast

Today, February 12 2009, marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, and this year is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his 'On the Origin of Species'. As such, there are events around the world celebrating Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.

Darwin, during his travels on the Beagle, collected specimens for gastronomic - as well as scientific - purposes. While at Cambridge University he was a member of the "Gourmet Club", a group whose goal was to sample animals not normally found on menus. In South America, he supped on armadillo, as he describes in the 3rd volume of 'Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle'
We found the Beagle had not arrived, and consequently set out on our return, but the horses soon tiring, we were obliged to bivouac on the plain. In the morning we had caught an armadillo, which, although a most excellent dish when roasted in its shell, did not make a very substantial breakfast and dinner for two hungry men.
Elsewhere in his Beagle Diaries, Darwin describes feasting on puma comparing it to veal:
At supper I was suddenly struck with horror that I was eating one of the very favourite dishes of the country, viz a half formed calf long before its time of birth. — It turned out to be the Lion or Puma; the flesh is very white & remarkably like Veal in its taste. — Dr Shaw was laughed at for stating that "the flesh of the Lion (of Africa) is in great esteem, having no small affinity with veal, both in colour, taste & flavour". — Yet the Puma & Lion are not, I believe, closer allied than any other two of the Cat genus. — The Gouchos differ much whether the Jaguar is good eating; but all agree that the Cat is excellent.
Ever the scientist, Darwin was even able to salvage important specimens even after having consumed the animal. While searching Patagonia for the rare lesser rhea (Rhea darwinii), an ostrich was shot and eaten. It was in fact not an ostrich, but the mistake wasn't realized until afterwards:
When at the Rio Negro, in Northern Patagonia, I repeatedly heard the Gauchos talking of a very rare bird which they called Avestruz Petise. They described it as being less than the common ostrich (which is there abundant), but with a very close general resemblance. They said its colour was dark and mottled, and that its legs were shorter, and feathered lower down than those of the common ostrich. [...] When at Port Desire, in Patagonia (lat. 48°), Mr. Martens shot an ostrich; and I looked at it, forgetting at the moment, in the most unaccountable manner, the whole subject of the Petises, and thought it was a two-third grown one of the common sort. The bird was cooked and eaten before my memory returned. Fortunately the head, neck, legs, wings, many of the larger feathers, and a large part of the skin, had been preserved. From these a very nearly perfect specimen has been put together, and is now exhibited in the museum of the Zoological Society.
Darwin and his shipmates also reportedly developed a taste for tortoise meat, bringing several specimens on board only to eat them and discard the shells overboard.

Darwin's gastronomic adventures have given birth to the Phylum Feast - a Darwin Day tradition conisisting of a meal with food from as many different species as possible. The tradition may even have Canadian roots. While I doubt armadillo or puma are on the menu, it's no surprise that some of today's Darwin Day events include Phylum Feast meals.


Rob said...

awesome post.
I have seen lots of Darwin posts on this anniversary however I had not heard of this yet.
Why is it all meat? Don't plant evolve? Can a vegetarian support a Darwinian feast?

Anonymous Coward said...

Here is some of the unusual stuff I've eaten in the past:

-wild boar

-sea urchins

Working my way on the tree of life. Anybody else eaten some unusual species?

Kamel said...

Actually, if you look at some phylum feast menus, many different phyla are accounted for (in fact, non-meat items are often well represented making it a fine vegetarian option).

The excerpts from his writing are a product of my own bias, I guess. I didn't search too hard for tales of exotic vegetables, though Darwin did write extensively about plants as well as animals.

I've posted the link before, and it's linked to above, but it's worth pointing out again: the complete works of Charles Darwin can be found free online here

Anonymous said...

Is turducken one species or three?

Bayman said...

- gummi bears
- gingerbread men
- beavertails
- turtles
- chocolate bunny

Pharmacy No Prescription said...

i love chocolate bunnies!!!!