Saturday, January 9, 2010

The First Meat

A great story was recently published about the oldest ever walking animal footprints. I'm a big fan of trace fossils (footprints, tracks, trails, etc., that preserve the activity of ancient animals). It's an important find because these tracks are older than the earliest body fossils (actual remains) of land-living animals. They are also important because these tracks occur in marine sediments, even though for a long time paleontologists have thought that the fish-to-land animal transition took place first in freshwater settings, possibly low-lying swamps (of course, this transition could have happened multiple times).

But the reports thus far have missed out on the most


important part of the story: this was the first-ever MEAT. When I say meat, I exclude seafood, in the Catholic tradition (even though, technically, fish are made of the same tissues as land animals). Still, we are talking about the animals that may have eventually led to chicken, steak, and pork chops. And that begs the question, what did these things taste like?

This is a surprisingly tough question to answer, because at least in the West, we don't regularly consume any animals like these. It would have been amphibian-like in its basic biology (so we could think frog),

Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus).Saltwater Crocodile

but modern amphibians are almost exclusively freshwater, and this animal lived in the sea. In its way of life, it probably would have been more like a reptile, maybe like an alligator. And we do eat crocodilians (alligators and crocodiles). Except again, the crocodilians we consume are all freshwater (I can't find any recipes for saltwater crocodile - maybe growing to be 20' long frightens off the chefs).

So we have a large amphibian (over 6 feet long), that lived in saltwater but came out on land, and it's made of meat. I suspect, that like alligator, the texture would be fairly firm compared to most fish. I hate to compare it to chicken, but 'gator often

Alligator SteakBlackened Alligator Steak

does get that comparison. However, unlike chicken, it would have had the distinct taste of the sea. This animal was, after all, living in, breathing (probably), and drinking saltwater almost constantly. I suspect, then, we can think of strong, muscular fish, with firm textures. Like shark or swordfish, for example; less fishy in flavor, more steak-like in texture. Like chickens, amphibians, and reptiles, it may have been composed of both light and dark meat, and probably more oily (like a fish), than these animals, and with a distinct taste of the sea.

So we don't have a great modern analog for this creature, but like all meat, I'm sure that it would have been delicious. One of the unfortunate facts of life is that extinction is inevitable, and these creatures, like more than 90% of species that have ever lived, are extinct. This means that there is probably greater than a 90% chance that an extinct animal was the best tasting meat EVER - and yet we'll never know. But I'm sure that had we been around 400 million years ago, we'd have thrown one of these on a spit, by the beach, to find out first-hand what it tasted like.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Site Design

I made some changes to the layout and header tonight. My hope was this would invigorate me to get back to posting (I won't make excuses... but I could). Suggestions are welcomed, but my HTML/CSS expertise is weak, especially with the prefabbed blogger layouts (it seems easier when I start from scratch.

Upcoming will be some restaurant reviews, including about a trip "Up North" in warmer days, a great restaurant in the Big Apple, and to eve for New Year's Eve (Ann Arbor's most hip food establishment, owned by Eve Aronoff, short-lived recent contestant on Top Chef).

As a teaser, here's what I said about eve in 2005:

eve has a great website, and you're best looking at the menu offerings and seeing if any of it appeals to you. eve is in the tradition of the trend in fusion restaurants, and can be a little non-descript for that reason. I would characterize it as world-wide ingredients and concepts prepared in a classic French tradition. The restaurant is named for the head chef, in a self-aggrandizing manner that only artisans can pull off. She deserves it for what she's done, creating a gem of an establishment in the Kerrytown market district. I like to sit at the bar and enjoy the excellent wine list. By the glass you will be hurt, so going with someone else so you can enjoy a wine from the restaurant's reasonable list of bottles is recommended. There are lot of good values in the $20-$30 range. The ambiance is wonderful and it tends to be a romantic destination spot for Arborites. As far as deals go, well, no one goes to eve for the deals. But the food is the best in town, and as with most good things in Ann Arbor, you're gonna pay for it. The Thai chicken dumplings appetizer is a crowd favorite and if you're really hungry the tenderloin chimichurri is guaranteed to please.