Survival of the Fittest

There are many reasons that I'm so cuckoo for the Cocoa Puffs of ethnic and peasant cuisines, and one is my theory that cuisine constitutes the genetics of civilization.

Imagine a slice of pizza. A really good slice of pizza -- perfect New York-style thin crust, fresh mozzarella, maybe a little hot sausage or pepperoni. Evolutionarily speaking, this slice is damn near the ideal food. Not only does it combine protein and carbohydrates in a single serving densely packed with calories, but it is portable, infinitely adaptable, relatively easy to prepare, requires no tools (forks, knives or specialized eating implements) to consume, and is absolutely ubiquitous. No matter where you go in this city, in this country or much of the world, pizza will be there waiting for you.

Talk to a geneticist, and he will tell you that in any discussion of evolution, success is predicated on only two factors: survivability first, ubiquity second: primarily, the usefulness of any trait or mutation to enhance an organism's ability to survive in its niche; and secondarily, the relative biological advantage given by said trait in terms of filling that niche wall to wall, driving out competing species and then expanding into other environments. That's survival of the fittest in its simplest form, with the ultimate goal being the propagation of one's unique genetic code as far and as fully as possible by whatever means necessary.

Back to that slice of pizza. Following this basic formula of success=survivability+ubiquity, the pizza has been remarkably successful. As a discrete food object that started as a straightforward combination of bread, tomato and cheese, it has not only survived hundreds of years of Italian culinary dispersion and upheaval, but has adapted in such a way as to now be available -- and desired -- for consumption from Des Moines to Shanghai, expanding through advantageous mutation (double cheese, no anchovies, bok choy and pineapple, etc.) to fill just about every culinary niche under the sun. And so pizza has brought its unique cultural genetics -- which is to say, some notion of the Italian culinary tradition from which it sprang -- to the far corners of the earth. The French have managed to keep the Italians out of Paris throughout a thousand years of history, and yet today I could buy a slice of pizza Napoli within sight of the Arc de Triomphe if I wanted to -- or, alternately, a plate full of snails and a bottle of champagne in Rome.

And what does this have to do with my dinner at Chopsticks (see review)? Like sea cucumber (or eel pie or calves' brains or lobster rolls or any other distinctively regional delicacy), pizza was once a dish not eaten outside of its region. There was a time (and it wasn't that long ago, historically speaking) when you couldn't just roll out of bed in your underwear and order a pizza over the Internet. No, it required discovery by adventurous eaters to move pizza beyond its primary genetic niche.

Pizza would have survived even if it hadn't become ubiquitous. It has deep cultural roots, and was, how do you say, buono enough to stick around Italy for a long time. But then, in evolution, lack of ubiquity does not automatically equal lack of success. Survivability is an absolute requirement -- because without it, a thing will obviously just cease to be -- but ubiquity tends to wait on opportunity in the worlds of both genetics and food. And pizza was nothing if not patient.

Thus, there must be hundreds of potentially successful food items that have passed the survivability test -- owing to the fact they're still eaten somewhere, by someone -- and are now just waiting for an opportunity to explode. Mexican salsa (now more popular as a condiment than ketchup) is a good recent example of this action. Vietnamese pho is on the verge. And there are innumerable others out there just waiting to be discovered, existing somewhere between man's competing tendencies towards neophobia (fear of the new) and neophilia (hunger for the new). Ethnic and peasant foods are a particularly rich vein to mine in the quest for new experiences, because -- owing to necessity bred of stress, poverty and environment -- these are foods that have been most refined and adapted by the cultures to which they are native but have not yet made the leap into mutating specifically for American tastes.

You know why the Chinese eat sea cucumbers (a delicacy that even I can't see ever making the McDonald's roster)? Because the Chinese had sea cucumbers. Since they were there, someone was going to eat them. And since they were undeniably, well, icky, a great deal of thought and effort by generations of cooks went into coming up with ways to make the sea cucumber palatable.