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.

Ditto pork blood, which the Vietnamese have turned into something wonderful, and ditto cow's stomach, which the Mexicans turned into menudo, much to the delight of anyone who knows anything about anything. Stress and necessity are great motivators of cuisine, which you should remember before dismissing someone else's lunch. Even pizza seemed weird once upon a time.

A lot of the thoughts above were inspired (though only in the most glancingly pseudo-scientific fashion) by a fantastic new food book, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. In it, he traces back to their absolute origins the ingredients of four meals: a fast-food lunch from McDonald's, an industrial-organic microwave dinner, a sustainably farmed chicken with all the trimmings, and a final, foraged dinner of mushrooms and wild pig that he shot himself.

These are four amazing journeys through the human food chain (detailing, among other things, how nearly everything we eat today owes its existence to the research of one obscure Jewish chemist who worked to produce chemical weapons for the Germans during WWI and Zyklon B for Hitler, the hallucinatory effects of certain mushrooms, and how many of today's so-called "organic" farms can get away with factory-farm practices little different from those practiced by the world's largest industrial ranchers), exhaustively researched and presented in such a way that they will change forever the way you look at your food.

Fair warning, though: This is one of those books (like The Jungle or Fast Food Nation) that's likely to fundamentally fuck with the way you see the world. Want to hold tight to your illusions and keep imagining that all those cows pictured on your gallon of Horizon milk are actually living in a beautiful pasture somewhere with a charming red barn in the background? Then I suggest you choose some other summer reading. I hear that dog book, Marley and Me, is quite a good read.

Square deal: Two months after I bashed Tamayo for never updating its menu -- as far as I could tell, this bastion of high-end Mexican had barely changed its typeface (Second Helping, March 30) -- owner Richard Sandoval has thrown caution to the wind and introduced a new board for the summer season.

Why now? Maybe Sandoval finally realized that he'd squandered every advantage he had when he opened Tamayo five years ago. At the time, fancy-pants Mexican food was still a new thing, and his menu -- full of rajas and huitlacoche and mole and achiote -- was not only cutting-edge, but it worked. Tamayo was successful from the day it opened, but by spring 2006, it was overdue for a change.

The menu introduced last week includes such departures as tacos filled with filet mignon and chile toreado; gazpacho with lump crabmeat; lamb costillas with truffle; pipian de puerco; and a plate of yellowfin tuna, crabmeat, avocado, microgreens and a port wine-habanero reduction that sounds excellent in a multicultural, cross-border fusion sort of way. The fresh inclusions sharpen Tamayo's cultural edge -- further removing it from the pueblo and the cocina, but jamming it firmly into its metaphysical space in Larimer Square.

Still, after my dinners at Guadalajara ("A Surprise Inside," June 15), I'm convinced that it, and joints like it, are the best places to go for tasting (on the cheap) everything being done in Denver's hoitiest and toitiest white-tablecloth temples of Latino haute. Further, the meals I had at Guadalajara were better than many of those I've had at Tamayo over the years, and the experience of having these dishes (the chicken pipian, the sopa de albóndigas) served without the intermediary step of being translated for a fine-dining menu will always be more comfortable and, in a way, more true. Easier on the wallet, too, considering Tamayo's new menu starts where Guadalajara's maxes out (at ten bucks) and doesn't even slow down until it gets up around $25 a plate or more.

Leftovers: Northwest Denver is full of upstart restaurants these days. But even the older joints can learn some new tricks: After almost thirty years in business, Taqueria Patzcuaro (2616 West 32nd Avenue) has finally gotten a liquor license. Now you can wash down those exemplary tacos de cabeza (made with cow cheeks) with a few cold Mexican beers. Viva la licensing board!

And finally, Josh Wolkon and Matt Selby of Vesta Dipping Grill fame got their new baby, Steuben's, up and running earlier this week at 523 East 17th Avenue. Scouts who attended the final test dinners over the weekend report that the months of tastings and travel and menu negotiations have paid off. For this second place, Selby and Wolkon have drawn from America's regional classics -- everything from hot dogs to lobster rolls, from grape Nehi to veal Oscar -- and brought them together on a single menu that reads like our culinary heritage, with the building blocks of what it means to eat like an American, presented regardless of border or accent. And I, for one, can't wait to get a table.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan