SHELLFISH TASTE

Nonverbal Cues

Honey and locusts were the viands that nourished the Baptist in the desert . . . . --Dante Alighieri (Purgatorio, Canto XXII)


Flavor cue
. 1. The usually pleasant aroma and taste of cooked arthropods, including shrimp, lobster, and crab. 2. A flavor, greatly enhanced by umami (Konosu et al. 1987; see GLUTAMATE), which "speaks" to the tongue as "meat" (see MEATY TASTE).

Usage: Human beings have a peculiarly powerful craving for the cooked muscle tissue of shellfish, insects, spiders, and grubs. The appetite is deeply rooted in our primate past as insectivores.

Evolution I. The earliest-known Paleocene primate (Purgatorius), e.g., ate insects, which belong to the same biological phylum (Arthropoda) as lobsters and shrimp. Primates have been heavy insect eaters throughout their 65-million years, and lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers (the least evolved of the living primates) eat mainly insects today. (N.B.: The evolutionary raw bar is open for our closest primate relatives, as well. Chimpanzees, e.g., enjoy termites and lowland gorillas snack on ants.)

Evolution II. Our love of arthropod flesh reaches further back in time than primates, however. The saga began ca. 450 m.y.a. ago in Ordovician seas, when the giant lobster Pterygotus dined on (then) soft-headed vertebrates. For 100 million years shellfish ate vertebrates, until the latter's bony brain case formed in the late Devonian period. (N.B.: Our hardened skull may have originated, in part, as a defense against giant lobsters.) The evolutionary table turned as harder-headed amphibians pursued arthropods on dry land, eating them instead.

Prehistory. It is likely that early humans ate arthropods whenever and wherever they could. Modern hunter-gatherers, e.g., relish grubs, caterpillars, and tarantulas, roasted in coals until their meaty flesh is well-done. (N.B.: Today, U.S. urbanites cook long-tailed arthropods from the sea, and serve their succulent bodies in sauce made from reddened fruits of the nightshade family--they call the dish shrimp cocktail.)

Anthropology I. Theaters in parts of Mexico sell fried leaf-cutter ants as a crunchy snack food (see EXISTENTIAL CRUNCH). Fried ants taste like bacon, according to members of the New York Entomological Society, who sampled ants and exotic insects at their 100th anniversary banquet in 1992. Roasted kurrajong grubs from Australia resemble lean sausages, they discovered, and fried mealworms taste like honey-roasted nuts.

Anthropology II. 1. Feasting on gumbo, crab cakes, and lobster bisque marks an evolutionary victory over Pterygotus and other giant arthropods. 2. The flavor of chocolate-covered ants is made more pungent by pyrazine molecules given off as warning signs. (N.B.: Found in ants, beetles, and butterflies as alarm pheromones, pyrazines have also been isolated as aroma cues in fried beef, cocoa, coffee, and roasted nuts [McGee 1990].)

Chemistry. Synthetically duplicated, "snow crab flavor" consists of the chemical messaging features glycine, arginine, alanine, glutamate, inosine, monophosphate, sodium chloride, and dibasic potassium phosphate (Konosu et al. 1987).

See also NUTTY TASTE.

Copyright 1998 - 2012 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)