Summer 2007 Volume One Issue Three

I Say Tomato And You Say Ptomaine - Richard Marino

I first began my research on The Dining Hazards of Prehistoric Man soon after experiencing an epiphany in the middle of the produce section at the A & P. As I was pawing my way through a bin of cantaloupes a table leg gave way. It not only caused a melon avalanche, but also imploded the bins on either side. Standing ankle deep in melons, Georgia peaches, and Idaho spuds I marveled at humankind's ability to produce such a variety of flora, and the astounding fact that all of it is edible.

"Of course they're edible," you say?

Well, that's what got me thinking about edibility. In my extensive research I discovered that over five-hundred varieties of plants are poisonous to humans. (Including Senseveria trifesta, better known as Mother-in-law's Tongue -- a fact which has nothing to do with my research, but still an interesting and fitting handle for a toxic entity.)

At the dawn of man -- or maybe a few hours before -- people knew very little about which gourd, root or sprout would nourish them or kill them. It was all trial and error then, and those who erred had a very big problem.

Yet, there just had to be individuals back when who were brave enough to taste unknown flora. Besides hunger, their motivations were probably the same then as they are today. The need for recognition would be one. Off the top of my head I can recall Billy O'Dwyer from grade school. About once a week we'd gather in his backyard and cheer as he swallowed a dozen or so earthworms.

Then there were those who foolishly viewed food as anything that swam, ran, crawled, flew or sprouted. My feeling is that this type had few, if any, descendants. Not only did their appetites push them to kamikaze-like sorties toward dangerous chow, their craving was probably so strong that other Human urges were dormant. Consequently, I suspect that the extinct Neanderthal clans were teeming with such men. (Although, I believe I've seen a few at football games.)

Included among these pioneers, you can't rule out those youths who bowed to the pressures of selfish parents, "The people in lower Nubia are starving! I don't care what they look like -- eat your vegetables!"

These prime tasters played a significant role in the survival of our species. No matter what their motives, they were the Pasteurs and Flemings of prehistory. Unfortunately, these moments of discovery happened before the written word. We can only surmise what occurred.

Imagine a typical day when a food gathering clan has its first encounter with a patch of parsnips. They can either try this strange plant and risk illness or death, or abstain and risk starvation. But as the cautious clan is about to skip the meal, one member knuckles up to the patch and pulls one up. The clan nervously looks on as he stands and brushes off the dirt. For a minute or so he sniffs the root, and then bites it. The clan circles him and waits, searching for any facial contortion or staggering, or maybe a green tint about the face. After downing a second parsnip he's still erect. Grunts and cheers erupt. Thanks to one brave soul they will not go hungry that day -- although maybe a bit gassy. From that day on the tribe's limited diet of clams (in season), nuts and berries, will add parsnips to their repertoire.

This does not mean, however, that from that point on all people began eating parsnips. Even clans within a few caves from each other seldom shared news, chiefly because clans were, well . . . clannish.

Also, in those days information moved about as fast as a snail with the gout. Language was crude and people communicated chiefly by mime. A message that modern man could express in one simple sentence was an all day aerobic workout for our pioneers. Although knowledge of vegetables progressed, there were triumphs and there were tragedies. A man on the north end of the Euphrates would discover that a potato tasted great after being tossed into a fire, while a poor soul on the shores of the Aegean would meet his maker after trying out a bowl of hemlock soup.

These experiments slowly began to dwindle as land cultivation began. Man eventually acquired enough knowledge of plants to settle in fertile areas and sow what he knew would not smite him. The prime tasters began disappearing. Meat, a food that was dangerous to hunt -- particularly when a spry woolly mammoth absolutely refused to be dinner -- became more available with animal domestication. Closer family ties developed, resulting in the women no longer allowing their men to taste the unknown, especially since this was before the proliferation of life insurance salesmen. Clans became larger, and well . . . not so clannish. Language developed; although not to a point where a clan member could express, "To be or not to be" without miming himself into exhaustion, but enough to pass on such information as, "I ate parsnips and I'm still here!"

What disturbs me is that here was a special breed that vanished from the face of the earth and yet we still do not acknowledge their existence. It was not like the insignificant passing of drafty caves or scraped knuckles; it was a crucial chapter in prehistory, the end of those brave prime tasters with their myriad encounters with the unknown.

As you more astute readers may discover, my studies are still in their rough stages. For inspiration I return to the A&P almost daily, ignoring the produce manager who looks at me askance each time I lovingly fondle one of his melons. Before I leave I walk over to a certain bin to marvel at a particular vegetable, a vegetable that, because of its sinister appearance, one wonders how it ever made its way into our food chain: cynara scolymusthe: the artichoke.

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