Schmaltz and soy

While on a recent whirlwind trip that included a stop in Seattle, I purchased a copy of Meatpaper at my favorite newsstand hard by the Pike Place market.  I always grab a copy of this magazine whenever I’m in Seattle because I can never find it anywhere else. Today I finally broke down and subscribed.

The quarterly Meatpaper was founded by a couple of vegetarians who made the conversion to meat eating a few years back.  (The founders say that when vegetarians cross over to the meat-eating dark side, bacon is the most common conversion food.)  It’s a difficult magazine to pigeonhole.  One would think it would revel in meat eating, and, in a way, it does.  But it does it in a daredevil sort of way, much in the way a magazine on skydiving might portray the thrill of that sport while still noting that certain death is only a chute failure away.  My take is that the writers and editors believe that meat-eating is a perilous undertaking, but one that many people choose for the taste despite the risks involved.  As anyone who had read this blog for anytime knows, my beliefs don’t quite fall that way.

The most recent issue contains a couple of articles I want to tantalize you with.  One that describes an almost unbelievably scrumptious food that I’ve yet to eat, at least knowingly, and another article I find deeply disturbing.

First, to the scrumptious.

In “Schmaltz Redux,” Daniella Cheslow briefly describes the history, disappearance and resurgence of a staple of Jewish cooking: schmaltz.  For those of you who don’t know what it is (and I was in that category until I read this article), schmaltz is basically chicken lard. Small pieces of chicken fat are cooked slowly until they resolve into an oil.  Throw in a few pieces of onion during the process, and you’ve got schmaltz, which can be used much as lard or duck confit.

To give you an example of what I mean about daredevil writing focusing not on just the delicious and nourishing virtues of schmaltz, but on the risks (non-existent, in my opinion) of consuming it.

“I love schmaltz.  But it’s very unhealthy, it’s all saturated animal fats.  I stopped eating schmaltz when my grandmother died in 1972,” said Susan Rosenthal, 59, a physician from East Brunswick, New Jersey. “I have a master’s degree in nutrition [a dead give away that the woman knows almost nothing about nutrition], so if I would have given my children schmaltz, that would have been shameful.”

Shameful indeed.

I’m sure this enlightened woman would have no qualms about giving her children all the olive oil they wanted.  But according to the USDA nutrient database of foods, olive oil contains 14 grams of saturated fat per 100 g whereas chicken fat contains 20 grams in the same amount. But 100 g is 3.5 ounces, and since schmaltz is used as a cooking oil, I suspect most people don’t eat much more than an ounce at a time, which would mean the schmaltz would give the children a little over 5 g of saturated fat while the olive oil would contain 4 g.  A difference of under two grams.  Not a huge difference in my opinion.  And since the schmaltz also contains a lot of both monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat, it can’t really be characterized as “all animal saturated fats.”  But such misinformation is what comes from a master’s degree in nutrition.

The article goes on to detail a little more of the history of schmaltz and its resurgence but, at the end of the piece, once again the specter of early death from eating schmaltz rears its head.

To bring her article to a close, Cheslow offers a quote from David Sax, author of Save the Deli:

There’s something these days that’s sexy about it [making food from scratch].  I think [schmaltz] is coming back for that reason, and also people appreciate the taste, and they realize that it’s going to provide a richer experience.  Literally, figuratively, tastefully, and spiritually, it’s a heart stopper. [my italics]

Jesus wept.

I have elicited a promise from MD that when our brutal travel schedule over the next month and a half comes to a close, she will make us some schmaltz, an event I will dutifully record photographically.  Until then, however, you’ll have to make do with photos and instructions I found online.  The schmaltz in the photos in this blog post look great, but the uses the blogger makes of the schmaltz are not my cup of tea.

Now to the disturbing.

When you think Argentina, you think beef.  The Pampas, gauchos and endless herds of cattle.  For years Argentina has been one of the great beef reservoirs of the world.  But unless things change, that all may be coming to an end because the cattle are being displaced by a more profitable commodity: soy.

“Plowing the Pampas,” an article written by Nicholas Kusnetz, describes how many Argentinian ranchers are hanging up their bolas and picking up a plow.  Why?  Because soybeans are a vastly more profitable use for the land than raising cattle.

Kusnetz spoke about the switchover with scientists at a government research station in the Pampas.

Five years ago, one of the researchers told me, I would have been surrounded by pasture.  Now, nearly all the cows were crowded into feedlots.  The land was a tricolored patchwork as far as the eye could see: thousands of acres of deep green corn leaves, lighter green soybeans, and the straw-colored stubble of cornstalks that had been sprayed with Roundup to ready the field for soy.

At the station, two soil specialists showed me where they experiment with different crop rotations.  They have found that their most productive “rotation” is just the opposite: all Roundup Ready soy, all the time.  They don’t know why, they tell me, but it grows well.  They don’t see any reason to grow anything else.

“If I were a farmer,” I ask, “and I came to you for advice, what would you tell me?”

“Pure soy,” they say. “The more soy you have, the better your profits will be.”

The article goes on to describe how the economic realities are driving the ranchers to become soy farmers.  I don’t have a problem with this; you’ve got to expect that people will follow the money.  What does trouble me is that a crop with such a disastrous effect on health could be more valuable than cattle, which have been providing humans food for millennia.  But the herds are shrinking, and soon, if things don’t change, in a few years Argentina could become an importer of cattle.  An almost unthinkable proposition.

Should this disastrous end come to pass, I wonder if the grand ranches of the Pampas will still raise a few cattle along with thousands of acres of soybeans.  And will these few beef grazing in a small lot allow the farmers to continue to refer to themselves as ranchers despite the vast majority of their income coming from soy?  Probably.  I’ve seen it happen in Arkansas.

The delta lands east of Little Rock are made up for the most part of vast soybean growing operations.  The farmers who own and farm the land were descended from cotton farmers.  Cotton farming was the tradition, but economics won out, and most of the cotton fields were replanted in soy.  But old traditions die hard, and most of these farmers still keep a small patch of cotton on their land, and if asked what they do, they reply that basically they’re cotton farmers but they grow some beans on the side.

I suspect that if things continue in Argentina, many self-proclaimed ranchers will be growing a few beans on the side as well.

Sad. Very sad.

I would encourage you to subscribe to Meatpaper to keep up with what’s new and edgy in the world of meat.  I have no affiliation with the magazine nor do I get any click-through income if you subscribe.  I just like the idea of former vegetarians writing a magazine on meat and making a go of it.  And I want to help.

I’m going to start a new tradition with this post.  As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I read a lot.  People often ask me what I’m reading, so I’m going to start putting my current reading list at the bottom of the posts so those of you who are interested can keep up.

Survival of the Fattest by Stephen Cunnane

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  (This isn’t a reread.  I’ve never read the thing, so I figured it was about time.)

The Plague by Albert Camus  (I’ve never read this one either, and it’s taking me forever to get through it.  But I’m almost finished.)

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

The Genius in all of Us by David Shenk

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieig Larsson (This one won’t be available in the U.S. until May 25.  A friend who visited me from the UK, where it has been available for months now, brought me a copy.)

DIY sous vide

Last Thursday was Thanksgiving, and in the words of Arlo Guthrie, we had “a Thansgivin’ dinner that couldn’t be beat.”  Along with all the traditional Thanksgiving fare at Casa Eades, we had dueling turkeys: one cooked the traditional way and one cooked sous vide.  And let me tell you, there was no comparison.  I’m not saying this just because we’ve got a sous vide cooker for sale, either.  I’ve never had turkey that tasted so good.  Because I’m not really a big fan of turkey, I eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving only.  I found our sous vide turkey to be so good, because it didn’t really taste like turkey.  At least not turkey cooked in the traditional way that I’m used to tasting.  It was like a different meat entirely.

MD has posted on how she cooked both turkeys on her blog and on the Sous Vide Supreme blog, giving precise recipes for both.  As you can see when you read the posts, cooking a turkey the traditional way is a major pain (both figuratively and literally).  It’s just not worth it when the taste and texture outcome is so much better using sous vide.  Especially since the sous vide method is so much easier and less time consuming. Vastly easier, in fact.

Lest you think this is another post cleverly designed to promote and sell the Sous Vide Supreme, let me disabuse you of that notion.  I’m going to show you how you can try the sous vide method at home without having to purchase a machine to see if it’s really for you.

Not long ago I wrote a post on how MD and I came up with the idea for what ultimately became the Sous Vide Supreme.  We wanted to try cooking sous vide, but there were no sous vide units available for the home cook, and we weren’t about to fork over $1500 for a commercial unit just to give the technique a try.  So, we cobbled together a Rube Goldberg kind of set up and tried it out.

I went back and pulled some of the photos I took of our contraption, which was made of a stock pot, a steaming basket turned upside down, and a candy thermometer.  And, the most important piece of equipment of all: constant attention.

The secret of cooking sous vide is the maintenance of a constant temperature over the cooking period.  Since most things are cooked sous vide at a significantly lower temperature than 212F/100C (the temp at which water boils), you can’t put the container directly on the stove even with the burner on its lowest setting.  The lowest setting is typically for simmering, which holds the temp right at the boiling point.  When we were trying to set up our first try, we experimented with several different ways to get the stock pot high enough up off the flame of our gas stove so that we could get the low temperatures we needed.  We found that the steaming basket (made to set inside a pan) turned upside down gave us the height we needed given the flame on our stove.

Sous vide cooking requires that the temperature be maintained precisely for long periods of time, sometimes up to 72 hours for, say, fall-off-the-bones beef ribs.  On the Sous Vide Supreme, you simply set the temp and walk away.  It’s not so easy with a homemade unit.  You’ve got to monitor it closely because temperature fluctuations of even a degree or two will make a difference in your outcome for many foods.  One of the ways you keep the temp where you want it is to use an important piece of equipment not pictured in the photo above: a pitcher of ice water.  You watch the temp carefully – you don’t have to stand there and watch it minute by minute – checking the candy thermometer every few minutes or so.  If the temp starts to drift up a little (the most common thing), you need to pour in a tiny bit of ice water to bring it down.

Since you’ve got to stay on top of it, it’s best that you limit your cooking in a homemade device to foods that don’t require a long time in the bath.  Which means you’ve got to stick with good-quality beef cuts such as rib eye, New York strips or tenderloin, chicken breasts, salmon, turkey breast, etc.  If you read MD’s post on cooking our Thanksgiving turkey, you’ll notice that she cooked the breast for 2.5 hours at 140F and the dark meat at 176F for eight hours.  If you’ve got a Sous Vide Supreme, you can stick the dark meat in, set it for 176F and get it out eight hours later.  If you’re cooking it using the homemade device, you’re going to be standing close by watching it for eight hours.  Since you probably don’t want to spend eight hours fiddling with it, I would avoid trying the dark meat of a turkey as your first outing in the homemade device.  Try the breast or, better yet, some salmon or even steak, lamb or pork chops.  You want to minimize the amount of time you have to remain vigilant in your temp watching.

Let me give you a couple of never-fail recipes so you can give it a try. And let me say that these were not the same recipes we used the first time we tried our rigged-up machine.  These are recipes that we’ve developed after a lot of bad experiences.  We suffered them so you don’t have to.

Chicken breast sous vide

The first thing you should try is chicken breast.  Why?  Because it’s easy and because the taste difference between a chicken breast cooked sous vide and one cooked any other way is so huge that you can really experience the virtue of cooking this way.

Take your chicken breasts (they can be skinless or with skins in place) and brine for for hours in an 8 percent brine.  You make an 8 percent brine by putting five tablespoons of salt in one quart of water.  Make your brine, put the breasts in, and put in the fridge for four hours.

Pull the breasts from the brine, rinse with fresh water and pat dry.

Put each breast into a food-grade plastic bag along with a big pat of butter.  (If you like it, you can add some cracked pepper or herbs to the bag at this stage)

Vacuum seal the bags with a Food Saver or one of the little hand vacuum pumps.  (You can even press all the air out with your fingers if you don’t have a pump of any kind, though you risk having your meat float and cook unevenly–and perhaps incompletely, which isn’t good with poultry–if any significant amount of air remains.)

Bring your sous vide machine to 140F and put the bags in.  Watch it like a hawk (assuming you’re using your homemade setup) to maintain that temp for about 1.5 hours.

Remove the bags, open and dump out the breasts.  They won’t look particularly appetizing, especially if they have been cooked with the skins on.  If the breasts are skinless, you can actually slice and eat just as they come out of the bag, and they’ll taste something like poached chicken, but infinitely better. But they are better yet if you sear them first to give them a little color and caramelized flavor.

To sear them, you need to put a stainless or cast iron skillet on the stove at the highest temperature you can get.  Gas or electric both work, just put the burner on its highest setting.

Leave the empty skillet on the hot burner for about ten minutes.

Add some clarified butter (ghee), which will sizzle and steam like crazy if the skillet is hot enough.

Put the breasts in the hot skillet and turn from side to side about every 30 seconds with tongs until you get a nice golden brown exterior.

Remove and eat.  You won’t be disappointed.

Steak sous vide

You can also try steak.  Here’s how we did it last night.

Get a nice cut of steak, a rib eye or porterhouse or something tender.  I wouldn’t use grass-fed beef for this experiment because you have to cook it too long to get it nice and tender.  If you use a regular grocery-store steak that isn’t too think – one inch, say – you can get by cooking for only 40 minutes to get it perfectly medium rare.

MD puts a sprinkling of sea salt on each side, a few turns of the pepper mill and a little garlic powder then puts each steak in a food-grade plastic bag and vacuum seals it.

Heat your water bath to 135F, put the bagged steaks in the bath, and watch carefully.

Pull the steaks out after 40 minutes and let them sit at room temperature for 5 or 10 minutes to drop their internal temperature just a bit.  Remove them from the bags and pat dry.  (The patting dry is actually an important part of the process.)

Do the deal with the skillet as described above for the chicken breasts.  Get it hot, add the clarified butter, then sear the steaks.

sous vide steaks cooking1

Sear them on each side no longer than about 20 seconds.  If you want, you can flip them around a bit from side to side.  You should even hit the edges of the steak with the hot skillet as well so that they are seared all around and the fat on the edges gets a nice color.

Serve immediately.

You can see from the photo on the right how the interior looks.  Perfectly medium rare from side to side with a tiny layer of caramelization on the surface.  Must be tasted to be believed.

Several of your fellow readers have used the sous vide method and posted on it.  You can read their posts here, here, here and here.

One of the nice (and sometimes aggravating) things about the sous vide method of cooking is its precision.  If you don’t like your steaks at 135F, try them at 130F or 140F.  Or even at 133F.  You can get as precise as you want.  The meat at each temperature will be a little different than when cooked a degree or two hotter or cooler.  It takes some diddling with and experimentation to find the temperature that works best for you.

Once you do, you can turn out steak after steak after steak or pork chop after pork chop perfectly cooked just as you like it.  The food will be more nutritious because nothing is lost in the cooking process, including the moisture, which is why the meat is so tender.

Saturday catching up post

As anyone who regularly reads this blog can tell, I’ve been a bit hit and miss in posting lately.  The bride and I have been swamped with work on the Sous Vide Supreme project.  MD has been working with chefs to develop recipes along with creating a bunch herself; she has been editing a book on sous vide for the home cook written by yet another sous vide expert; she’s been posting on the Sous Vide Supreme blog (eggs the sous vide way); and, as you can see at the left, she’s been talking sous vide to anyone who will listen.  All this while she prepares for performing the Messiah in about two weeks.  I’ve been heavily involved in the business end of things, which is a never-ending task.  Plus, I’m the taster-in-chief.  Neither of us dreamed that this would turn into such a time-gobbling project after the development of the machine.  But it has.  It seems that we are spending twice as much time now working in some capacity on  Sous Vide Supreme than we ever did before – even when we were at our busiest.  I’m going to have to work harder on my time management if I expect to keep up with all the other projects – including this blog – that I have going.

Twitter

The sous vide time commitments have put a real hickey on my reading.  I’ve probably read less over the past four months than in any four month period of my life.  Instead of five or six books per week, I’m down to about two or three max.  I hate it.  I’m trying to keep up with my daily medical/scientific journal trawl, but that has even slacked off a bit.  When I do find something of interest, instead of blogging on it as I used to, I stick it up on my Twitter page.  I probably post 10-15 times per day on Twitter, so if you want to keep up on a moment-by-moment basis, follow me on Twitter.  If you have a problem thinking of yourself as a Twitter person, give it a try.  I dipped my toes in the Twitter waters with great hesitation, and now I love it.  I’ve found it extremely valuable because I find all kinds of new stuff daily.  You’ve got to be careful who you follow, however, or you can waste a ton of time.  If you get started, start following people who provide you with information you can use.  I avoid following people who do nothing but tell me what they ate for breakfast that day or what movie they’re going to see that night.  Sign up an give it a go. You don’t have to write anything (or tweet, as it’s called) if you don’t want to.  You can simply lurk and be the beneficiary of a ton of good info.   The Twitter people take you by the hand and get you squared away.  It takes all of about two minutes – if even that.  Literally.

Comments

I have fallen way, way behind on dealing with comments.  As I wrote a while back, I had to stop answering individual comments, and I’ve pretty much stuck to my guns on that.  Problem is, I had about three hundred comments stacked up before I started doing that.

When comments come in and I post them, they go up in by date.  So back when I was spending half my day dealing with them, I would often come across a comment that required some thought and a detailed answer.  If I didn’t have time to deal with it right then, I put it off until later.  Often when later came, I had 20 or 30 more that came in after the one requiring the time.  I didn’t want to answer those and put them up ahead of the one I hadn’t answered, so I simply didn’t deal with any of them.  Now I’ve got about 340 of them stacked up and it gives me heartburn whenever I even get on my blog administration screen.  The sad thing is that some of these comments go back months and months.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out what to do with them, and I’ve finally come to a decision.  I’m simply going to post them as they are.  I’m going to post about 30 of them per day until they’re all up.  Why not all at once?  Because I know many of you are set up to get comments emailed to you when I post them.  I don’t want to clot email accounts with 340 emailed comments all at once, especially since some of these comments are lengthy.  So, I dole them out over the next 10 days or so while keeping up with the new comments as they come in. I won’t start this process for a few days to get those of you who don’t want even 30 of them a day coming in to unsubscribe.

Since many of these hoarded comments contain very good questions, they are a trove of subjects for future blog posts.  As I post them, I’m going to reread them and clip those that would make for good posts into Evernote or my new favorite plaything DEVONthink that I’m just starting to feel my way along with. (See this great Steven Johnson (whom I follow on Twitter) article about the virtues of DEVONthink.)  After I’ve got these blogworthy comments in a format in which I can find them instantly, I’ll start working through them and posting.

Bloggers and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

I don’t know how closely blog readers attended to the recent announcement by the FTC that they were going to start riding herd on bloggers, but the bloggers went ballistic.

Among its other duties, the FTC patrols the universe of advertising in this country looking for anyone or any company engaging in, as they term it, deceptive practices.  In other words, the FTC is on the prowl seeking out advertisers who make false claims in order to stop them and punish them.  Which all sounds good in the abstract, but in reality is a whole other story.

As I pointed out in an earlier blog, it’s a valuable exercise to read Kevin Trudeau’s first book to see how the FTC operates.  The nutritional and health information he presents is total garbage, but his description of the practices of the FTC is right on the money. (I’ve got to admit that some of the nutritional and health information presented in Trudeau’s first book (the only one I’ve read) is accurate, but I write that off to the law of averages.  He presents so much information that odds are some of it just happens to be true.  So, if you read the book and come across something that is nutritionally accurate, don’t write me about it.  I know a few things are there, but not enough to justify reading the book other than the first part, which is an excellent treatise on the FTC.)

The FTC has the power to absolutely ruin anyone and/or any company it chooses to go after.  If you read the first part of Trudeau’s book, you’ll see how.

So, the FTC opined that they planned on monitoring bloggers to see if they disclosed the fact that they were paid to do reviews on products.  Apparently, many bloggers make money by doing paid reviews on products without disclosing such, and the FTC doesn’t like it.

I’ve never reviewed products for pay, but I have read enough about it to know how it works.  Companies provide bloggers products, then pay these bloggers for reviews of the products.  I guess the fact that bloggers are given the products and possibly paid for the reviews as well might induce them to write positive reviews of products that they thought sucked.  And I assume that’s what the FTC is concerned about.

The FTC’s actions certainly got the blogosphere in an uproar.  So much so, in fact, that the FTC started to crawdad, which I never thought would happen.  Just goes to show that if you turn the spotlight of public awareness on even the most aggressive and powerful of all government agencies, you can get results.

Not that I fear the FTC on this (at least not at this point), I’ll go ahead and disclose where I get dinero from this blog.  Virtually all of the money that comes to me through the blog comes from readers buying products through Amazon.com.  When they buy a book I recommend or go through one of the book thumbnails of Protein Power or the 6-Week Cure up at the top right or any of our other books I have up on the site, I get a little bit of lucre for it.  And I get a little more if they buy anything else after entering Amazon through one of the portals in this blog.  In a good month, it’s enough to cover my hosting and web guy expenses; in a bad month (as this one is turning out to be), it’s about enough to cover the hosting of the site and maybe an hour or so of the web guy time.

Google ads

I get a little income from Google ads, but I’m trying to get them off the site.  I’ve had several web guys working on the site over the years, and I guess code for these Google ads is stuck all over the place.  I get rid of them in once place, it seems they pop up somewhere else.  When I had Google ads everywhere, I made about $150 per month, which, in my opinion, isn’t enough to justify tacky-ing up the site with a zillion ads.  Plus, I don’t have time to go through and spend time trying to figure out which ads to block.  Many people, I’ve learned, don’t realize that these ads aren’t part of the site, and they wonder why, when I’ve just spent 2000 words bashing statins, an ad for a statin pops up.

A while back I was having lunch with Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple when he asked me what kind of a deal I had going with Atkins Nutritionals.  I told him I didn’t have any kind of deal going with them whatsoever.  I asked him why he asked.  He told me that he gets my blog posts by email, and that at the bottom of each one is a banner ad from Atkins.  I was embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know you could get the posts by email and that I didn’t have a clue why the Atkins ads were there.  I went home and pulled up the blog (I usually never look at the actual blog – only the admin page), and sure enough, there was a way I could get the posts by email.  I signed up to get my own posts, wrote one, and sure enough, here it came with an Atkins ad at the bottom of it.  I thought I had it all taken care of, but I just looked moments ago and there is still a banner ad at the bottom of the emailed post.  I’ve added it once more to the list of things to have my guy deal with when I get with him on Monday.

Book recommendation

While on the subject of Amazon.com, books and book recommendations, I might as well recommend one.
I finished a terrific book not long ago called A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers. As the title implies, this is a treatise about the fall of the House of Lehman, one of the country’s oldest investment banks, and is written by one of the vice presidents who names names and points the finger.

Not only is this book chock full of great information about how Lehman Bros, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs and others operate, it is extremely well written.  The ‘author’ realized he didn’t have the skills to tell his own story in a readable manner, so he hired a writer.  But he didn’t just go out and hire one of the non-fiction write-for-hire folks that are swarming around out there, he hired Patrick Robinson, a best-selling thriller writer.  As a consequence, the book is absolutely gripping. Not only do you learn a ton about how the financial crisis developed, you learn it in a gripping, racing-through-the-pages fashion.  You’ve heard people say about certain books that they read like a novel.  Well, this one does.  I had real trouble putting it down.

After reading this book, you will know exactly why we’re in the boat we’re in now and will be stupified at the mismanagement at the top.  As I read through and learned about the perfidy of Moody’s, Standard & Poors, and the other financial rating outfits that gave the most worthless financial instruments triple A ratings, I was stunned that these companies hadn’t been prosecuted.  Without their complicity, the whole house of cards couldn’t have been erected because no one would have purchased the products.  I was interested to read in today’s Financial Times that at least  Ohio is going after them.  I suspect Ohio won’t be the last.  According to the author, these companies made billions while failing to do their due diligence before passing out AAA ratings like they were candy at Halloween.

Not long after I read the book, I came upon a piece by Calvin Trillin in the editorial section of the New York Times that summed up the situation nicely.  The problem was the enormity of the amounts of money waiting to be made drew smart people to Wall Street.  A funny but insightful short essay.

After you read the book and Trillin’s piece, take a look at this video I posted about a year ago.  It will make it all that much more funny.  And sad.

The 6-Week Cure blog

All I can say is that it’s about up.  And apologies for not having it up sooner.  I hope we’ll have it operational this week and populated with a few posts.

Another vegetarian myth

I wrote in a bookish post (or maybe in answer to a comment on a bookish post – I can’t remember) a while back that I had read most of the mystery novels out there and was looking for a new series to sink my teeth into.  Someone suggested the DI Charlie Priest mysteries by Stuart Pawson.  I got one and liked it, so I’ve been motoring through those as time allows.

The last one I read was Deadly Friends about a murdered doctor, a serial rapist and a host of other minor villains. At a point about midway through, DI Priest and one of his underlings are walking around scoping out a pharmacy prior to entering to get info about the dead doctor.  All these books – at least the four or five I’ve read so far – are written in the first person, so everything is from Priest’s perspective.  Here’s what he says:

We completed our circuit of the block.  Passing the back of the butcher’s I tried not to inhale and wished I had the willpower to go vegetarian.  Trouble is, I like my steaks.

AAARRRGGGHHHH!  Even in mystery novels I’m being reminded of how deep the vegetarian mantra has wormed its way into our collective brains.  How many times have we all heard variations on this theme?  One of the ideas the vegetarian movement has managed to get firmly implanted in the minds of many is that vegetarianism is a more healthful way to eat.  I’ve heard numerous people wistfully say they really would like to be able to follow a vegetarian diet because it’s so much more healthful, but they just like meat too much to do it.

The truth is, as we all know, that vegetarian diets are decidedly less healthful than diets containing animal protein. But the great unwashed masses don’t seem to have figured this out.

But I’ve got to hand it to the vegetarian brigade: they’ve managed to successfully propagandize most of the population.  And they’ve done so without any real science behind them.  The most they can point to is a sheaf of observational studies that don’t prove squat.

The low-carb/Paleo movement, on the other hand, is producing more data almost daily that a lower-carb, higher-fat, higher-protein diet is infinitely better for a majority of the population.  But, we don’t get the message out as well as the other side does, I suppose.  I went to a Borders Books the other day and found an entire collection of free booklets written for children telling of the horrors of factory farming and encouraging them to go vegetarian.

We are starting to make some inroads into this nonsense, however, with the help of some former vegetarians who have seen the error of their ways.  If you haven’t read Lierre Kieth’s book yet, add it to your Christmas list.

I’m girding my loins for all the hostile comments I’m sure to get from angry vegetarians.  These comments will be from vegans telling me how healthy they are and how many miles they can run and how they could kick my butt in any endeavor I might wish to engage them in.  And they’ll reference the idiotic China Study and a host of other meaningless observational junk.  But wait.  I don’t have to gird my loins.  I’m not dealing with these comments any more.  I’m just posting them as they come in.  Give it your best shot.

To see under what conditions our genome developed, read on.

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle

Just to wrap this long, meandering post up, I want to end with a link to a great article in the December 2009 National Geographic.  And to bring this post full circle, I’ve got to let you know that I found this article on Twitter.  I wouldn’t have discovered it otherwise. At least not as quickly as I did.

The long article is about the Hadza who follow a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in remote Tanzania.  The area the Hadza roam is being encroached upon by all kinds of agricultural and tourist businesses, and the author doubts these indigenous people can maintain their lifestyle for much longer.
The men hunt and the women gather.  The Hadza went on a nighttime baboon hunt and took the author along.  His account of the hunt makes for a riveting read.  Once killed, the Hadza haul the baboon back to what serves as a camp and prepare to serve it up.  I’ll leave you with the author’s description of the meal.

Ngaola skins the baboon and stakes out the pelt with sharpened twigs. The skin will be dry in a few days and will make a fine sleeping mat. A couple of men butcher the animal, and cuts of meat are distributed. Onwas, as camp elder, is handed the greatest delicacy: the head.

The Hadza cooking style is simple—the meat is placed directly on the fire. No grill, no pan. Hadza mealtime is not an occasion for politeness. Personal space is generally not recognized; no matter how packed it is around a fire, there’s always room for one more, even if you end up on someone’s lap. Once a cut of meat has finished cooking, anyone can grab a bite.

And I mean grab. When the meat is ready, knives are unsheathed and the frenzy begins. There is grasping and slicing and chewing and pulling. The idea is to tug at a hunk of meat with your teeth, then use your knife to slice away your share. Elbowing and shoving is standard behavior. Bones are smashed with rocks and the marrow sucked out. Grease is rubbed on the skin as a sort of moisturizer. No one speaks a word, but the smacking of lips and gnashing of teeth is almost comically loud.

I’m ravenous, so I dive into the scrum and snatch up some meat. Baboon steak, I have to say, isn’t terrible—a touch gamy, but it’s been a few days since I’ve eaten protein, and I can feel my body perking up with every bite. Pure fat, rather than meat, is what the Hadza crave, though most coveted are the baboon’s paw pads. I snag a bit of one and pop it in my mouth, but it’s like trying to swallow a pencil eraser. When I spit the gob of paw pad out, a young boy instantly picks it up and swallows it.

Onwas, with the baboon’s head, is comfortably above the fray. He sits cross-legged at his fire and eats the cheeks, the eyeballs, the neck meat, and the forehead skin, using the soles of his sandals as a cutting board. He gnaws the skull clean to the bone, then plunges it into the fire and calls me and the hunters over for a smoke.

Are we meat eaters or vegetarians? Part II

Meat eating made us human. The anthropological evidence strongly supports the idea that the addition of increasingly larger amounts of meat in the diet of our predecessors was essential in the evolution of the large human brain.  Our large brains came at the metabolic expense of our guts, which shrank as our brains grew.

In April 1995 an article appeared in the journal Current Anthropology that was an intellectual tour de force and, in my view, an example of a perfect theoretical paper.  “The  Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis” (ETH) by Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler demonstrated by a brilliant thought experiment that our species didn’t evolve to eat meat but evolved because it ate meat.

The ETH is an example of the kind of scientific detective work I love.  In fact, this paper is one of my all time favorites.  (An amazing bit of trivia about this paper is that it almost didn’t get published.  I had the opportunity to talk with Leslie Aiello at a meeting a few months ago, and she told me the journal was reluctant to publish the paper because the editors thought it too technical for their readers.  I suspect they also found it too controversial.  Now I’m sure they’re glad they published because I would imagine it is the most cited of all the papers ever published in Current Anthropology.)  The authors methodically lay the scientific foundation for their experiment, then, like Sherlock Holmes, progress step by step, accumulating little pieces of data until they reach the ineluctable conclusion that meat eating made us human. I would like to walk us all through their thought processes as laid out in their brilliant paper.

Let’s start with the problem.

For years anthropologists have speculated about why humans developed such large brains so quickly – from softball size to what we have now in just a short 2 million years.  Below is a graphic showing hominid/human brain growth over time.

ETH brain growth

A number of hypotheses have arisen to answer this question.  Some say that humans developed large brains because they had to contend with problems involving group size, others posit that large brains came about as a consequence of developing complex foraging strategies, others yet say the development of a social or Machiavellian  intelligence was the driving factor.  And even others say that the complexities of learning to hunt expanded brain size.

Any or all of these hypotheses may be valid, but the problem isn’t really as much a matter of why as it is a matter of how.  Other primates deal with groups and have complex foraging strategies; and many deal with social problems within their groups, and some even hunt.  Yet they still have small brains.  (Granted, their brains are larger for their size than those of other mammals, but primates sport small brains as compared to humans.)  How did the human brain grow?

This isn’t an easy question to answer because of the thermogenics involved.  Brains consume a large amount of fuel and, consequently, throw off an enormous amount of heat for their size.  The metabolic rate of brain tissue is nine times that of the average of  the metabolic rate of the rest of the body.

So what? you may say.  So we’ve got a big, hot-running, energy-burning brain.  What difference does that make?  It’s reflected in our overall metabolic rate, right?  Well, sort of, and therein lies the crux of the problem.  As we will see below, our total metabolic rate – even with our huge brains – is the same as that of any other animal our size. Or to say it another way, animals our size with much smaller brains have the same metabolic rate that we do with our huge brains.  This fact was the starting point for the authors of the ETH.  So let’s start there as well.

In keeping with a great scientific tradition, Aiello and Wheeler were able to see what they saw because they stood on the shoulders of giants who came before them.  In their case the giant was Max Kleiber, an animal physiologist working at the University of California at Davis, who published a groundbreaking paper in 1947 and a scholarly text titled The Fire of Life in 1961.  Kleiber’s work involved the meticulous measurement of the metabolic rates of numerous animals, including humans.  As he plotted the various metabolic rates, he discovered an extremely strong correlation between the mass of an animal and its metabolic rate.  Kleiber found that this relationship held constant across numerous species.  His October 1947 paper in Physiological Reviews simply titled “Body Size and Metabolic Rate” was a classic.  By using the equations Kleiber worked out, the metabolic rate of virtually any animal could be determined simply by knowing the animal’s body size.  Or, as Kleiber put it in the paper:

Does a horse produce more heat per day than a rat or do some rats produce more heat than do some horses?  Almost anybody who understands what is meant by “heat production per day” will not hesitate to give the correct answer and will even be convinced that the daily rate of heat production of men or sheep is greater than that of rats, but smaller than that of horses.  Thus most people (among those who understand the question) are convinced that in general the bigger  homeotherms produce more heat per day than the smaller homeotherms, that, in other words, the metabolic rate of homeotherms is positively correlated to body size.

The answer to the next question: “does a horse produce more heat per day per kilogram of body weight than a rat?” requires some biological training.  Most biologists, however, will not hesitate to answer that the rate of heat production per unit body weight of the big animal is less than that of the small animal.

The positive correlation between metabolic rate and body size, and the negative correlation between metabolic rate per unit weight and body size, establish two limits between which we expect to find the rate of heat production [basal metabolic rate] of a horse if we know the rate of heat production of a rat.  We expect the metabolic rate of the horse to be somewhere between that of the rat, and that of the rat times the the ratio of horse weight to rat weight, provided of course that we do not regard these two correlations as simply accidental.

If we are firmly convinced that the metabolic rate of horses, and other homeotherms of similar size, is never outside these two limits, then we admit to recognize a natural law between body size and metabolic rate.

This natural law, carefully calculated by Kleiber, is now known as Kleiber’s law.  Below is Kleiber’s law graphed out by him as it appeared in his seminal paper.  And this is exactly as it appeared in the journal, but with the addition here of colors for better legibility.  Since their was no Excel nor graphics software in Kleiber’s time, the graph was hand drawn and appeared in the pages of Physiological Reviews as such.  How times have changed.

Kleiber line blog

As you look along the line running from lower left to upper right, you can find rats and horses and a host of other mammals including humans.  Over the years, mammals that Kleiber didn’t have the opportunity to work on have been measured, and they all fit nicely along Kleiber’s line, following Kleiber’s law.  Because of this tight correlation, Kleiber’s equations can be used to precisely estimate the metabolic rate of any animal just by knowing its size.

Aiello and Wheeler used Kleiber’s law as the jumping off point for their grand thought experiment.

Since all animals measured have conformed to Kleiber’s law, Aiello and Wheeler postulated that animals now extinct – including our human and pre-human predecessors – would have fallen along the same line. Using skeletal remains paleontologists have been able to calculate body sizes of extinct animals along with pre-Homo and early-Homo species.  Then using Kleiber’s law, it is possible to closely estimate the metabolic rates of these creatures.  And here’s where it gets interesting.

According to Kleiber’s law, an australopithecine weighing 80 pounds would have the same metabolic rate as a human weighing 80 pounds despite the disparity in brain size between the two.  The much larger brain of the human would have 4-5 times the metabolic rate of the brain of the australopithecine, yet would have the same overall metabolic rate.  What gives?

That’s precisely what the authors of “The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis” wondered.

Because the human brain costs so much more in energetic terms than the equivalent average mammalian brain, one might expect the human BMR [basal metabolic rate] to be correspondingly elevated.  However, there is no significant correlation between relative basal metabolic rate and relative brain size in humans and other encephalized animals.

Where does the energy come from to fuel the encephalized brain?

The authors postulated a solution.

One possible answer to the cost question is that the increased energetic demands of a larger brain are compensated for by a reduction in the mass-specific metabolic rates of other tissues.

In other words, if one organ – the brain, for example – is chewing up a lot of energy and contributing a disproportionate amount of the basal metabolic rate for the animal as a whole, then maybe another organ or group of organs are consuming less energy to compensate.  The heart, the kidneys, the liver, the skeletal muscles, the GI tract – all consume energy and contribute to metabolic rate.  Maybe one of these organs became smaller as the brain became larger over time.

We can hone our analysis a little finer if we begin to look at an energy-balance equation, but an energy-balance equation of a different kind.  I have written a number of times in this blog about the energy-balance equation that applies to weight loss: change in weight equals energy in minus energy out.  That is not the equation we’ll be talking about here.  The other energy-balance equation says that the total metabolic rate is the sum of all the metabolic rates of the various organs and tissues in the body.  If you add the metabolic rates of the kidneys, the heart, the brain, the muscles, the digestive tract and so on together, you will get the total metabolic rate of the body, which makes sense because it is the sum of the parts.

Total BMR = brain BMR + heart BMR + kidney BMR + GI tract BMR + liver BMR + the remainder of the body’s tissues.

The authors of the ETH set out to look at the metabolic rates of the various organs.  By a diligent search of the literature, they found that along with the brain, the the heart, the kidneys, the liver and the gastro-intestinal tract account for the vast majority of the total BMR.  They dubbed these organs as ‘expensive tissues’ because they consume a large amount of energy as compared to their size.  (Surprisingly, muscle mass doesn’t contribute all that much to the total metabolic rate (skin and bone contribute even less), which gives the lie to that old notion — that I, myself, have fallen prey to — that replacing fat with muscle increases metabolism significantly.)

Aiello and Wheeler reasoned that if the total metabolic rate stayed the same while the energy-expensive brain grew over time some other expensive tissue had to get smaller.  There could be no other solution.

But which of the expensive tissues got smaller?

Aiello and Wheeler examined the data on the metabolic rates and sizes of the various expensive tissues and learned that for a 65 kg primate, the heart, the kidneys, and the liver were approximately the same size as those of a 65 kg (143 lb) human.  The greater metabolic rate of the large human brain was compensated for by a GI tract significantly decreased in size.  It turns out that the GI tract of a 65 kg human is just a little over half the size of the GI tract of a similar sized primate.

The combined mass of the metabolically expensive tissues for the reference adult human is remarkably close to that expected for the average 65-kg primate, but the contributions of individual organs to this total are very different from the expected ones.  Although the human heart and kidneys are both close to the size expected for a 65-kg primate, the mass of the splanchnic organs (the abdominal organs) is approximately 900 g less that expected.  Almost all of this shortfall is due to a reduction in the gastro-intestinal tract, the total mass of which is only 60% of that expected for a similar-sized primate.  Therefore, the increase in mass of the human brain appears to be balanced by a almost identical reduction in size of the gastro-intestinal tract.

Below is a graphic from the ETH showing the sizes of the different organs as based on predictions from a 65-kg primate and the observed size in humans.

ETH body comp compare

So we know that as humans evolved larger brains they simultaneously co-evolved smaller guts in order to maintain a set BMR.  And this is where the story gets interesting. Why?  Because

the logical conclusion is that no matter what is selecting for brain-size increase, one would expect a corresponding selection for reduction in the relative size of the gut.

Some researchers believe that increasingly complex activities drove the brain to enlarge.  As the authors of the ETH summarized it:

The relationship between relative brain size and diet is often mentioned in the literature on primate encephalization and is generally explained in terms of the different degrees of intelligence needed to exploit various food resources.  For example, [some] have argued that a relatively large brain and neocortical size correlates with omnivorous feeding in primates , which requires relatively complicated strategies for extracting high-quality foodstuffs.  Alternatively, [others] have suggested that frugivores have relatively large brain sizes because they have relatively larger home ranges than folivores, necessitating a more sophisticated mental map for location and exploitation of the food resources.

But it doesn’t matter whether our brains got big because our predecessors were socialized, developed complex foraging strategies, lived in and had to deal with groups or were skilled hunters, in order to obey Kleiber’s law, something had to force our guts to get smaller at the same time.  What could that be?

According to Aiello and Wheeler, it was increased diet quality that allowed the gut to get smaller while still absorbing the necessary nutrients to fuel the metabolism.  As they put it

The results presented here [in the ETH] suggest that the relationship between relative brain size and diet is primarily a relationship between relative brain size and relative gut size, the latter being determined by dietary quality.  This would imply that a high-quality diet is necessary for this encephalization, no matter what may be selecting for that encephalization.  A high-quality diet relaxes the metabolic constraints on encephalization by permitting a relatively smaller gut, thereby reducing the considerable metabolic cost of this tissue.

What the authors are saying is that it doesn’t matter how much more brain power was required, the brain couldn’t enlarge without something else giving.  What obviously gave was the size of the GI tract, and the only way a smaller GI tract could provide the fuel for the body was to have a higher-quality diet. How did the our most ancient relatives the early hominids increase the quality of their diets?

A considerable problem for the early hominids would have been to provide themselves, as large-bodied species, with sufficient quantities of high-quality food to permit the necessary reduction of the gut.  The obvious solution would have been to include increasingly large amounts of animal-derived food in the diet.

Increasing the amount of easily-digested food of animal origin allowed us to shrink our guts while expanding our brains.  Had we remained on a diet high in vegetation, we would no doubt not have been able to expand our brains irrespective of how much more thinking those brains would have needed to do.  It just wouldn’t have been possible to do so without violating Kleiber’s law.

Take the gorilla, for example, almost pure vegetarians that spend their entire ‘working’ day foraging and eating, which they have to do to get enough calories to maintain their enormous bulk.  They have large guts and pay for it by having small brains.  Even smaller than that of our most primitive ancestors, the australophthecines.

Gorilla has one of the lowest levels of encephalization of any haplorhine primate, and the much higher level of encephalization of all the australopithecines suggests a diet of significantly higher quality than that of this genus.

Which makes sense when you consider that carbon 13 isotope analysis has shown that Australopithecus africanus (the species that came right after Lucy) consumed meat.  As you go up the lineage from Australopithecus and through Homo, you find that more and more meat was consumed the higher up the tree you go.

It’s easy to see that, as compared to humans, chimps and gorillas have large, protuberant bellies, which supports the fact that they have larger GI tracts, but what about our ancient ancestors.  All we have to go on are skeletal remains, which show nicely that their heads (and brains) were much smaller than ours, but what about their guts?  How do we really know their guts were larger?  According to Kleiber, they would have to be, but how to we really know they were?

The large gut of the living pongids gives their bodies a somewhat pot-bellied appearance, lacking a discernible waist.  This is because the rounded profile of the abdomen is continuous with that of the lower portion of the rib cage, which is shaped like an inverted funnel, and also because the lumbar region is relatively short (three to four lumber vertebrae).

The drawing below from the ETH shows the inverted-funnel shape of the ribcage of the chimpanzee on the left.  You can mentally draw the lines downward from these ribs and envision the pot-bellied look of the abdomen that these primates evidence.  Looking at the image on the right, you can see that Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy’s species) has the same inverted-funnel shaped rib cage, indicating a large belly and a low-quality diet.

The drawing in the middle is of a modern human.  If you extrapolate the lines down from the human rib cage, you can see that they lead to a more narrow waist.  Makes you think more of a lean, rangy wolf or other slim-waisted carnivore, whereas the other two don’t.

ETH rib cage

The authors conclude:

If an encephalized animal does not have a correspondingly elevated BMR [which according to Kleiber, it can’t], its energy budget must be balanced in some other way.  The expensive-tissue hypothesis suggested here is that this balance can be achieved by a reduction in size of one of the other metabolically expensive organs in the body (liver, kidney, heart of gut).  We argue that this can best be done by the adoption of a high-quality diet, which permits a relatively small gut and liberates a significant component of BMR for the encephalized brain.  No matter what was selecting for encephalization, a relatively large brain could not be achieved without a correspondingly [sic] increase in dietary quality unless the metabolic rate was correspondingly increased.

At a more general level, this exercise has demonstrated other important points.  First, diet can be inferred from aspects of anatomy other than teeth and jaws.  For example, an indication of the relative size of the gastro-intestinal tract and consequently the digestibility of the food stuffs being consumed is provided by the morphology of the rib cage and pelvis.  Second, any dietary inference for the hominids must be consistent with all lines of evidence.  Third, the evolution of any organ of the body cannot be profitably studied in isolation.  Other approaches to understand the costs of encephalization have generally failed because they have tended to look at the brain in isolation from other tissues.  The expensive-tissue hypothesis profitably emphasizes the essential interrelationship between the brain, BMR, and other metabolically expensive body organs.

I hope you are now armed with enough knowledge to be able to see through these articles and/or charts that are all too common showing how the GI tract of humans is closer to that of a gorilla than it is to that of a cat or some other carnivore.  It seems to me that Aiello and Wheeler have pretty thoroughly demolished the notion that humans are actually designed by the forces of natural selection to be vegetarians.  Based on the data and the argument they present, it is actually the opposite:  we evolved to be meat eaters.

It was our gradual drift toward the much higher quality diet provided by food from animal sources that allowed us to develop the large brains we have.  It was hunting and meat eating that reduced our GI tracts and freed up our brains to grow.  As I wrote at the start of this post, the evidence indicates that we didn’t evolve to eat meat – we evolved because we ate meat.

Lierre Keith had it right in The Vegetarian Myth:

The wild herds of aurochs and horses invented us out of their bodies, their nutrient-dense tissues gestating the human brain.

If we evolved because we ate meat, why would we want to stop now?

Note: I found the full text of this article available on Scribd.  If it gets taken down, let me know, and I’ll put it up here.  I’m just trying to save space on my server.

Painting at top: Monkey Before Skeleton by Gabriel Cornelius von Max

Hard wired to the past

Felis silvestris lybica  Photo by Noorderlicht

Felis silvestris lybica Photo by Noorderlicht

When you get right down to it, house cats are pretty useless. If you’re overrun with mice, cats can be a help, but that’s pretty much it.  They are fiercely  independent and, unlike dogs, which have a want-to-please-their-master nature, cats don’t really give a flip.  They don’t fetch, they don’t roll over, they don’t sit up and beg, and, for the most part, they don’t come when called. If you had a kid who acted like a cat, you would probably put him/her up for adoption. So why are cats the most popular house pet in the world today?

Scientists using DNA analysis have determined that virtually all house cats alive today are descended from a specific line of wild cats, Felis silvestris lybica, that are indigenous to the Middle East.  Although there are a number of lines of wildcats throughout the world, mitochondrial DNA analysis of all breeds of house cats appears to indicate they all descended from this one branch of the wildcat family.

With the geography and an approximate age of the initial phases of cat domestication established, we could begin to revisit the old question of why cats and humans ever developed a special relationship. Cats in general are unlikely candidates for domestication. The ancestors of most domesticated animals lived in herds or packs with clear dominance hierarchies. (Humans unwittingly took advantage of this structure by supplanting the alpha individual, thus facilitating control of entire cohesive groups.) These herd animals were already accustomed to living cheek by jowl, so provided that food and shelter were plentiful, they adapted easily to confinement.

Cats, in contrast, are solitary hunters that defend their home ranges fiercely from other cats of the same sex (the pride-living lions are the exception to this rule). Moreover, whereas most domesticates feed on widely available plant foods, cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they have a limited ability to digest anything but meat—a far rarer menu item. In fact, they have lost the ability to taste sweet carbohydrates altogether. And as to utility to humans, let us just say cats do not take instruction well. Such attributes suggest that whereas other domesticates were recruited from the wild by humans who bred them for specific tasks, cats most likely chose to live among humans because of opportunities they found for themselves.

Turns out that the answer to the domestication question is that cats were useful to our ancestors for the same reason they are useful to use: their mousing ability.  When humans turned to agriculture and started storing quantities of grain, rodents became a problem because they bred like flies and overran the human food supply.  Cats, which don’t eat grain but do eat rodents, were the solution, so we hired them on despite their quirks.

So are today’s cats truly domesticated? Well, yes—but perhaps only just. Although they satisfy the criterion of tolerating people, most domestic cats are feral and do not rely on people to feed them or to find them mates. And whereas other domesticates, like dogs, look quite distinct from their wild ancestors, the average domestic cat largely retains the wild body plan. It does exhibit a few morphological differences, however—namely, slightly shorter legs, a smaller brain and, as Charles Darwin noted, a longer intestine, which may have been an adaptation to scavenging kitchen scraps.

Unlike dogs, which exhibit a huge range of sizes, shapes and temperaments, house cats are relatively homogeneous, differing mostly in the characteristics of their coats. The reason for the relative lack of variability in cats is simple: humans have long bred dogs to assist with particular tasks, such as hunting or sled pulling, but cats, which lack any inclination for performing most tasks that would be useful to humans, experienced no such selective breeding pressures.

As a little diversion let me demonstrate the difference between art and science.  The article on the domestication of cats took up five pages of text in Scientific American.  J.R.R. Tolkien (yes, he of Lord of the Rings fame) pretty much transmitted the same information in a short poem.  I came across this poem in my youth and was mesmerized by it.  I loved the rhyming pattern and was amazed that so much information could be compressed into what seemed to be just a little piece of doggerel.

Cat

The fat cat on the mat
may seem to dream
of nice mice that suffice
for him, or cream;
but he free, maybe,
walks in thought
unbowed, proud, where loud
roared and fought
his kin, lean and slim,
or deep in den
in the East feasted on beasts
and tender men.
The giant lion with iron
claw in paw,
and huge ruthless tooth
in gory jaw;
the pard dark-starred,
fleet upon feet,
that oft soft from aloft
leaps upon his meat
where woods loom in gloom —
far now they be,
fierce and free,
and tamed is he;
but fat cat on the mat
kept as a pet
he does not forget.

As I said, on the surface it appears to be a little nursery-type of poem, but it’s not really.  The rhyme sequence is astonishingly complex for such a small poem.  The odd lines rhyme at the end while the even lines each have three internal rhymes, and it’s all done in just a few words.  Yet is conveys the essential nature of cats better than the long Scientific American article without seeming to stretch to make any of the rhymes work.

It’s hard to believe that Tolkien wrote such a gem intending to include it in The Lord of the Rings, but decided not to.  It ended up being kind of a throw away.

We, ourselves, like cats, walked “in thought unbowed, proud, where loud roared and fought [our] kin, lean and slim, or deep in den in the East [and] feasted on beasts” in a time long past.  And just like fat cats on mats everywhere, we remember, too, those “fierce and free” primal days, if not in our conscious brains, at least in our DNA.  We are hardwired to gobble meat with “huge ruthless tooth in gory jaw.”  If you don’t believe me, take a look at this YouTube of chimps, our nearest genetic ancestor hunting and eating meat.

Beware.  And I’m not kidding.  This video is not for the squeamish, so be forewarned.

I’m not nearly as clever with verse as J.R.R. Tolkien, so I won’t attempt to capture the feelings this video engenders with poetry.  But it should be obvious from the watching what hunts must have been like in our own past.  I suspect not too different than the one you just saw.  And, friends, that is the primitive circuitry deep inside of us all; we differ from the chimps you saw by a mere 6 percent of genes.  That means that we have 94 percent of our genes in common with them.  Au contraire to what our vegetarian friends would have us believe, we have the GI tracts of carnivores, not herbivores, and we were designed by nature to use every last speck of the nutrients in meat.  We can survive on all-meat diets just fine, whereas we can’t survive on an all-plant diet without supplementation.

We’ve developed our large brains and our social instincts as a consequence of meat eating.  I’m planning a post on this subject in the near future, so you can see how our very humanness arose because we developed a taste for meat.  We are carnivores to our very cores – were we not, we would still be roaming the savannas with brains the size of grapefruits.

We may sleep and dream of larger houses, bigger cars and vacations to exotic locations, but our insides still remember when we were “fleet upon feet” and leapt upon our meat “where woods loom in gloom.”  It was this memory that drove Paleolithic Man, with whom we have 100 percent of genes in common, to hunt to extinction all the large beasts (whose skeletons fill natural history museums everywhere) to extinction from the Bering Strait to Tierra del Fuego in about 1000 years. They didn’t make this effort because they used meat as a condiment.

Whether we like it or not, we are hard wired to our past.

Photo of F.s lybica by Noorderlicht

H/T to Richard Nikoley for alerting me to the YouTube video