Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Last night, my Toastmasters Club held our Tall Tales contest, in which I participated (and won, actually), with a story adapted from a brief passage in Chapter 2 of Jewel Box. I confess that I cannot take complete credit, as the basic idea for classifying animals according to how they tasted came out of a conversation with Ken A. Anyway, the text follows:
Systema Unnaturae: An Alternative to Traditional Linnaean Taxonomy

How many of you know the name Carolus Linnaeus? Linnaeus was an 18th-century Swedish botanist and zoologist who developed the current system of taxonomy, or grouping animals and plants with similar physiological characteristics into phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, and species. For example, biologically, humans are Homo sapiens, dogs are Canis familiaris, cats are Felis silvestris catus, cows are Bos taurus, and the Atlantic giant squid is Architetuthis dux.

Needless to say (although I’ll say it anyway, otherwise this will be a really short speech), not everyone is happy with that system for categorizing nature. In particular, Dr. Edward Munch (who, by the ways, is no relation to the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch famous for the painting The Scream), dissatisfied with the Linnaean system of classifying animals and plants, was the founder and leading researcher in the field of what he called “gustatory taxonomy.” That is, Dr. Munch sought to classify animals and plants according to how they tasted. Ultimately, he desired to answer a question that had been eating him (as it were) his entire scientific career: how many animals actually do taste like chicken?

Dr. Munch received his training in zoology at Syracuse University—not that he was enrolled there; rather, he worked in one of the dining halls, where he came into contact with a variety of insect life, and began taking copious notes about which foods even the roaches steered clear of. When he was in his early 20s, he was inspired by a class in comparative biology he took at the American Culinary Institute. And, some years later, tanks to a generous scholarship bestowed by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, he was able to kick his career up a notch, afford the necessary research facilities—that is, cookware—and pursue his investigations into the culinary classification of animals and plants.

As you can imagine, such a system required a not insubstantial amount of empirical research—which is to say, eating. So, for years, Dr. Munch traveled the globe, sampling as many creatures as he could, and his life’s work—the immense Concordance of World Organisms—Encyclopedia and Cookbook—was coming together nicely. His monograph, “Functional Morphology of H. hydrochaeris With and Without Pork Gravy,” was a smash hit at that year’s National Zoological Conference, an event which he also catered, and had even led to his helping found a new cable channel, a joint venture between the Discovery Channel and the Food Network.

But, alas, it was all to end too soon. While in the Amazon rain forest, he had no sooner taken a bite out of a large, brightly colored, and—unbeknownst to Dr. Munch, poisonous—tree frog, than he uttered what were to be his last words (“needs salt”) and, according to one witness at the scene, did a remarkable imitation of his Norwegian namesake’s most famous painting. He then fell face first onto the frog, and a brilliant scientific career ended just as it had begun: with Dr. Munch wearing a lobster bib.

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