Thursday, September 20, 2012

When did animals start tasting like chicken?

A consensus has emerged in the scientific community that chickens and other birds are probably the direct descendants of dinosaurs. I have lost many good nights of sleep wondering what various species of dinosaurs tasted like, but the fact is that we don’t have any left to eat. Other than birds, the closest living relatives that we have to eat are the crocodilians, which date back to at least 250 million years ago.

I have eaten alligators on several occasions and have found that they can have a lot in common with chicken. ... The best alligator meat I have ever eaten was in a bar on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where the bartender brought out a tray of “gator wings.” These alligator limbs had been prepared identically to conventional Buffalo wings, and they tasted exactly like enormous Buffalo wings, with the most noticeable difference being that the bones were less delicate. I figure this similarity dates the taste of chicken back at least 250 million years right there.

Looking back even further on the evolutionary tree, modern reptiles are related to chickens through a group of animals known as diapsids, which originated around 300 million years ago. Modern snakes and lizards are both descended from the diapsids—and as it happens, I have had the pleasure of eating a nice assortment of them: black spiny-tailed iguanas, green iguanas, and various snakes. What all of them had in common was a taste and a color after cooking that was like chicken, coupled with a texture reminiscent of crab meat. You wouldn’t mistake the texture of snake for chicken, but run it through a meat-grinder, and you wouldn’t know the difference.

Another group of animals related to diapsids are the testudines: turtles and tortoises. Their exact evolutionary origins are murky, but what’s clear is that they taste like chicken. Raw snapping turtle meat is multicolored, with individual chunks mottled either red or white. But cooked, snapping turtle is indistinguishable from chicken to most palates. My 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son have enjoyed battered, deep-fried “turtle tenders,” and they have deemed the meat identical to chicken. (I agree.) If it passes the taste test of a fussy 8-year-old, it probably really does taste like chicken. (Maybe the ranch dressing helped.)

What chicken-reminiscent beasts existed before the diapsids? Now we must go way back in time to the first vertebrates that lived on land: the early amphibians. ...

Frogs, the prototypical modern-day amphibian, taste definitively like chicken. Their texture is even like chicken. In a blind taste test, I couldn’t tell the difference. ... This, along with the taste of snakes, lizards, and turtles, implies that tasting like chicken has been around for at least 300 million years.

Looking further back in time to before the amphibians, we arrive at the fish. I’ve been told that many kinds of fish taste like chicken, but in practice I have never found this to be the case unless the meat is disguised in some way. ...

So roughly 350 million years ago is probably when life began to taste like chicken, right when some lobed fishes had fully transformed into the first terrestrial amphibians, like P. finneyae.
--Jackson Landers, Slate, on an enduring flavor experience