Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Evolution and the breakfast landscape

Here's a question about evolutionary psychology. Not a rhetorical question or a snarky question (even though I have been a bit snarky on the subject in the past). Everyone knows why we evolved to seek out salt, sugar and fat in our diet, but why did we evolve to favor an extremely rugged yet malleable culinary landscape?

Take breakfast, for example. Sometimes (though not often) I'll hit a diner and say what-the-hell and get coffee, juice, eggs, bacon, hash browns, and biscuits. With the exception of the juice and the bacon (which are already optimized), I will add the right level of flavorings to each dish to get it to its landscape maxima (sugar for the coffee, salt and pepper for the eggs, hot sauce and ketchup for the hash browns, jam or maybe even sausage gravy for the biscuits).

The optimization is done on a dish-by-dish basis and is, for the most part, independent. If only eggs are available, I'll have a sugar-free breakfast. If all I have around the house is coffee and fruit, I'll have a low-sodium breakfast. Though there's an evolutionary imperative that makes me crave sugar and salt, it is somehow dependent on the other coordinates of the landscape. I want sugar but not salt with my coffee, salt but not sugar with my eggs and both salt and (caramelized) sugar in my hot chocolate.

Small children complain loudly and adults mumble grumpily when certain foods mix on a plate even though, as parents often remind us, it all goes to the same place.

How did our places get so context-sensitive?

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