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A celebration of Charles Darwin’s bicentenary

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Charles Darwin (Callie Jones)

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin falls on 12 February this year, and 2009 also sees the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s great work ‘On the origin of species’.

Many people worldwide will celebrate February 12 as Darwin Day. There will be various events and exhibitions to mark the occasion, not least at the Natural History Museum in London (PJ, 17 January 2009, p51).

In Shrewsbury, for instance, where Darwin was born, a toast is drunk in the courtyard of the Morris Hall at noon on 12 February each year.

As a young man, Darwin showed little promise that he would become one of the greatest scientists in human history. Even at Cambridge University, where he half-heartedly read divinity, his main daytime activities seemed to have been collecting beetles and shooting birds, rather than attending lectures.

In the evenings, he was a member of the Glutton Club (or Gourmet Club), which met once a week and actively sought to eat animals not normally found on menus.

During the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin had to eat whatever was to hand, so his experiences at the Glutton Club would, no doubt, have been good training. For instance, he wrote that armadillo “taste and look like duck”, while mountain puma was apparently similar to veal.

In the Galapagos Islands, Darwin and his companions ate both Galapagos iguana and the famous giant turtles, the latter proving to be so important in his theory of evolution by natural selection.

For many years, scientists have honoured Darwin’s birthday with a “phylum feast”. This is a shared meal containing as many different species as possible from as many different animal and plant groups as possible. Often, these are pot-luck meals to which each diner contributes one or more items.

The University of Toronto is one institution that has a long history of phylum feasts, going back at least to the 1970s. It would seem, though, that these have tended largely to be vegetarian affairs, with many families of plants represented but relatively few animals or fungi.

Merlin has received an invitation to Darwin’s 200th birthday phylum feast at the University of Toronto, but Canada is too far for a small raptor to fly. However, Mrs Merlin (a zoologist by trade, and an excellent cook) has suggested that the Merlins prepare their own phylum feast.

After much discussion, they have decided to begin with primordial soup. This is a variant on French onion soup (Allium cepa, Liliaceae, Angiospermatophyta) with added Bovril (Bos taurus, Mammalia, Chordata). The Merlins cannot find a suitable source of amino acids, but the Bovril should provide some oligopeptides instead.

With the primordial soup the Merlins will eat crusty French bread, made with wheat (Triticum aestivum, Gramineae, Angiospermophyta) and yeasts (Ascomycota). This will be followed by oysters (Ostrea edulis, Mollusca, Invertebrata). The oyster is said to be a host for the protozoan Bonamia ostreae (Zoomastigina) and the copepod Mytilicola intestinalis (Myticolidae, Invertebrata), so this will give us two more groups.

The fish course will consist of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar, Pisces, Chordata) with scampi (Nephrops norvegicus, Crustaceae, Invertebrata). This will be served with a sauce of dill (Anethum graveolens, Apiacea, Angiospermophyta) in crème fraîche, which provides more yeasts plus bacteria (Eubacteria), and sprinkled with pine nuts (Pinus spp, Coniferae, Gymnospermophyta).

There must, of course, be a meat course, and the Merlins have selected lamb (Ovis aries, Mammalia, Chordata) and pheasant (Phasianus colchicus, Aves, Chordata) with a range of vegetables (Angiospermophyta) and mushrooms (Basidiomycota).

Wines could be a problem for this kind of menu, so Merlin has suggested champagne through the meal until the meat course, when a good claret would be drunk (more yeasts).

To round off the repast, Merlin would like to have his favourite pudding, which is spotted dick and custard. For the occasion, he has translated this into Latin — ricardum maculatum cum crema anglica.

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