Why Does Greasy Food Taste So Good?

Recently, the younger of my two sisters, together with her family, went to visit my other sister.  It was a nice visit.  When younger sister & Co. returned to town, they swung by Mom's house.  Mom figured they'd be hungry, so she made them something to eat.

What did she make?  Steak sandwiches.  “Fried in her electric skillet with a whole onion.”  Mom was born in 1928.  She grew up in the mid-west.  Mom really knows comfort food.

In a subsequent email, younger sister mentioned that Mom's sweatshirt had been covered in grease spatters.  Resting on the counter seven feet away from the Cooking Site, my sister's sunglasses acquired a similar patina.

“Why, oh why, does it have to taste so good like that?” my sister's email lamented.

Why, indeed?

The answer to this question lies in history, or rather, prehistory.  “How far back?” you wonder.  Way far.  Older than the dinosaurs.  They died out at the end of the Cretaceous period, oh, about 65 million years ago.  And not from eating greasy food, either.  Greasy food worked well for the dinosaurs.  It was probably a meteorite strike on the earth's surface that took out the dinosaurs (and most of the other life on the planet). 

No, we have to go back even further... perhaps as far back as the Permian Extinction.  That was about 250 million years ago.  Life was simple then.  There were about four Rules:

  1. Find something to eat.
  2. Avoid being eaten yourself.
  3. Come in out of the rain.
  4. Mate.

Somewhere between the Permian Extinction and the end of the Cretaceous period, a few of the animals – vertebrates, mostly – added a fifth Rule:

5. Pay attention to your offspring until it can do Rule 1. on its own.

Focus for a moment on Rule 1.  It's a big deal.  Bigger than Twitter, Identity Theft or Credit Default Swaps.   If you can't find something to eat, you will be weak.  Weak is bad.  If you are weak, you won't be able to avoid predators.  You might not find shelter from the rain.  You might get mange, and then your mating prospects will be limited.

Animals that learned and practiced these five rules were successful.  Others, well...  You ever hear of the Left-horned Gnargtrolyid?  Didn't think so.  They just couldn't quite master Rule 3, and they all got terrible colds.  The sneezing and sniffling attracted predators.  The rest is, as they say, prehistory.

Animals who followed these rules did better than those who did not.  The rules became embedded in the DNA of most every animal that survived the various extinctions, economic bubbles and celebrity fashion faux pas of prehistory.

And Rule 1 is the foundation of all the rest.  Let's examine it more closely.  Find something to eat.  Seems simple, right?  It's actually quite nuanced.  After all, you need to eat the right thing.  With a few exceptions, such as earthworms, animals that ate dirt didn't do well.  Dirt's got basic minerals, and minerals are good, but dirt is pretty low in most of the other food groups.  Not much protein in dirt.  Not much carbohydrates or fat, either.

Animals that ate grass did okay, but they developed terrible gas and bad overbites.  Some animals ate other animals.  These were sleek, glossy, and fast,  much like the models that adorn the covers of our popular magazines today.

So you have to eat the right stuff to follow Rule 1!  What's the right stuff?  Ah, now it gets interesting.  You see when your DNA is hammering on you to get enough energy from your diet to enable you to follow the other four rules, you learn to recognize certain types of food.  You learn to focus on foods that give you energy to run, to hide, to mate.  Energy to stay up all night with your teething offspring.  To yell your head off while watching Monday Night Football.

Also, you never really know when the next meal will come along, so you when you find something to eat, you want to get as much fuel as you can as quickly as possible.  That means fat.  You ever read the labels on stuff you buy at the store?  It's interesting.  Here's are some numbers:

(You didn't know that Alcohol is a basic food group, did you?  But, we digress.)  

Anyway, in a sense, calories are the fuel our bodies burn.  So from a food efficiency standpoint, Fat wins hands (or paws or claws or hooves) down.  When calories are scarce, it's just hard to argue with nine calories per gram.

Over time, this table became imprinted in the DNA of successful species.  For hundreds of millions of years, through floods and volcanic eruptions and bad hair days, the DNA of the animal kingdom optimized sense perceptions around this very table.  It became a mantra: Food is scarce.  When you find some, eat it.  Food is scarce.  When you find some, eat it.  

Especially fat.

But then, oh maybe two hundred thousand years ago, a little, naked, scrawny animal showed up on the African savanna: Homo Sapiens.  “Wise Man” (ahem).  Not much in the claws, hide, or teeth departments, but a pretty big brain to body mass index.

Like other members of the animal kingdom, Homo Sapiens had the five rules of survival encoded in its DNA.  Since food was scarce and predators were plentiful on the African savanna two hundred thousand years ago, the five rules worked well.  Very well.  So well, in fact, that there are now, as of 2010 CE, about 6.8 billion of us treading on this earth.

For those of us born in the land of plenty, calories are no longer scarce.  Physical predation has been transmogrified into psychological stress and existential angst.  This psychological stress is brought about through the actions of the media, through the looting of the economy by corporate executives, investment bankers and lobbyists, and through fear of failure at Rule 4 insinuated into our subconscious via advertising campaigns. 

That particular message is brilliant in its simplicity: 

You must buy this thing* or you will not mate.

Now lots of things are expensive and therefore difficult to purchase.  So we all feel varying degrees of stress and impending doom pretty much constantly.  But in here in The West, calories – cheap, greasy calories – are gloriously easy to come by.  Success at Rule 1 is no farther away than the nearest Burger Palace.

After all, who are we to struggle against 250 million years of genetic programming?  Our DNA never stops whispering: “Find something to eat. Starvation is just around the next rock, so look for something with a significant grease component.”  

On the one hand is 250 million years of evolution.  On the other hand is about 50 years of medical science.  The hand of evolution is supported by the 150 Billion Dollar Advertising Industry.  The hand of medical science is supported by the National Institutes of Health.  Guess which hand wins?

And that is why we like greasy food.

© Michael C. Glaviano 2009 - 2016