STRANGE BUT TRUE- Year's end: The best and strangest... and truest


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. In an unfamiliar restaurant, could an understanding of economics help you decide which menu items to order?–W. Puck

A. Despite the daunting plentitude of choices, you need not feel completely lost, says Tyler Cowen in Discover Your Inner Economist. At a fancy restaurant ($50 and up for a dinner), ask yourself: "Which item am I least likely to want? Which sounds least appetizing?" Then order that item.

The logic here is simple. No item will be on the menu long without good reason. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good. Take the case of monkfish. It's hard to make good monkfish: Most people and most restaurants shouldn't even try.

"I don't try," write Cowen. "But when it is paraded with pride on the menu, it is usually an excellent entree. The dense and sweet flesh does very well in the hands of an expert chef." Other good bets include game, anything you've never heard of, and most organ meats, especially the nasty-sounding ones. Watch out for the popular-sounding items like roast chicken, since too often they're just okay. Many dining wimps will order roast chicken to experience the familiar. The same with fried calamari: Many people love this, so it will be on many menus no matter what. In general, popularity suffices, but it doesn't hit the highest peaks of taste. So, in summation, says Cowen, "Order the ugly, and order the unknown."

Q. Who was perhaps the dourest prognosticator of the last few centuries, and have we humans successfully beat his gloomy economics yet?–J. Dixon

A. Thomas Robert Malthus was the economist who in 1798 famously predicted that population growth tends to outstrip food production, depressing living standards and pitching the world back toward subsistence, says Jeffrey Sachs in Scientific American magazine.

Yet as advances in seed breeding, chemical fertilizers, irrigation, and the like seemed to buoy the food supply limitlessly, Malthusian economics became a source of mockery. As the population grew, it was argued, more geniuses would appear, spurring technology even more. But the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 kids per family now teeters perilously at 2.6, leading the U.N. Population Division to caution that with the current addition of 79 million people per year, world population may total 9.2 billion by 2050!

The dangers here include food and oil shortages, rising greenhouse gasses, gutting of the oceans, depletion of the rain forests, etc. Yet these are not inevitable, stresses Sachs, if we all take the right steps by converting to solar power and safe nuclear power plus developing water-efficient farming, green buildings, high-mileage cars. We'll also need to rethink our modern diets and lifestyles to reduce consumption.

So have we beaten Malthus? "Two centuries after his work, we still do not really know."

Q.  They can weigh more than half a kilogram (about a pound), tasting a bit like a piece of veal and with recipes available for making them up into "meat" loaf, even smoothies. So why have vegetarians taken such a fancy to them? Clue: Tom Cruise famously announced his intention to eat one.–K. Holmes

A. Cruise was talking about his expectant wife's placenta, Nature's remarkable organ for the developing fetus that acts as substitute lungs, stomach, liver, bladder, says Katherine Robertson of the University of Cambridge, UK, in New Scientist. 

Cells known as trophoblasts hijack the maternal blood system to provide the baby with needed oxygen and nutrients, serving as a protective barrier against Mom's immune system that might otherwise reject the growing mass. For certain vegetarians, the placenta affords the rare opportunity to eat meat without necessitating a slaughter of any kind.

True enough, concurs Robertson, who suggests that the life-giving placenta be both celebrated and investigated by researchers. "But I must confess an embarrassing failure of nerve when it comes to placental lasagna..."

~

Each of this week's strange items ran in the Hook during 2009. Let's have an even stranger 2010! Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com.

#