’Ithought that would be a good counterpoint with the kangaroo,” says Peter Hoffman, the chef at Savoy, of his pine-nut tapénade. The marsupial is just one component of one course at “Dining on the Tree of Life,” a dinner-with-lecture evening that aims to showcase the world’s biota by having guests eat as much of it as possible. Tonight’s speaker is Niles Eldredge, an evolutionary biologist from the Museum of Natural History. He taps his glass and invokes Stephen Jay Gould as the first course is introduced: a small dish of periwinkles, the little gray-blue snails found under every rock on the Atlantic coast. A straight pin is provided, to pry them out of their shells. They’re sandy.
The 22 diners, who’ve paid $108 apiece, aren’t scientists; most are Savoy regulars. Fred, a very enthusiastic guy across the table, still rues the one lecture-dinner he’s missed since the series began a few years ago: “Hoffman did a bulk mailing,” he complains, “and I didn’t hear about it in time.” He swallows his last periwinkle with relish. The second course arrives, an antipasto plate that includes jellyfish, octopus, ferns, quail, preserved lemons, and the kangaroo. Another diner says she called too late to get into a lecture on the food of the Friuli region. “So I said, ‘Put me down for the next one.’ ” A pause. She looks at her plate uneasily.
“We’re up to five phyla,” announces Eldredge as the third course arrives. He adds that a phylum is a subdivision of a kingdom – animal, plant, or bacteria, say. Taxonomists debate how many phyla there are, but his favorite reference, he says, lists 92 or 93. This course is skate garnished with seaweed. “It’s two kinds, wakame and – I forget,” says Hoffman. “Whatever it is,” adds Eldredge, “we have both a red alga and a green alga.” Whatever it is, it’s gelatinous and a little slimy. “I really liked the kangaroo,” says one diner, in a small voice.
The next course is a little easier: spaghetti with lobster, turnips, mint, and uni – sea-urchin roe. A couple of diners immediately start picking out the uni and setting it aside. One of them, Vivian, announces loudly that she’s here strictly at the behest of her sister. The sister, Ruth, changes the subject: “I loved that egg sac!” the 80-year-old says brightly. “It was divine.”
A glass of excellent wine is poured with each course, and as the main course (a surprisingly unthreatening roasted pork with potato-and-clam sauce) is served, Eldredge’s tongue loosens. “I don’t want to bring everyone down,” he begins, as his talk veers toward a bleak, frank monologue about overpopulation, limited natural resources, and loss of biodiversity. “We’re extremely fortunate to live at a time when we can have a dinner like this, because we haven’t killed off everything yet,” he says. The group shifts in its chairs.
Mercifully, it’s time for dessert: goat-cheese cake with berries and a bee-pollen cookie. Eldredge consults his notes, ticking off the phyla with his pen. There is some discussion of whether we can count insects because of the cookie, since we’re not eating the bees. His tally: eleven or twelve. “About 15 percent of the world’s life-forms are represented,” he announces, to scattered applause. “We had no Reptilia,” he notes, looking at the chef. “I know,” says Hoffman apologetically. “I tried to get some rattlesnake or something, but the flight’s not coming in till tomorrow.”