We humans are enthralled by the eating exploits of other species. We watch with wonder the bulge of a large fish gliding downstream through a heron’s gullet, or the lump of a toad being squeezed through a garter snake’s pencil-thick body. Yet daily within our very homes can be observed feats of eating no less wondrous.
Indeed, as I sit at the breakfast table this morning and watch my young niece being fed by her mother, I am amazed that such “creatures” as children (forgive me, Nicole) continue to be born on this planet. Not that Nicole’s behavior is any worse than that of any other little girl or boy, and certainly no worse than her mother was at that age. Never having had any offspring myself, I tend to watch this game of life from the position of a detached observer. But the creature in my field of vision is far more absorbing to me right now than a giant python swallowing a pig or a blue whale swilling krill.
For I realize that it is me I am watching in this real life nature drama. So this is what it’s like growing up—taking an entire slice of bread that your mother has thoughtfully broken into convenient bite-sized pieces and methodically stuffing them, one by one, into your mouth until it can hold no more. At this point, poor Nicole, you are faced with a dilemma that all of us must eventually face. Not a bit more of that tasty stuff can be crammed into that orifice between two chubby cheeks. You must chew, dear child, and that is a most dreary fact of our existence.
You can always spit it out and start all over again, which is exactly what you choose to do several times. As I look up from my newspaper and gaze upon the partially masticated, brownish lump just regurgitated on the plate across from me, I find myself wondering how any of us ever learns to chew. And, more to the point, how any human parent finds the necessary faith in our species to sit patiently by as we learn to do this.
Chewing, or mastication, is primarily something that mammals do, and more specifically those mammals that eat plants at least part of the time. You don’t see carnivorous mammals like lions or wolves chewing their food. They much prefer to just slash and gulp.
According to some scientists, chewing may have evolved long ago when animals first colonized the land. It has to do with the tongue. Whereas fish tongues mostly just move food from front to back in the mouth, mammalian tongues evolved to move food around in the mouth for the teeth to chew it. Who knew we would evolve to eat pizza and Twinkies?
Some of the dinosaurs might also have been chewers. The shape of the teeth in certain duck-billed hadrosaurs suggests that they chewed their plant food. Scientists hypothesize that this might have given them an evolutionary advantage over the big sauropod dinosaurs, which had to swallow rocks to grind up their food. As time-consuming and inconvenient as chewing is, I’ll take it over swallowing rocks any day.
Cattle and other ruminants take chewing to new heights, masticating their food over and over, to derive every last bit of nutritional value. I wonder what it would be like chewing on your cud all day. I have a feeling that, after seven or eight re-chewings, most of us would lose all sense of flavor and enjoyment.
Though chewing is mainly an unconscious reflex, there is much more to it than that. It also involves an intricate set of motor skills that must be learned. Indeed, we can also think about our chewing, as when my mother used to tell me, and now my wife reminds me to chew, not wolf, my food.
Dogs are also known to chew on things, like your favorite slippers, but this is more of an emotional thing. It could be a sign of early depression, so you may want to talk to your dog more often.
Human babies start learning to chew at around seven to nine months. As with all things, they generally learn about food by touching and playing with it, so you can imagine how messy a process this can be.
In some cultures, parents actually pre-chew their infant’s food into a wet, pulpy mass called a bolus before giving it to them. This is referred to as premastication, and is just as yucky as it sounds.
I guess the only thing that saves us all from extinction is that most of the world’s mothers and fathers-to-be are blithely unaware of these gruesome details until it is too late, when they are up to their necks in the lumpy brownish mess of child raising. But if they were to watch and think too much about such things as I have just witnessed this morning, it is quite possible they might decide to postpone or even indefinitely delay their plans for a child. We might very well become the first species on the planet doomed to extinction merely by watching a child chew.
As for my own parents, they had three children. Each of us probably stuffed our faces with entire loaves of bread before learning how to chew. Remarkable creatures, my mother and father. ©Gene Twaronite 2013
Originally published in 5enses Magazine, August 2013 http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-absurd-naturalist-thoughts-on-chewing/