Project Description

The Mesozoic Era

245 million to 65 million years ago:
The first crocodiles emerge.
They are followed by the dinosaurs.
A few shrew-like mammals show up.
Turtles happen.
A couple big pieces of Pangaea break off.
Birds happen.
The first flowering plants spring up.
Probably a meteor or asteroid hits Earth, once again killing off almost everything.
Pangaea is gone, now broken into continents.

Julian Barnes’ woodworm has a cynical view of Noah’s motivations for saving so many of the animals: “He wanted to have something to eat after the flood had subsided,” the woodworm stage-whispers to us. But for whatever the reason—sheer luck, quick adaptation—some life did survive the Great Dying, and took again their place in the Great Food Chain, which is a sort of great dying except that it takes longer and it is spread out and there is no molten flood of lava chasing after everyone.

Were there US Weeklies and Peoples during the Mesozoic era, xilousuchus would have been on every cover. At least for the first few issues. “In the midst of chaos,” wrote Sun Tzu, “there is opportunity.” And that swamp-dwelling, nasty little carnivore xilousuchus did just that. From the impossible violence and madness of the Great Dying, it found an opportunity to give birth to the future. Reptiley mammal-like things, soon dinosaurs, and, much later, birds… all evolved from this one little mammal-like thing. Homo sapiens, too. It is a family tree more complicated and filled with more strange births than the house of Atreus. But then, change often looks strange; even if to be strange means you are “better,” you are still strange. Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps was born with a massive wingspan, and ankles so double-jointed that his feet turn into flippers. Beauty isn’t everything, it is skin deep, but it is also millions of years deep. There is something in how our bodies look.

Appearances matter. Before he ate, even in the bad times, Churchill took a bath and dressed for dinner. Isaac Bashevis Singer put on a suit and tie every morning to “go to work.” He worked alone in his apartment, writing at his little desk. This trait seems to be characteristic of innovators—the great French chef and father of modern cuisine, Escoffier (Churchill’s favorite chef) would always come to the kitchen dressed in his spotless frock coat and cravat, even if he was demonstrating some messy or spattery technique to his cooks. Escoffier was famous for making order out of chaos; disparate strange items became haute cuisine.

He taught his many, many new techniques to those who worked for him; in his cookbooks, Escoffier has fifty sauces for a single piece of fish, 80 preparations of cod, and over 300 ways to sauté a chicken. Sautee. 300 ways just to sauté. He made standard the recipes for the five “mother sauces”—béchamel, espagnole, veloute, hollandaise, and sauce tomate. In the 1890s, he invented the peach melba and melba toast, in honor of the Australian singer, Nellie Melba.

From our friend xilousuchus evolved the most famous and beloved-by-children extinct species—the dinosaur. When archeologists uncovered the first dino bones, John Updike writes, they wondered “what on the earth Nature was thinking of?” These animals were certainly funny-looking. There were lots of sharp bits and frills around neck bones and wackily positioned teeth; animals’ developing and evolving bodies that would allow them to stay alive during this new throw of the earth’s dice. Those frills were new: they made an ostentatious and intimidating sight for other carnivorous animals. The bodies that used them might not have been all that capable, but that wasn’t the point. “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak,” advised Sun Tzu. Survival on this new earth was work and effort; making smart choices, hiding when you needed to hide, fighting when you needed to fight. If you’ve got frills, smoke ‘em. We really have no idea how long until we’re out.

Just before the First World War began, Escoffier had reached global celebrity status. He was working at Cesar Ritz’s famous Carleton Hotel. He was an exacting, demanding, but respected chef—only the quickest, most precise, and hardest working survived in his kitchens. At the Carleton, a young man named Nguyen Tat Thanh came to the back door of the restaurant’s kitchen, and asked for a job. The sous chef brought him in, watched his knife skills, concentration, and close observation of demonstrations; Escoffier allowed the sous to take him on. Thanh could speak French fluently, but he could also speak English, Russian, three dialects of Chinese, and his native Vietnamese; he had visited far corners of the world, from Bombay to Harlem, New York. He could communicate with anyone, and adapt to the intricate, meticulous cooking that defined Escoffier’s kitchen.

In fact, not only did Thanh adapt, he excelled. Within weeks, Thanh was assigned to pastry, the most difficult and precise job in the kitchen, and, soon after, promoted to assistant pastry chef. A brief but meteoric rise. He worked there a few more months, and then said goodbye.

“You cannot take life and suddenly turn it into one great delight, one ocean of pleasure,” said Isaac Bashevis Singer. It was not so for the dinosaurs, or many of those around them. They would move on, too, in the next big extinction event… and perhaps they should have known, or did know. “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception,” Carl Sagan reminds us. To survive, you must be like the xilousuchus: prepared for any hell you encounter, prepared to sit tight and watch the others breathe themselves to death. And it was this type of thinking—realist, cautious, and quiet, that the young Vietnamese pastry chef would bring back his country, years later. He had read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War a thousand times, and his copy was riddled with his marks and notes. Survival is an art. Only the lucky few accomplish it. True artists are the exception, and not the rule. Not every animal is the xilousuchus, not every chef is Escoffier. The assistant pastry chef later changed his name to Ho Chi Minh—in Vietnamese, the “bringer of light.”

Zana Previti

Zana Previti was born and raised in New England. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Irvine, and her MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho. Her work has been published in The New England Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, RHINO Poetry, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She was recently named the recipient of Poetry International’s 2014 C.P. Cavafy Prize for Poetry and the fall 2016 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. Her first chapbook is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in 2017, and her first novel will be released by the University of West Alabama’s Livingston Press in 2018.