Those who still do not believe there is a God in heaven have not heard the news that hot and sour soup and mushu pork may prevent heart disease. Over the past years, as tragedy and atrocity beset modern man, it has been easy to sympathize with the argument of the nonbelievers: if there is a just and merciful God and He is omnipotent, they say, how come there are so many triglycerides in Italian sausage? Why must a man who is trying to enjoy a simple plate of chopped liver be interrupted constantly by pure-food fanatics, one of whom is almost certainly his own wife, telling him that he is downing the equivalent of ground glass with schmaltz? Why has everything that tastes good been certified a killer? Now, it turns out, everything hasn't. There is a God in Heaven. It is true that he may be Chinese and a bit on the enigmatic side, but He is there.
His messenger is dr. Dale E. Hammerschmidt, a researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School. In the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Hammerschmidt has described research leading to the theory that an ingredient common in certain Szechuan and Mandarin dishes -- an ingredient called mu er to tree ears or tree fungus or black fungus -- may remove fatty tissue that has built up on artery walls. Glory and Hallelujah should be said between bites of spiced Szechuan bean curd with garlic and scallions -- which, as I interpret Dr. Hamerschmidt's findings, is the equivalent of penicillin that happens to taste good.
I have already dispatched a letter about Dr. Hamerschmidt to the Nobel committee. I assume they will be more responsive than they were several years ago when I tried to persuade them to award the Peace Prize to Mrs. Lisa Mosca of Mosca's restaurant in Waggaman, La., for her baked oysters. That year, they give it to Kissinger instead.
In his journal article, Dr. Hammerschmidt wrote that he happened upon his discovery while trying to figure out why a patient's blood wasn't clotting, but I think he was being unduly modest. (Modesty was one of the attributes I mentioned in my letter to the Nobel folks.) The way I figure it, Dr. Hammerschmidt must be a man with more than a passing interest in mushu pork himself. As I imagine what must have happened, Hammerschmidt, an adventurous type, was beginning to push beyond the limits of the chop-suey joints around the campus to a couple of new Szechuan and Hunanese spots -- out on what is usually referred to as the frontiers of science. Some of his more conservative colleagues -- routine swallowers of egg foo yong and chicken chow mein -- were warning him off the best of the Szechuan restaurants merely because a professor of endorinology happened to have keeled over there once or twice from the effects of MSG. Dr. Hammerschmidt, I figure, wanted to show up these pure-food yentas once and for all so he could enjoy his shredded spiced pork with green peppers in peace -- and the rest is medical history. My tip-off was the dish he fed the control group: while his pals were feasting on the Szechuan hot bean curd, the controls were fed sweet and sour pork -- a dreadful glop that is the sort of thing ordered in Chinese restaurants by my friend William Edgett Smith, the man with the Naugahyde palate.
I could hardly wait to bring the news of Dr. Hammerschmidt's discovery to my wife -- who, it should be noted, has occasionally passed remarks that made it more difficult for me to enjoy a plate of chopped chicken liver, particularly if it happens to be my second or third plate. First, on the chance of acquiring the sort of independent confirmation scientists like. I went to Chinatown to see if mu er had any history as a folk medicine. In a supermarket on Mott Street, across from the amusement arcade where one can play tic-tac-toe against a live chicken, I found a package of black fungus imported from China. It said right on the package: "possesses such effect as cleaning gastroenteric organs in human body" -- a Chinese way of saying that a couple of bowls of hot and sour soup will make the inside of your arteries look like the finish on a brand new Pontiac. After pausing on East Broadway for a therapeutic shot of mushu pork, I went home to tell my wife about Hammerschmidt's triumph.
"Black fungus?" she said, making it sound less than appetizing.
"Well, aureomycin is not the sort of word I'd use in a song lyric either," I said. "What we're talking about here is wonder drugs."
"Mmmmm," she said, apparently trying to sound appropriately inscrutable.
"If you're going to bring up that time I told you that barbecue sauce improves liver function," I said, "you should keep in mind that I later admitted the theory might be somewhat premature -- just a bit before all the evidence was in."
"Evidence gathered by a taxi driver in Memphis, as I remember," my wife said.
"I trust I did not detect the sound of elitism in that last remark," I said. "The taxi driver happened to be experienced in the area scientists call clinical application."
"Mmmmm," she said again.
"I assume you read that article I pointed out in The Times showing that the anticholesterol maniacs have been a bit premature themselves," I said, "after they spent years snatching poached eggs out of the mouths of innocent children."
"The way I read that article, there is still some dispute," she said. "Also, I couldn't find any phrase that sounded like "the curative powers of fettucine Alfredo."
I thought of showing her my package of black fungus, but I knew she would just look skeptical -- the way she did when I told her fried clams might improve muscle tone. I began to feel a kinship with the two of us -- facing doubters out there on the frontiers of science. It occured to me, in fact, that Hammerschmidt and I might work together. Our first experiment will be to test the beneficial effects of barbecue sauce -- working with a grant from the Natinal Liver Foundation. The control group will be fed green Jello.