Digesting Wetlands: Cooking and Eating Across Species


Dr. Lindsay Kelley
Lecturer, UNSW Australia Art & Design
Email: l.kelley@unsw.edu.au
Web: http://www.performative.com/
Reference this essay: Kelley, Lindsay. “Digesting Wetlands: Cooking and Eating Across Species.” In Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, no. 1, edited by Lanfranco Aceti, Paul Thomas, and Edward Colless. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press, 2017.
Published Online: May 15, 2017
Published in Print: To Be Announced
ISSN: 1071-4391
ISBN: 978-1-906897-62-8
https://contemporaryarts.mit.edu/pub/digestingwetlands


Abstract

This essay begins with Natalie Jeremijenko’s Cross(x)Species Adventure Club, a series of supper-club meals addressing specific ecological topics including oil spills and multispecies encounter. I read this work alongside histories of molecular gastronomy and evolving theories of the human microbiome to analyze how figuring and imaging science moves from the dinner plate through the digestive system. For Jeremijenko, molecular gastronomy allows for an interventionist environmentalism that may be scaled up to create new wetland environments to better ‘digest’ oil spills. Digestion becomes a way of figuring the landscape and encountering animals, plants, and environmental systems, with molecular gastronomy techniques providing metaphoric and literal frameworks for imagining how bodies and landscapes interrelate. Attention to the visual cultures of the very small often employs language that evokes the very large, with individual human microbiomes described as ‘islands’ and figured as ‘territory’ to be explored. Rather than taking a territorial or colonial approach to the human microbiome, I would suggest that the cloud and metaphors of atmospheric shift, drift, and blooming open up a field of action and intervention where plants and animals converge in our understanding of how our bodies cooperate with a changing population of bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Keywords

Multispecies, microbiome, food, art, molecular gastronomy


LURES: wishing fish well

gin

rosemary

grapefruit juice

tonic

velvet falernum

lime juice

bitters

chitinase

The major source of mercury in our bodies is from fish. These lures were designed as delicious cross species nutrition that is visual and sensually appealing. The hook is there is no hook, but there is chelating agent that when ingested (by fish or human) bind to the bio-accumulated heavy metals and PCB, and allow the organisms to pass these out of their bodies in a complexed and less reactive form. These then bound forms settle into the silt, and are effectively removed bioavailability. Small actions to feed the fish can aggregate significant effect, augment the nutritional resources and improving the health of fish, aquatic ecosystems and humans. [1]

Natalie Jeremijenko, an artist and engineer who works at the intersection of social and ecological systems, asks, “can we rescript our interactions with nature?” [2] Her answer focuses in part on the food we share with animals. Jeremijenko’s Cross(x)Species Adventure Club hosts supper clubs that feature menus designed to promote interaction between animals, plants, and humans. These clubs are a means to explore Jeremijenko’s proposition that environmental remediation begins by addressing the “bio-amplification that happens through the food web.” [3] Cooking and recipe development emerge as scientific practices with implications for ecological wellbeing across species. Consider mercury, and Jeremijenko’s Lures, a recipe and social experiment that she considers to be “the iconic example” of the project. [4] Most of the mercury in human bodies comes from eating fish contaminated by methylmercury. [5] Fish quickly absorb mercury from waterways polluted by human activities like burning coal, but they excrete these metals very slowly. To clear mercury from human and fish bodies, the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club developed lures laced with chitinase, a chelating agent that transforms heavy metals into harmless salts. [6] This approach enfolds an entire ecosystem: the lures are edible for both fish and humans, and if fish can eliminate heavy metals more quickly, the entire food web benefits.

The chitinase lures promote companionship and entanglement. Companion—cum panis—means sharing food together. With these lures, humans and fish share a diet engineered for environmental remediation. Sharing these particular foods promotes an active, interventionist companionship anchored in bodily processes. The lures model food webs and ecosystems to suggest how humans might change the way they act within these systems. Jeremijenko’s recipes alter the composition of human and animal bodies—eating together becomes world-making.

Cross(x)Species Adventure Club has hosted meals in venues around the world. Jeremijenko’s menus include a meal designed for geese and people; cocktails focused on the environmental impact of oil spills; and investigations of water, soil, and terroir. She collaborates with molecular gastronomist Mihir Desai to produce foods with unexpected forms and textures. On her decision to use molecular gastronomy, Jeremijenko remarks that “the complexity of the tastes that people are experiencing makes them open to hearing about these complex systems and processes that they would otherwise not be motivated to hear.” [7] While eating a technologically sophisticated meal like those prepared for Cross(x)Species Adventure Club, we begin to understand ways in which our bodily processes mirror larger processes at work in the world. We see our intestines as wetlands, and our human microbiomes as atmospheres, oceans, and fertile soils. The techno-science of molecular gastronomy and the participatory activity of eating together contribute to the metaphoric and ‘worlding’ capacities of Cross(x)Species Adventure Club menus. Creating change demands new technologies, unexpected combinations, and interspecies alliances. The complexities of molecular gastronomy coupled with the resulting subtle tastes and textures model a sensory, digestive approach to technologies of environmental remediation.

Molecular gastronomy has entered the global culinary imagination from several directions at once. Although many chefs object to the term, preferring alternatives like ‘new cuisine’ or ‘modernist cuisine,’ ‘molecular gastronomy’ has endured as shorthand for a range of research questions and culinary techniques. It was first pioneered in an academic context, but elite restaurants quickly became the public face of the movement. Behind the scenes, molecular gastronomy labs and restaurants receive substantial funding from large food corporations. All of these cultural forms contribute to an expanded notion of how new technologies inform food preparation and what it means to cook. The line between cooking and chemistry becomes porous, and in the case of Jeremijenko’s menus, cooking and chemistry further collapse into ecology and environmentalism. The palate embraces bubbles, foams, and aromatic accompaniments, while the kitchen bench accommodates tools like ultrasound, liquid nitrogen, and syringes.

Physicist Nicholas Kurti and chemist Hervé This coined the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ in 1988 while programming a series of workshops on physics, chemistry, and cooking. [8] This went on to write the first, best-known, and most accessible treatise on molecular gastronomy, Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor. This’s book revisits common processes, from how to hard-boil eggs to how to best cool a cup of coffee, then follows these experiments with sections on the “Physiology of Flavor” (for example, why we feel full, food allergies, and specific flavors and tastes) and “Investigations and Models” (for example, environmental factors in taste perception, and the capacities of yeast). This asserts, “cooking is not the same thing as molecular gastronomy, for craft aims at the production of goods, not of knowledge.” [9] Defending itself as a knowledge-producing enterprise, molecular gastronomy regards “time-honoured maxims, proverbs, old wives’ tales, folk beliefs, and culinary rules” as “millstones round our necks that weigh us down when they are false and wings that carry us aloft when they are true.” [10] Recipes have a low status here, dismissed as “protocols that relegate cooks to the status of mere executors.” [11] For This, “traditional ways are not always best.” [12] A critical eye must be cast on what has come before. We must avoid rote learning in the kitchen and instead evaluate our choices against scientific understandings of the properties of the ingredients at hand.

Molecular gastronomy forgets or deliberately denigrates the women who pioneered chemistry in the kitchen. Nearly all of its top technologist-chefs are men, and molecular gastronomy does little to intervene against the status quo in restaurant kitchens, where women hold only twenty percent of all ‘Chef’ or ‘Head Cook’ positions. [13] Masculine discourse dominates the rhetoric of molecular gastronomy. By rejecting “old wives’ tales,” cookbooks, and recipes, molecular gastronomists devalue associations with women in the kitchen. Anthropologist Sophia Roosth describes how “old wives’ tales,” if scientifically proven, are “rechristened ‘culinary formalisms.’” [14] The laboratory erases the “old wife” and her outmoded speech by deeming her knowledge tenuous and anecdotal before scientifically validating the culinary problem at hand. Once validated, the old wife vanishes; culinary formalisms no longer belong to her, but to the laboratory.

Collaborations like that between Jeremijenko and Desai contribute much-needed complexity and political consciousness to molecular gastronomy discourse. One of the only molecular gastronomy enterprises led by a woman, the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club counters scientific “god tricks” with multispecies creative work that builds on feminist techno-science instead of seeking out and decrying technophobia. [15] Most critically, Cross(x)Species Adventure Club acts with environmental remediation in mind. Aligned with corporate funders, mainstream molecular gastronomy rarely considers or prioritizes the environmental consequences or sustainability of laboratory food-ways. In its corporate-sponsored form, the discipline springs, fully formed, from Donna Haraway’s “everywhere and nowhere” and floats above the concerns about toxicity, pollution, and species extinction that animate Cross(x)Species Adventure Club. [16] Indeed, Cross(x)Species Adventure Club may not be molecular gastronomy at all; the project moves beyond molecular gastronomy, creating a new enterprise that melds science, ecology, and cooking to create politically powerful culinary designs. Yet molecular gastronomy remains critical to the vocabulary and visual culture of the project, and the recipes quote extensively from classic molecular gastronomy techniques.

Cross(x)Species Adventure Club menus do not exist simply to intervene in or politicize molecular gastronomy. Jeremijenko no doubt chose molecular gastronomy in part because its elaborate protocols allow for dishes that register a range of sensory and bio-political concerns. Complex problems merit complex food, and these critical engagements with techno-science animate both the food and politics consumed in the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club. The formal elements of molecular gastronomy are often elegant and sculptural, engaging natural systems in playful ways. These engagements invite questions of scale and reflection, which Jeremijenko and Desai extend into ecological criticism. For example, molecular gastronomy takes endless delight in the egg. With its varied textures and delicate anatomy, the egg becomes the subject of countless experiments and the inspiration for new creations. Hervé This examines every preparation of the egg, from hard-boiled to soufflé, as well as the properties of egg yolk, whites, and membranes.

In their ‘Oil Spill’ meal, Jeremijenko and Desai employ “inverse spherification” to craft an egg yolk from beetroot. The egg’s vitelline membrane separates the yolk from the white, and the membrane must be pierced before the yolk’s liquid center can spill out. Perhaps because it is relatively easy to do at home, ‘inverse spherification’ is one of the most well-known molecular gastronomy techniques. [17] The chemical reaction between calcic gluconolactate and sodium alginate causes a thin membrane (structurally similar to the vitelline membrane) to form around small quantities of liquid. Diners then spoon the spheres into their mouths, where pressure from the tongue and teeth pierces the membrane, producing a gush of flavor. Jeremijenko and Desai call these spheres “terrestrial bubbles,” the inverse of air bubbles underwater, prompting a consideration of “terrestrial versus aquatic environments and where we fit in.” [18] Cross(x)Species Adventure Club begins with agricultural landscapes and creates new, imaginary landscapes, with membranes and ecologies separating, joining, and facilitating encounter with the country we inhabit and digest.

Terrestrial bubbles join meal courses anchored by flavored oils and dishes designed with wetlands in mind. Marshmallow, a wetland plant, mixes with crème de violette in edible cocktails called “wet kisses.” The purple color references violacein, a purple pigment produced by bacteria common in wetland ecosystems. After drinking the cocktail, any frogs you happen to kiss will be inoculated against the deadly chytrid fungus. By way of this imagining and dispersal of wetlands, diners become agents capable of positively impacting the public health of amphibians. Like the chitin lures, wet kisses activate companionships between human and non-human animals in a speculative framework of reciprocity. Kissing gives the frog a human-facilitated life, if not a human form.

As with the lures, the speculative activity of post-cocktail frog kisses enacts what Donna Haraway calls “multispecies cosmopolitics.” Haraway finds a path into Isabelle Stengers’s cosmopolitics by way of the stomach: “Relations in multispecies cosmopolitics work by indigestion and infection, rather than reproduction.” [19] Working across species makes reproduction both less probable and less interesting than viral modes of transmission and cooperation; the chelating lures intercept digestion to infect humans and fish with metal absorbing capacities, while frog kisses simultaneously infect and inoculate. Stengers frames cosmopolitics as a set of obligations:

The term “cosmopolitics” introduces what is neither an activity, nor a negotiation, nor a practice, but the mode in which the problematic copresence of practices may be actualized…It is a form of asymmetrical reciprocal capture that guarantees nothing, authorizes nothing, and cannot be stabilized by any constraint, but through which the two poles of the exchange undergo a transformation. [20]

The moment that a Cross(x)Species Adventure Club participant shares a lure with a fish or kisses a frog, human, frog, and fish experience a condition of copresence and interspecies obligation. Cross(x)Species Adventure Club contains many activities, negotiations, and practices, but “multispecies cosmopolitics” attends to the moment of capture, infection, and resulting indigestion. Kissing the frog and feeding the fish rescript multispecies interaction without turning away from technology; instead of chasing Eden, these modes build on existing complexities. Against conservation, Cross(x)Species Adventure Club recalibrates negotiations between plants, animals, and techno-science.

Digestion becomes a way of figuring the landscape and encountering animals, plants, and environmental systems, with molecular gastronomy techniques providing metaphoric and literal frameworks for imagining how bodies and landscapes interrelate. In the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Jeremijenko elaborated on the technologies of digestion and the difficulties inherent to her stance against conservation:

In terms of oil, one of the big issues in the gulf is that there are many people calling to protect the wetlands from the spill. That’s a very understandable position to take, but I take a completely opposite one, because the only technology we know of that can effectively digest large amounts of petrochemical waste is wetlands. So we don’t need to protect the wetlands—instead, we need to expose the wetlands and also build many more wetlands, and reconstruct the ones we’ve destroyed, in order to deal with this spill. [21]

As with the lures, ‘eating with wetlands’ creates chemical and cultural transformations. Cross(x)Species Adventure Club considers wetland environments as digestive organs, advocating that they be used and amplified rather than preserved or kept apart. The wet kisses do not use actual marshmallow roots, and nor do the marshmallows we buy in the grocery store (which are not marshmallows at all, but are instead made of sugar and gelatin and processed to be puffy and chewy to emulate the texture of whipped marshmallow sap). Instead, wet kisses are made of methyl cellulose, which has been manipulated to resemble marshmallow fluff. Wet kisses simulate a simulation, referencing and recreating wetland plants with synthetic processes. By modeling marshmallows, molecular gastronomy models the recreation of wetlands that Jeremijenko advocates. If we can create a marshmallow in a lab, can we also create a landscape? A planet? Wet kisses propose both an activity and a construction project: the marshmallow transfers amphibian immunity to human companions, and it also represents wetland landscapes that must be amplified and extended.

Imagining wetland environments as digestive organs invites us to invert the metaphor and imagine our digestive systems as landscapes and ecologies. This shift in thinking has already begun, with research into the human microbiome revealing communities of microorganisms working together to perform nearly every physiological process. Often referred to as an “ecology” or an “ecosystem,” the human microbiome has been productively analyzed through the lens of ecological theory. [22] Plants and animals converge in our understanding of how our bodies are colonized by a changing population of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. For example, microorganisms are often referred to as ‘microflora’ or ‘normal flora,’ even though ‘flora’ refers to plant life. While ‘microbiota’ might be more correct, ‘microflora’ evokes the terrestrial landscape metaphor that has proven to be useful in contemplating the massive—if very small-scale—cooperative efforts that allow us to touch, taste, and digest. Attention to the visual cultures of the very small—to “molecular aesthetics”—often employs language that evokes the very large, with individual human microbiomes described as islands and imagined as territory to be explored. [23] The body is mapped like the earth, with digestive systems capturing plants, animals, and humans in a diffuse network. The atmospheric space housing our intestinal flora may be diagnosed, pushed, and materially manipulated. The techno-science mediations made visible by molecular gastronomy provide models of environmental interventions that are capable of diagnosing, pushing, and materially manipulating the atmospheric space of our intestinal flora and larger digestive systems around the planet, such as wetland ecosystems.

When removed from the safe confines of industry-sponsored laboratories, molecular gastronomy facilitates vital—even revolutionary—culinary practices. Given the complexities of food science today, we are constantly eating new technologies, but food technologies often hide in plain sight, seeking both invisibility and familiarity. In its shocking strangeness, molecular gastronomy brings the technologies we are eating into visible and variably palatable forms. This act of making food technologies visible is already provocative, but when coupled with a political sensibility, molecular gastronomy projects like the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club’s lures facilitate new understandings of ecological intervention and material transformations across species.

The familiar scale of the human body connects the very small with the very large. Microbial communities of “invisible earthlings” are in dialogue with ecosystems, continents, and worlds. [24] New textures and flavors work to evolve the palate; human and animal tastes converge, with shared meals destabilizing anthropocentric approaches to food and eating. With Cross(x)Species Adventure Club, molecular gastronomy helps establish culinary practices as scientific ones, using experimental processes to reveal the aesthetic, sensory, and metaphoric capacities of interspecies dining. When we encounter complexity in our food, engage with different companions at the table, and reflect upon our food metaphors, we expose ourselves to complex questions, politics, and actions—ranging from the imperative to make more wetlands, to the inoculation of amphibians against deadly fungi and to simply contemplating the weeping, porous membrane dividing water from air.

References and Notes

[1] Natalie Jeremijenko, The X-Species Adventure Club brochure, http://www.environmentalhealthclinic.net/xooz/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/100721_xspecies-adventureclub.pdf (accessed January 14, 2014).

[2] Dale Dougherty, “Maker: Natalie Jeremijenko,” Make Magazine 2 (2005): 25.

[3] Nicola Twilley, “Cross-Species Dining: An Interview with Natalie Jeremijenko and Mihir Desai,” Edible Geography, October 27, 2010, http://www.ediblegeography.com/cross-species-dining-an-interview-with-natalie-jeremijenko-and-mihir-desai/ (accessed January 14, 2014).

[4] Ibid.

[5] United States Environmental Protection Agency, “How People Are Exposed to Mercury,” http://www.epa.gov/hg/exposure.htm (accessed May 23, 2014).

[6]Chitinase is an effective chelating agent because it is high in nitrogen. For more information on different kinds of chitinase, see Hamid et al., “Chitinases: An Update,” Journal of Pharmacy and Bioallied Sciences 5, no. 1 (Jan.-Mar., 2013): 21-29.

[7] Twilley, “Cross-Species Dining: An Interview with Natalie Jeremijenko and Mihir Desai.”

[8] Hervé This, Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2012), 1.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] Ibid., 12.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] Ibid., 103.

[13] More women in the United States are CEOs (25%) than chefs. Department of Labor, Women’s Division, “Nontraditional Occupations for Women in 2009,” http://www.dol.gov/wb/factsheets/nontra2009.htm (accessed January 14, 2014).

[14] Sophia Roosth, “Of Foams and Formalisms: Scientific Expertise and Craft Practice in Molecular Gastronomy,” American Anthropologist 115, no.1 (2013): 4-16.

[15] In her essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives,” Donna Haraway counters totalizing views from above by choosing to see differently, from below, from one’s situation: “Relativism and totalization are both ‘god-tricks’ promising vision from everywhere and nowhere equally and fully, common myths in rhetorics surrounding Science.” Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York, NY: Routledge, 1991), 191.

[16] Ibid.

[17] As an indicator of its populist potential, a 2008 Make Magazine molecular gastronomy tutorial featured inverse spherification. See Michael Zbyszynski, “Molecular Gastronomy: Spherify Your Food for a New Culinary Experience” Make Magazine 14 (2008): 149-152.

[18]Twilley, “Cross-Species Dining: An Interview with Natalie Jeremijenko and Mihir Desai.”

[19] Donna Haraway, “Multispecies Cosmopolitics: Staying with the Trouble,” 2013 Distinguished Lecture, Arizona State University, March 5, 2013.

[20] Isabel Stengers, Cosmopolitics II (Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press, 2011), 371-372.

[21] Twilley, “Cross-Species Dining: An Interview with Natalie Jeremijenko and Mihir Desai.”

[22] E.K. Costello et al., “The Application of Ecological Theory Toward an Understanding of the Human Microbiome,” Science 336, no. 6086 (2012): 1255-62.

[23] See Molecular Aesthetics, ed. Peter Weibel and Ljiljana Fruk (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), Paul Thomas, Nanoart: The Immateriality of Art (Chicago: Intellect, 2013), and a range of essays, including Tami Spector, “Nanoaesthetics: From the Molecular to the Machine,” Representations 117, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 1-29.

[24] Beatriz da Costa’s work on microbial life included a series of exhibitions that proposed a closer reading of those “members of the lived non-human worlds that we are least likely to recognize as social actors within urban environments.” Beatriz da Costa, “Invisible Earthlings: 2008-2009,” http://nideffer.net/shaniweb/invisible.php(accessed May 26, 2014).

Acknowledgments

An essay that elaborates on and extends this conference paper will appear in Sylvia Bottinelli and Margherita D’Ayala, eds., The Taste of Art: Food as Counterculture in Contemporary Practices (forthcoming from University of Arkansas Press). Thank you to the anonymous reviewers who provided feedback on this paper, as well as to Sylvia Bottinelli and Margherita D’Ayala for their extensive feedback on the larger paper that eventually unfolded from this presentation. Thank you also to Laura Fisher, Paul Thomas, and all the organizers of the Transdisciplinary Image conference.

Author Biography

Working in the kitchen, Lindsay Kelley’s art practice and scholarship explore the taste of new technologies. Her first book, Bioart Kitchen: Art, Feminism and Technoscience, emerges from her work at the University of California, Santa Cruz (PhD in the History of Consciousness and MFA in Digital Art and New Media). Kelley is a lecturer at UNSW Art & Design and an International Research Fellow at the Center for Fine Art Research, Birmingham City University as well as a Co-Investigator with the KIAS funded Research­-Creation and Social Justice CoLABoratory: Arts and the Anthropocene (University of Alberta, Canada).