HOW DO WE WORK WITH—NOT ON—MICROBES? HOW DO WE BLUR THE LINES BETWEEN KITCHEN/SCIENTIFIC LABORATORY AND BETWEEN HUMAN/NONHUMAN TO CULTIVATE A PARTICIPATORY, RELATIONAL SELF?
Last summer, I worked as a stagier at a Michelin-star restaurant and found myself picking thyme leaves with tweezers and scrubbing stainless steel countertops every 8 hours. I also plated desserts using liquid nitrogen, whose tank sat unassumingly in the corner of the back kitchen. This same liquid nitrogen, in my chemistry days, was a hands-off matter. I could not and would never be granted clearance to access this substance even as an independent researcher. Same ingredient, but liquid nitrogen epitomizes the notion of different rules apply in different spaces.
How do spaces affect the material engagement within their assemblages? What are the regulatory bodies (beyond bureaucratic and legal boundaries) and rituals that engage the space? How do spaces impact the processes of knowledge production or the types of knowledges produced? Building on the notion that laboratory and kitchen spaces are sites for knowledge production, working in these spaces can highlight and problematize existing assumptions related to food safety, biosafety, and edibility. In my own investigations of cooking, the laboratory and kitchen spaces became one for me.
Given their overlaps and discrepancies, kitchens and labs emerge as fruitful spaces for performance. In both arenas, it is difficult to separate the performative elements that comprise the assemblage: lab coat and chefs coat protect and signify, stainless steel work benches are cleaned frequently and ritualistically, extraction vents and exhaust fans control air flow, and everything is labeled in permanent marker.
Lab coat / Chef’s coat
Protocol / Recipe
Sterilize / Sanitize
Ethanol / Phosphoric acid
Biosafety / Food Safety
Decontamination / Deep clean
Human control plays out in terms of aseptic techniques and proper sanitation. Both obliterate any nonhuman traces with heavy-handed use of cleaning agents; else, the assumption is that contaminants run amuck, invisible to the naked eye until its manifestations become visible and too late to contain. At the same time that borders and boundaries are constructed around these spaces, those who work within these spaces are often the first to cut corners. What kitchen hasn’t scurried to hide contraband fermentation projects at the visitation of a public health official? What lab hasn’t similarly scurried at the announcement of a visitation from the health and safety official?
These spaces locate the human researcher at the center of scientific and culinary investigation with the entire periphery serving to keep contaminants to a minimum. Both spaces define contaminants as unwanted or unintended species in spaces demarcated as safe (for humans). Kitchens, with their human audience, add another layer to this definition whereby contaminated objects become inedible or potentially inedible at the risk of endangering their (human) patrons. So the logic goes in kitchens and labs: what happens in the space stays in the space unless it is deemed safe to deliver. In both iterations, the spatial separation between worker and worked-on (i.e. between subject and object) reinforces anthropocentric leanings that privilege the human researcher.
Where is the nuance in this approach to containment? How can we tread lightly? How do we work with, not on, microbes? How can we create safe spaces and incubate collaborative mindsets? How can we situate ourselves, in the Harawayian sense, reflexively in these spaces for knowledge production? I propose starting with a personal stamp on food. Like a signature dish, this is a piece of me that I wish to share in a moment of anonymous intimacy.
Recipes using m.e.
plin with “handmade” cheese filling
adapted from course handbook of HFHM275: Food Production Systems, California State University, Long Beach (USA).
1 L whole milk (or combination of reduced fat milk of cream)
1 tsp. liquid rennet
½ tsp. salt
- Bring the milk to 80oC and let cool to body temperature (~37oC) with the pot still lidded. This will prevent any opportunistic microbes from entering the milk.
- Place your hand inside the milk to inoculate it with the bacteria on your hands. Transfer the milk to jars small enough to fit inside a dehydrator or incubator.
- Incubate for 6-12 hours. Alternately, let the milk stand overnight (12 hours) at room temperature (between 15-25oC).
- Smell the milk before proceeding. If there are any “off” odors, discard and restart.
- Pour all of the cultured milk back into the pot. Turn on medium heat.
- When the milk reaches 60oC, stir in the salt and rennet. Do not stir; let the enzymes in the rennet begin to work on the milk proteins undisturbed.
- After 20-30 minutes, the milk proteins should begin to coagulate. Using a small knife, cut through the coagulating milk in the form of a grid. The more slices you make, the smaller your curd will be and the firmer the cheese you will have in the end. Fewer slices will yield a softer, stretchier cheese.
- After another 20-30 minutes, you should start to see the whey (yellowish liquid) begin to separate from the milk curds. Drain the milk curds into a bowl lined with cheese cloth or a clean cotton towel. Let the whey drain naturally by the force of gravity, preferably overnight. If under time constraints, squeeze the cheese cloth or microwave the cheese ball in 10 second increments to release the liquid.
- Refrigerate and consume within 3-5 days.
plin with “handmade” cheese filling
adapted from Castello di Verduno and William’s Sonoma “PASTA” Cookbook
275 g all purpose flour
drizzle olive oil
- Sift the flour onto a clean work surface and create a well in the center.
- Crack the two eggs into the crater, splash the olive oil, and slowly work the liquid ingredients in a circular motion to gradually incorporate all of the flour.
- Knead the pasta dough until the gluten develops and the dough bounces back upon poking.
- Let the pasta dough rest for at least 15 minutes but no more then 24 hours.
- On a floured work surface, roll out the dough to desired thickness using a pasta machine. Work incrementally so that the pasta dough does not dry out and become brittle.
- Season the cheese as desired and transfer to a piping bag or plastic bag. Trim the tip and pipe less than a teaspoon of cheese filling onto the pasta sheets. Space the cheese mounds at 1cm-2cm apart.
- With water, gently wet the edge of the pasta sheets. This will act as glue for the next sections. Fold the cheese side of the pasta sheet onto the free side of the pasta sheet.
- Gently press around the cheese mounds so that the two sheets of pasta stick. In between each mound, pinch the pasta upward. “Plin” is a colloquial and provincial word “to pinch.”
- Using a ravioli cutter to trim off the excess pasta on the free side.
- Take the ravioli cutter and cut through the upward folds you pinched by hand. This will seal off the stuffed pasta and create a little pocket (for sauce).
- Boil in salted water until they float to the surface. This should take 1-3 minutes.
- Drain on a towel and serve with brown butter and sage or simply on its own.
- Consume immediately; these do not store well.