Nested bodies and ‘the body multiple’ challenge the historically dominant assumption that we are cleanly separated from microbes. Moving across molecular and global scales, various kinds of bodies interact in complex ways that reframe human primacy. In this framework, human bodies are no longer assumed to be pure, bound, and exceptional but rather hybrid, porous, and collaborative. Anthropocentrism, then, must be critically examined if we are to speculate plural and just futures that consider the wellbeing of all bodies.
Challenging this humanist onto-story becomes particularly salient in how we eat. The everyday eater is often framed atop the proverbial food chain; yet, how quickly we are cast to the bottom of that chain when we interact with other living beings (like sharks or E.coli O157:H7), the semi-living (like viruses or undercooked mussels), and the undead (like BPA plastics or radioactive isotopes).
We are not separate —indeed, we never have been separated—from microbes. While some trans-disciplinary researchers argue that we are more microbe than human (Savage, Parisi), others suggest that humanity owes its very existence to bacterial tenacity (Margulis, De Landa). Another framing of human-microbial relationships views microbes as “companion species” with whom we engage in “collaborative survival” and symbiotically coevolve (Haraway, Bates, Tsing, Katz). Though, not all researchers wax poetic about the human-microbe relationship. In light of recent advances in biotechnology, researchers from the life sciences have abstracted the concept of microbiomes to—once again—separate and isolate microbiota from humans (Ursell, NIH). This project roots itself in a less definitive, more open ontological understanding that we are inextricably entangled with microbes and, as a result, the term “we” encompasses more than just humanness. We have been and will continue interacting with these invisible mess-mates independent of human volition. Given our co-evolution, then, how can we hold ourselves accountable to these other bodies and imagine a more entangled future?
The delineation of microbes and humans is most pronounced in the culinary realm—second, perhaps, to the medical sphere—in that microbes are often castigated as opportunistic pathogens who must be regularly and methodically sanitized out of the kitchen. Chefs deploy microbes almost exclusively as tools for processes of culinary transformation, such as in the conversion of sugars to alcohol or alcohol to vinegar. Recently, other hydrolytic reactions have been garnering the interest of flavor scientists to break down macromolecules like complex carbohydrates and animal proteins to cook up intriguing flavors. At the “fermentation bunker” of world renowned restaurant Noma, for example, proteolytic enzymes from the fungus Aspergillus oryzae break down the likes of peas, mackerel, and pig’s blood to yield umami-packed sauces similar to garum made in Roman times. Here and elsewhere, microbes serve a utilitarian function; they are stanchioned off as processing units and made invisible from the final culinary product.
Although microbes as molecular workhorses are normalized into historical and traditional food rituals, microbes as ingredient remains novel, underexplored, or altogether ignored. Recent iterations of microbes-as-ingredients seem to generate disgust as seen in audience reactions to “hand-cheese” (Ginsberg), “vagina-bread” (Bates, Stavvers), and “wound bread” (McGee). Disgust may originate from two possible explanations: techno- xenophobic yuck-factor towards an impure Other/Unknown or the too-close-a-kin to be considered separate foodstuff. The former reifies a combination of human exceptionalism and the notion that other species carry subhuman status. Whereas the former views microbes as distant and lower, the latter perspective upholds a more lateral understanding of shared kinship. As food writer Jonah Campbell articulates, discomfort might derive from a “sense of dangerous and unsettling proximity, a combination that is somehow ‘too close for comfort’” related to cannibalism where “you should not eat someone/something that is so close to you that it is almost you” (Campbell, p.170-171). Under which circumstances do we consider microbes as Other or as kin? This project probes at this seeming contradiction between divorce and dependence, between our inherent reliance on microbes for food security and the boundaries we construct around microbial food production.
Again, how can we imagine a more entangled set of eating and cooking practices that honor and collaborate with our supposed kin?
Methodology and Question
What is the potential of microbes as food ingredients? How can these boundaries between human and microbe be challenged in ways that use the hands-on practice as a viable research methodology? How can in situ modalities inside scientific laboratories and kitchens elucidate how these barriers remain? As cook and scientist, I actively investigate this “collapse between [laboratory] research objectives and culinary objectives” as it applies to everyday cookery for the everyday eater (Kelley). This book occupies the space between laboratory and kitchen, between the material and the semiotic, between what is edible and what is foul. By occupying this in between space, my hopes are to literally ‘embed’ myself in sites of food production and question the liveliness of food from the inside.
Paralleling the French idiom that references fermented foods as ni cru, ni cuit, these in-between spaces characterize a series of complex relationships between humans and microbes (Frédéric). Fermented foods are neither raw nor cooked, neither human-made nor animal in origin; and, after consuming them, they become neither part of our self nor remain entirely other when they occupy the ebb and flow of our intestinal lining. They are alive but in a way that complicates our anthropocentric understanding of intention and volition. Their complexity has generated a renewed interest in artisans and scholars alike, often framing research questions in terms of food security, flavor development, and edible innovations.
What is, then, the delicious potential of microbes as food ingredients? Rather than dwell in the realm of the abject, I align my research-creation with the discourse of deliciousness. Research-creation allows for iterative exploration instead of working towards a finite goal. The focus on process remains reflexive and continually informs and reforms research questions. Research-creation, thus, combines theory with praxis in a recursive fashion. In pursuit of deliciousness, this particular research-creation combines recipe-testing, sensory analysis, and theoretical conceptualizing by thinking in and through material practice. To food philosopher Lisa Heldke’s notion of “mentally-manual” activities for theorizing, for example, I would add the material, the gustatory, and the spatial surroundings.
Building on the work of Josh Evans, my objectives are in “further diversifying the range of foods available to us” in order to tease out the aesthetics and sensory experience that inform the politics of taste (Evans, p.81). Furthermore, the nature of exploring the delicious potential of a food-object tugs at the ethical fabric of why we cook which ingredients for whom. My aim is to challenge that which we consider to be edible/inedible or self/other and complexify the notion of eating other bodies. Perhaps, then, we can begin to situate other objects (traditionally excluded from the food debate) in terms of their edibility.
Biosafety, Food Safety and Spaces
This project intentionally frames food-experiments in terms of edibility and aims to reframe microbes as “food-objects” not just “lab products” in the same way Kathy High reframes rats as “art objects” (High). Regardless of feasibility, the starting assumption was to explore food intended for ingestion without dis-ease or discomfort, and safety measures were rigorously upheld accordingly.
Based on the idea that—cell for cell—we are more microbial than cellular, I included parts of my body as ingredients in this project, using me as a human-microbe-complex. I wanted to see microbes as legitimate food ingredients but remain in the realm of food neutrality. As reflected in the choice to use bacteria on my hands, for example, I used a part of my body that was considered the least offensive, which, unsurprisingly, tend to be areas that are the most public and social in terms of handshakes. Rather than incite shock or mobilize disgust, the premise of this project was an a priori approach to considering microbes as a legitimate foodstuff. As a result, I steered clear from effluent (e.g. mucous, saliva, secretions) or shed (e.g. hair, nails, skin) biophysical matter.
After consultations with the Concordia Biosafety Officer, Frédéric Guilhem, my original attempt at serving these foods were met with polite but understandable suspicion. In effect, I was asked to prove that no additional microbe—other than my target microbe—would be cultivated and used in cooking. Thus, the issue became one of technique instead of intention: how can I isolate and propagate only my target microbe? However, working with microbes is a bit of a misnomer; as Thacker mentions, I can only manipulate the conditions (Thacker). I cannot work directly on microbes; I can only create favorable environments for strains I wish to propagate. A nutrient agar plate enables any microbe to grow; so, how was I to ensure my dining guests that this foodstuff was free of any contamination?
Even the notion of contamination and containment becomes problematic across kitchens and laboratories. My project straddles this very divide between food safety and biosafety. Biosafety deals with containment (containing what is assumed to be harmful), food safety is about proper delivery (of what is presumed to be non-pathogenic). Both deal with ‘contamination’ differently according to their respective protocols and regulations, however they also share an uncanny similarity. Both presume the human body to be pure against an opportunistic (or worse, pathogenic) microbial entity. These issues are explored further in Chapter 2 in which I compare kitchens to scientific laboratory spaces and question the role and intention of a human researcher in these spaces.
Chapters 3 and 4 speculate who and what we could eat in an imagined future that decentralizes the human subject. Chapter 3 discusses alternatives to meat consumption and addresses the often off-putting texture and mouthfeel of meat substitutes. I propose a shift in terminology as well as a change in approach towards meat ideology: must everything be meat-ed and framed in terms of meat consumption? Further, working with microbes in a culinary capacity offers insights on how to cook while ‘treading lightly’ within nested ecologies. Here, I included some non-microbial food recipes to lend credibility towards food possibilities that do not conflate meat and protein. (For example, I use the prefix extra- in “extra-protein jerky” to mean ‘outside of’ the normalized association of protein as meat). While completely collapsing the hegemony of meat may not be possible (as I, too, am guilty of framing my recipes here as meat-centric schnitzels and tartares), this chapter explores other proteins and other ways of preparing them.
Chapter 4 reframes the traditional kill-and-conquer rhetoric of cooking and eating to suggest a more circular exchange of nutrients and energy. This necessitates that we reexamine how we think of waste and how we categorically overlook its latency. Cooking and eating starter cultures of microbes often means consuming microbes with their waste products, a peculiar phenomenon we do not normally encounter when considering other food ingredients. Like their human counterparts, microbial waste products are often acidic and bitter, which are two taste sensations associated with innate taste aversion (Drewnowski and Gomez-Carneros, Chen et. al.). Coaxing deliciousness out of sour and bitter ingredients was challenging in ways that keep this project ongoing. Sourdough starter, for example, is best baked for the sugars undergoing the Maillard reaction complement the sour/bitter of the starter much like sweets complement the sour/bitter of coffee. (It is not surprising, then, that Italian food culture does not use pasta madre or sourdough starter for their pasta dishes.)
If anything, this project more an open-ended question than a conclusive statement on consuming microbes as the collapsing of binaries makes both messes and opportunities for new ideas to emerge. For example, the question remains that if acids are the oxidative end-of-the-line destination for converting sugars to alcohol and alcohol to organic acids, how can organic acids be converted back to sugars? How can these compounds be reduced in terms of edibility? What about scalability and access? Who will this experimental cookbook reach and how will it engage the scientist/cook hybrid? These questions and many more remain.