IT MATTERS HOW WE KILL. HOW DO WE TRAVERSE THE DISTANCE BETWEEN ALIVE/ACTIVE/RAW AND DEAD/COOKED? HOW CAN WE RECONSIDER BINARIES SUCH AS INPUT/OUTPUT AND INGREDIENT/WASTE IN TERMS OF CYCLICAL DISTRIBUTION INSTEAD OF A LINEAR TRAJECTORY?
Fetal bovine serum (FBS) is a necessary nutrient media for tissue culture engineering. Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr from the Tissue Culture & Art Project explain that a whole calf is killed solely for the purpose of this serum. Given the reliance on FBS, in vitro meat production cannot claim itself to be innocent in producing ‘cruelty free’ meats. What feeds into the hype is the assumption that technological sins are benign (or somehow accepted as a ‘price to pay’) or that progressive innovations are not exploitative.
Killing others for our own bodies’ sake highlights our anthropocentric narrative around eating. Where and how we draw those lines touches on a multitude of decision-making factors ranging from religious contexts, social ethics, food cultures, financial access, nutrition ideologies, to mood. However, all roads lead to taking life away from a living entity to which death is imminent. What if our ideas about life and death, living and killing were not as linear?
Tissue culture engineering and in vitro meats occupy this semi-living space and further complicate my ideas on the liveliness of food. The Tissue Culture and Art Project set out to explore a “shift in our relation to life itself,” to which, arguably, the corollary would be the shift in our relation to death itself. Kelley writes, “the conjoined activities of killing and eating become central concerns when considering how semi-living entities complicate our understanding of both” (Kelley, p.86). If the rhetoric of probiotics is to consume that which is alive, at what point do ‘live active cultures’ in kefir become part of my intestinal lining? Do they die? Similarly, when I consume raw oysters, at what point does the oyster die? When it meets the hydrochloric acid of my stomach or when it reaches the anaerobic state of my lower gut?
Fermented foods mess with the alive/active/raw categories for food. In the theoretical delineation between living, semi-living, and nonliving foods, one could argue that the “live and active” foods are handled differently than dead foods. Live foods in a commercial setting (e.g. probiotic yogurt) have a shorter lifespan (or shelflife) and require cooler temperatures to prevent premature spoilage. Ferments, though, could also be considered “alive” on two fronts: individual species occupy a foodspace and the entire foodstuff itself remains alive because of it. The thriving collective of bacteria and yeasts in a sourdough starter are alive and allow their carrier—the flour—to remain alive as well. Microbes give life to food which, in turn, gives life back to microbes.
Arguably, these cycles of life-giving cannot continue ad infinitum for substrates will run out. Yeasts, for example, will switch to alcoholic fermentation when sugars are depleted, which will eventually exceed their threshold for existence. This juncture provides an opportunity for other species to enter: molds can invade and feed on the remnants, or humans can enter and provide more feed. In the latter scenario, a mutual exchange of life-giving transpires: microbes give life to food, which give life to human, which give life back to the microbe.
In this interdependent web of life-giving and care, it matters how we handle life, foods, and lively foods. “Eating signals interdependence,” Kelley writes, and she points out that “how we handle nematode matter or yeast matter of chicken matter may be more formative for what we do with and how we think about human matter” as being inherently human (Kelley, p.82). It matters how we handle the matters around us. It matters how we live and how we eat. It matters how we kill, and it matters how we meet. In writing this, I am reminded of Haraway’s chant from Staying with the Trouble:
“It matters what thoughts think thoughts.
It matters what knowledges know knowledges.
It matters what relations relate relations.”
I am equally reminded of her previous work in When Species Meet in her discussion about partial digestion to enable other species to live on. Interspecies entanglements become particularly clear when she discusses eating others: “[t]rying to make a living, critters eat critters but can only partly digest one another” (Haraway, p.31). The partial digestion of others, for still others to digest in part reminds me that eating is not inherently a linear process. Rather, it is a circular economy of nutrients that get recycled from one organism and environment to the next. How can we envision a more human presence amongst this cyclical exchange without assuming its center?
How can I reclaim my own ‘waste’ products in ways that honor this external metabolism and nested ecology? Already, synthetic compounds (called anthropogenics) in human fecal matter pollute and infiltrate wastewater treatments sites, including antibiotics, veterinary pharmaceuticals, and birth control pills. How can I revise my input to account for my output? In many ways, the works of Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen were modeling this idea already with their Pigeon d’Or intervention where pigeons defecate soap in urban metropolises (Cohen and van Balen). Rather than reclaiming waste under the guise of a neoliberal, upcycled mentality, how can I keep the energetic forces of Zoe, or “the generative force of non-human life” in motion (Braidotti, p.203)? Perhaps thinking with the end in mind will curb our reckless habits.
Reframing the linear assumption of alive-kill-dead-eat in terms of circularity leads to questions of human exploitation and hubris. Decentralizing humans from an assumed locus of power becomes necessary, if only to critically approach human relationality and interactivity with regards to food. Jane Bennett, in her onto-story of vibrant matter, frames her posthumanist research as it produces “a fuller range of the nonhuman power circulating around and within human bodies” (Bennett, ix). I, too, search for this “fuller range” of power and possibility because it is more just and, hopefully, more delicious.
Recipes that keep the end in mind
This recipe is an uncooked preparation of kombucha, adapted from a recipe on IceCreamNation (http://www.icecreamnation.org/2011/11/kombucha-sorbet/)
500 mL simple syrup (1:1 water to sucrose)
400 mL kombucha
1 Tbs. lime juice
- If making simple syrup from scratch, bring equal parts water and sugar to a boil. Let cool to room temperature before proceeding.
- Combine the simple syrup, kombucha, and lime juice. If using an ice-cream maker, pour contents into the machine. Else, pour the contents into a shallow and flat dish and let freeze overnight. Once frozen, scrape the surface with a large spoon and transfer the scraped pieces of sorbet/granite into another container.
- Keep cool and consume with 7-10 days.
This recipe is based on the genius of Joshua Pollen, head chef at Blanch and Shock in England, who wanted to make use of the whey by-product from straining labneh. Ever the wordsmith and champion of all things portmanteau, he cheekily calls this whead.
1 c whey (from making “handmade” cheese)
1 c water
½ c lemon juice
½ c honey
- Combine the water and honey in a pot and slowly bring on low heat just until the honey dissolves. Be careful not to let the honey warm past 40oC
- Add the whey. Then, add the lemon juice to taste.
- Using a funnel, pour the contents of the pot into a bottle with an air-tight seal. Seal immediately and wait 4-7 days until fully carbonated.TIP: reserve a small amount of the mead in a re-sealable plastic bottle. When it is fully pressurized and does not ‘give’ when squeezed, the mead is fully carbonated and ready to consume.
- Refrigerate and consume within 1-2 days after opening.