Ghost Food

Artists Miriam Simun, of Human Cheese fame, and Miriam Songster, whose olfactory works have included a reconstruction of a balm found during the excavation of Cleopatra’s perfume laboratory, are collaborating on a new project: GhostFood.

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IMAGE: GhostFood branding refers to the three ecosystems from which the three menu items originate: ocean, grasslands, and rainforest.

From a street-parked GhostFood truck, Simun and Songster and their team of trained staff will be serving a menu of three items, each of which conjures up a future dining experience for a food whose supply is currently threatened by climate change. The three items on offer — cod, chocolate, and peanut butter — come from or are species that “may very well soon not be available to eat,” Simun explains. With the help of a wearable smell-dispensing device and an edible textural analogue, GhostFood truck customers will experience a simulation of a future phantom food.

“We’re going to serve the ‘ghost-cod’ deep fried,” explains Songster, “and we’ll use a vegan fish substitute made from climate-change resilient ingredients.” Combined with a prosthetic device for delivering its lost flavour, the experience is designed to offer “a simulation of how you might experience that food once it’s no longer available,” adds Simun.

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IMAGE: Cod roe, via the LarvalBase Photo Archive.

Beyond over-fishing, cod’s potential future as an ocean ghost is the result of the mass drowning of its babies: cod spawn by releasing millions of eggs, and, thanks to climate-changed seawater salinity levels, those eggs are increasingly likely to sink rather than float. Meanwhile, the peanut, GhostFood’s grasslands representative, is under threat from a variety of different climate change-induced conditions, Simun explains:

If it’s too dry, flowers don’t bloom as well. The soil has to be the correct consistency, because peanuts grow in the ground and in order for the harvest to happen you need to be able to pull them out and for the peanuts to stay on the root but come out of the ground.

The third challenge is that if winters are shorter, the peanuts start to get this mould, which is fine for them but toxic to humans. That’s interesting, in that it’s not necessarily that there are no more peanuts, but maybe they’re not for human consumption any more. The species is OK, we just can’t use it in the way that we’re used to.

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IMAGE: Aflatoxin growing on a peanut, via the American Phytopathological Society.

Chocolate, which many people are horrified to hear is already suffering supply shifts and shortages as a result of climate change, is a similarly nuanced story. Drought, pest and disease increases, and the changing temperature of the topsoil all make cacao trees harder to grow and their harvests smaller.

In West Africa, the source of half the world’s chocolate, there’s an additional wrinkle: the growing regions will need to migrate upwards in elevation to stay productive, which means more deforestation, which then further exacerbates climate change. It’s possible to imagine a future in which consumers or producers or both decide that protecting the remaining rainforest ecosystems is more important than cheap chocolate — “which would be a big fight,” Songster laughs, “but speculating about those kind of sacrifices and shifts in our relationship with a species is part of the point.”

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IMAGE: Cacao pods, via.

The project, which was commissioned by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for Marfa Dialogues/NY as part of a series of installations and events looking at climate change through the lens of the art and science, is clearly intended to provoke dialogue rather than present certainties. According to Simun:

We’re not interested in scaremongering, and making people panic and tear their hair out about the end of chocolate. We don’t have a climate change education agenda, although inevitably we’ll end up raising awareness. Rather, we’re extrapolating a possible future, given current trends, and then exploring how we might respond it and what that might mean.

Part of that conversation will, the two Miriams hope, explore the way our relationship with a species as food tends to blind us to the fact that these plants and animals have their own places and paths in the world, the loss of which means more than just a gap on grocery store shelves.

Another, equally important discussion the dining experience is designed to inspire is about the silver linings and losses embedded in our possible technological responses to a climate-changed diet — which is where the olfactory headgear comes in.

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IMAGE: Some of Miriam Simun’s very early sketches of the device: “I would ride around on the subway drawing different people, and then sketch the GhostFood device on their face. in part to have in mind that this extension would need to accommodate all the very different shapes of faces that exist (many of which can be found on the New York Subway),” she explained.

Based on sketches by Simun, this smell delivery device is a 3D-printed plastic headset that a user will wear like glasses, anchored by their ears and resting on the bridge of their nose. A scent pod with a changeable wick dangles out on a wire from the bridge, hanging more or less directly in front of the nose of the GhostFood truck diner.

The device, which also has to be strong enough to stand up to repeated sanitisation between users, is designed to deliberately draw attention to the artificial nature of the simulation, while also offering a convincing and excitingly novel way to combine textural substrates and aromas into new food experiences. Simun explains:

When I was working on it, I was looking a lot at the rituals we have around eating and the devices that we use around it. I was reading all about the history of forks, which is actually really interesting.

Then I was also thinking about how we’re starting to augment our abilities through all these different kinds of wearable technology, and also about insects that use their antennas to smell and navigate their way through the world. It was inspired by some combination of all of those things.

Songster and Simun worked with major flavour and fragrance company Takasago (which boasts that it “particularly excels in the category of corn flavors”) to develop a scent that, when added to the existing flavour of the ghost food analogue, will invoke the sensory profiles of fried cod, peanut butter, and a chocolate brownie.

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IMAGE: GhostFood grasslands branding.

“The entire thing is something of a physiological experiment,” admits Songster, because flavour experience is usually largely created by retronasal olfaction, which takes place via a slightly different channel to smells that we sample through our nostrils. The flavour and fragrance units of Takasago had to work together to tackle the challenge.

This element of technological innovation to reconstruct lost “natural” flavours is central to the project, explains Simun, quoting Marshall McLuhan: “every extension is [also] an amputation.”

We use technology to extend our abilities and then also take the place of things, so you lose something and you gain something. It goes both ways.

In other words, the experience of GhostFood is not a perfect emulation of what it’s like to eat peanut butter — that, in Simun and Songster’s imagined future, is gone forever. What has replaced it is something new: better in some ways (for example, allergy-sufferers can happily enjoy the oil- and starch-based analogue and its associated scent) and, no doubt, worse in others, but, above all, different. A dire situation, and also a magical new experience, in one tasty mouthful.

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IMAGE: A rendering of the GhostFood headset.

“That’s progress, right?” says Simun. “Progress is such a complicated thing. It’s so easy to reduce things to “good,” “bad,” “disaster,” “solution,” and so on. But the situations we face are a really complex web of many different emotional, physical, personal, cultural, and ecological ideas and forces all woven together and the way we deal with them is never going to be wholly positive or wholly negative. Coming to terms with that is somehow quite important.”

The very idea of GhostFood is thrilling, resonating on so many levels: the poetic ephemerality of flavour in the moment and its Proustian longevity in memory; the culinary potential of the de-extinction movement (Simun “would love for Ghost Food to serve dinosaur, if any synthetic biologists want to collaborate on that!”); shifting cross-species relationships; and even the ways that our senses combine to create flavour perception.

You can sample GhostFood at its premiere at Pop Up Place, a benefit launch party for DesignPhiladelphia 2013, on the evening of October 9, as well as in Newark, New Jersey, and New York City later in the month.

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Squaring the Circle


 

VIDEO: CROPS, Gerco de Ruijter, 2012.

Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter’s stop-motion film, CROPS (previously featured on BLDGBLOG), cycles through a seemingly endless sequence of centre pivot-irrigation crop circles, as seen by satellite.

As BLDGBLOG notes, as the stills succeed each other, their flickering variations in crop colour, furrow frequency, and pivot position occasionally seem to “promise a strange new form of time-keeping, with the irrigation equipment itself ticking like a stopwatch,” and at other times look more like “a record spinning wildly on its platter.”

Each circular plot is shown at the same size, cropped to fill the square frame — the fallow corners marking the difference between the economic logic of irrigation technology and the grid structure imposed on the landscape by the U.S. survey.

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IMAGE: U.S. Bureau of Land Management, via Wikipedia.

These overlooked corners make up a not insubstantial percentage of a farmer’s available land. On a typical 160 acre “quarter section” in the American mid- and southwest, tessellating pivot circles will leave up to 24 acres, or 15 percent of each field, thirsty.

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IMAGE: Pivet [sic] Irrigation near the One Hundred Circle Farm and the McNary Dam on the Columbia River, Washington, Emmet Gowin, 1991.

The question of wasted corners is addressed in this fascinating oral history of Robert Daugherty, the farm manufacturer who bought Frank Zybach’s 1952 patent for the first centre-pivot irrigation machine and made the technology work at a commercial scale:

Talk to a farmer about his square 160 acre field and we want to put a circle in it, [he says,] “What are we going to do about the corners?” Well, we can’t do anything about the corners.

That was in the beginning. Today we can certainly solve that problem because we have the means of putting an attachment on the end of a typical system. It will swing out and retract as the system goes around so that the corners are covered.

Well, the problem with that is that arm that swings out and all the equipment that goes with it is quite expensive. So, farmers don’t generally buy those unless they are growing valuable crops. And some crops like potatoes, as an example, where you’re talking somewhere between $2- and $3,000 per acre. Then, it makes sense to put on a corner system.

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IMAGE: Frank Zybach’s original patent drawing.

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IMAGE: Bob Daugherty’s company, Valmont Industries, Inc., has offered a corner system since the 1970s.

User feedback aired in online farming discussions, such as AgTalk or The Combine Forum, seems to concur: the circle has yet to be satisfactorily squared. Corner swing arms are expensive, in part because they follow a low-voltage wire that has to be be buried around the entire perimeter of the field, and they are also significantly less reliable. The result is a delicate equation that balances land value, potential yield without irrigation, water availability, and crop prices to determine whether the corners are worth the hassle of a corner swing system or not.

Mathematics offers another possible solution: Farey-Ford circle packing, a tessellation technique that reportedly has “many interesting properties” in fields as abstruse as hyperbolic non-euclidean geometry and number theory. In agricultural terms, this translates to: “Put a small pivot in the corners, you will be happier and will have time to take the kids fishing instead of working on the corner arm,” according to “spudz52,” a farmer in St. Anthony, Idaho, commenting on an AgTalk thread.

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IMAGE: Farey-Ford circle packing via the Illinois Geometry Lab.

Elsewhere, a Utah farm family has found a niche leasing corners from their neighbours to grow less thirsty crops or graze cattle. Hay & Forage Grower reports on the Bunderson siblings, “Corner Kings of the Southwest,” who have built a larger-than-average farm entirely out of discontinuous pivot discards:

Since 2005, the Bundersons have been leasing 20 corners on 10 pivot circles from a local crop farmer to grow alfalfa and alfalfa-grass hay. The corners vary in size from eight to 10 acres. In all, the Bundersons work 190 acres spread out over a four- to five-mile radius.

And, increasingly, ecologists are preaching the potential of pivot corners. In a simplified landscape of monoculture crop circles, the corners can restore complexity: left as native perennial grassland or managed as early successional habitat, these concave triangles can provide valuable habitat for bees, birds, and predatory insects to support crop pollination and natural pest control. Sewn together across an agricultural landscape, the corners can even offer movement corridors for migrating species.

Perhaps pivot corners could become the SETI@Home of agricultural biodiversity: the large-scale, distributed provision of ecosystem services, humming quietly away in the leftover spaces of industrial crop production.

UPDATE: After reading this post, deRuijter went back through his archive of Google Earth images, looking for the strange pivot circles he had previously discarded because “the circles were just too big and they seemed squeezed from the sides.”

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On some, you can actually see the corner swing arm, following its wire track to extend the circle.

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De Ruitjer even found an example of “circle packing”: smaller pivots, filling in between the larger plots:

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But these fixes are the exception, rather than the rule. Writing on his blog, de Ruijter confesses he is as surprised by the quantity of corner land left over as I was: “For me, living in the Netherlands, this is hard to understand. A Dutch farmer will do anything to use every percentage of the land he owns.”

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The Lost Sausages of World War I

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IMAGE: Graf Zeppelin, USC Digital Archive, California Historical Society: TICOR/Pierce, CHS-8436.

While researching Zeppelins — the enormous hydrogen-filled airships invented in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century and used to bomb Britain during the First World War — Cambridge University engineer Dr. Hugh Hunt stumbled across their little-known culinary implications. As The Guardian puts it:

With the guts from more than 250,000 cows needed to produce the bags that held the hydrogen gas in each Zeppelin, the German war machine had to choose between long-range bombing and wurst. It chose the former.

The result was a ban on sausage-making in Germany and German-occupied territories. A report on balloon fabrics, prepared by Captain L. Chollet for the U.S. National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1992, described the collection of cow guts during the war as “very systematic.”

Each butcher was required to deliver the ones from the animals he killed. Agents exercised strict control in Austria, Poland and northern France, where it was forbidden to make sausages.

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IMAGE: Beef casings, via.

Instead of encasing seasoned pork, the cow’s intestines were carefully separated out, washed, and the outer membrane peeled away. A contemporary book conservator attempting to recreate the process today noted the olfactory unpleasantness of the job, warning that he “would recommend to anyone wanting to duplicate this work, that they lay in a supply of clove oil or Lysol spray disinfectant as well as a good tight-fitting mask with fresh filters.”

After being washed in alkaline solution and stretched dry, the resulting parchment-like material is called “goldbeater’s skin,” because it was traditionally used to sandwich a sheet of gold in order to beat it down to gold leaf, just 1 micron thin.

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IMAGE: (left) Goldbeaters’ skin. Image courtesy of Talas bookbinders’ and conservation supplies, New York, via the V&A online journal. (right) From the building of the airship “Bodensee” in 1919. The empty gas bags are hanging from the frame in the hull of the airship. Photo: Archiv der Luftschiff-bau Zeppelin GmbH. Via Post & Tele Museum.

Although the German government experimented with fashioning airship gasbags from rubberised materials, they could not make the seal between sheets tight enough to contain hydrogen atoms (the lightest element in the world, with only one particle).

Meanwhile, sheets of goldbeater’s skin, if overlaid and wetted, fuse together as they dry. The resulting fabric is all but impermeable: Chollet’s technical report claims that the German goldbeater gasbags, had, “for a weight of 130 to 150 g per sq. m, a tightness permitting the loss of only a few litres of hydrogen per sq. m in 24 hours, under a pressure of 30 mm of water.”

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IMAGE: World War I recruitment poster showing a Zeppelin above London, via the Library of Congress.

Each silvery ship floating through the air represented up to 33 million potential sausage casings, sacrificed to the Kaiser’s nationalist cause. And thus the dawn of aerial bombardment — and, with it, the contemporary model of total war — was dependent on a sausage-free civilian diet, in one of the more unusual examples of the militarisation of food.

Earlier on Edible Geography, “War on Truffles.” 
Posted in Food & War | 3 Responses

Martian Terroir

While Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sascha Pohflepp, and Andrew Stellitano’s electrosynthetic fruit speculates as to the edible effects of gravitational flux during the journey to Mars, other designers and artists have skipped ahead to investigate Martian terroir itself.

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IMAGE: Installation view, Martian terroir, Carlos Monleon-Gendall.

Earlier this summer, Carlos Monleon-Gendall, exhibiting as part of the always-intriguing Royal College of Art Design Interactions end-of-year show, explored the process of wine-making as if on Mars.

In his specially designed growth chamber, a lonely vine, from a species chosen for its cold tolerance, sends its roots down into a Martian soil analogue (a hand-pulverised mix of volcanic rocks and glasses as well as ferromagnesia clays), while extending its leaves toward a Martian sun.

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IMAGE: Vine inside Monleon-Gendall’s Mars Acclimatisation Chamber.

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IMAGE: Pulverising clay to create a Martian soil analogue. Still from Martian Terroir: Acquiring the Taste for Other Planets, by Carlos Monleon-Gendall.

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IMAGE: Diagram of Martian soil analogue, Carlos Monleon-Gendall.

Monleon-Gendall’s Martian micro-environment accurately simulates UVA and UVB radiation levels as well as seasonal shifts in the red planet’s sunset and sunrise by using a NASA app developed by the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (“UVC radiation is not modeled for human health and safety reasons,” the narrator of his project video intones, reassuringly.)

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IMAGE: Monleon-Gendall uses a micro-computer hooked up to NASA’s Mars24 app to controls the day and night cycles of the chamber.

While waiting for the first harvest of his Martian grapes, Monleon-Gendall has also designed and fabricated a Martian clay vessel in which the wine will ferment, as in the Greek amphorae of old. Its shape is a homage to Russian space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who followed mystic Nikolia Fedorov Fedorovich in advocating extra-terrestrial settlement and agriculture so as to avoid consuming “the dust of our ancestors.”

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IMAGE: Martian clay vessels, designed by Carlos Monleon-Gendall.

Here on Earth, natural winemakers are experimenting with using terracotta pots, rather than oak barrels or stainless steel vats, in modern winemaking, and finding that the resulting micro-oxygenation “helps to produce well-rounded and fat wines that are all the while tight and mineral on the palate.” On Mars, where the atmosphere consists of carbon dioxide spiked with a little argon, the resulting flavour profile will no doubt be quite different.

In anticipation, Monleon-Gendall has also begun to experiment with that essential prop for contemporary aroma and flavour appreciation: the sensory descriptor wheel.

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IMAGE: Pouring Martian wine. Still from Martian Terroir: Acquiring the Taste for Other Planets, by Carlos Monleon-Gendall.

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IMAGE: A new metabolic flavour wheel. Still from Martian Terroir: Acquiring the Taste for Other Planets, by Carlos Monleon-Gendall.

Monleon-Gendall’s prototype wheel aims to tease out the relationship between flavour compounds, environmental conditions, and different microorganisms, employing descriptions such as “acacia blossom‬,” ‪”furniture polish,” ‬ ‪and “wet wool‬,” to characterise the sensory profile of grapes exposed to (impossibly) high radiation levels.

Such a vocabulary will help with the palate re-training necessary in order to achieve the project’s goal: to help humans “acquire a taste for other planets.”

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IMAGE: Martian hybrid potatoes. Jonathon Keats via Wired.

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IMAGE: LASA cacti growing in pulverised meteorite. Jonathon Keats via Wired.

A few years ago, experimental philosopher and artist Jonathon Keats (previously interviewed on Edible Geography discussing his photosynthetic restaurant for plants) undertook a similarly speculative approach to space-exploration-by-means-of-comestibles. His LASA (Local Air & Space Administration) initiative sent potatoes and cacti to Mars by growing them in pulverised basaltic shergottite from meteorite NWA 2975.

Keats’s brand of participatory exotourism focused on the potential for gradual Martian acclimatisation through ingestion and incorporation. To help humans catch up to his prickly, potato pioneers, Keats also sold bottles of Martian mineral water.

“The minerals, including pyroxene and ulvospinel and pigeonite, will be used by your body to make bone and tissue,” Keats explained to Wired. “Exploring Mars in this way, you’ll start to go native.”

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IMAGE: Lunar and Martian mineral water. Jonathon Keats via Wired.

Curiously, despite an obvious difference in scale and resources, Monleon-Gendall and Keats’ attempts to design simulant extra-terrestrial ecologies in order to literally cultivate knowledge of an alien planet are not so different from several international space agencies’ own analogue environments for the study of lunar and Martian agriculture.

Lunar Greenhouse

IMAGE: The lunar greenhouse at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. Photograph: Nicola Twilley.

Scattered across the globe, scientists working in these unearthly greenhouses attempt to optimise an extra-terrestrial agriculture, re-learning the precise irrigation, fertilisation, and drainage needs of domesticated crops as they adapt to extreme environments. As in Monleon-Gendall and Keats’ experiments, the harvest is also subject to analysis: a recent study of spinach grown in elevated carbon dioxide and UV exposure at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center showed that these conditions actually “strongly enhanced the organoleptic quality of spinach, particularly if eaten as raw salad.”

This construction of alien terroir — a combination of simulated geologic and climate conditions and innovative human craft — is a form of remote sensing, a survey device no less useful than a satellite or rover in generating new forms of planetary knowledge, whether they be agricultural, sensory, or embodied.

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IMAGE: Martian astronomy for a new agricultural almanac, via BLDGBLOG, who can’t find the image citation but thinks this diagram shows the sun’s position as perceived from Mars.

After all, the practice of Martian agriculture cannot help but yield new nuggets of agrarian wisdom, whose proverbs, hints, and particular idiom could perhaps be gathered into an updated almanac, for the post-terrestrial farmer. Meanwhile, eating a Martian spinach salad or jacket potato, washed down with a local red, allows us to use our finely-tuned gustatory senses — which, of course, are among the most essential for our survival  — to explore a remote, complex, and entirely novel ecosystem from the comfort of our own dinner tables. What’s more, as Keats declares, using food as a vehicle for space exploration “not only gives you a genuine Martian experience but also makes Mars a part of you.”

Carlos Monleon-Gendall’s work discovered via @johnthackara.

 

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Electrosynthetic Fruit

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IMAGE: Seasons of the Void, by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sascha Pohflepp, and Andrew Stellitano.

For scientists trying to send human beings to Mars, the question of food looms large. NASA’s Advanced Food Technology Project team at Johnson Space Centre in Houston is charged with trying to design meals that will provide adequate nutrients, prevent boredom, and still be edible after up to five years.

A recent Associated Press article on their work summarised some of the challenges:

The menu must sustain a group of six to eight astronauts, keep them healthy and happy, and also offer a broad array of food. That’s no simple feat considering it will likely take six months to get to the Red Planet, astronauts will have to stay there 18 months and then it will take another six months to return to Earth. Imagine having to shop for a family’s three-year supply of groceries all at once and having enough meals planned in advance for that length of time.

Add to that the problem of payload costs (current estimates put the cost of shipping to Mars at $100,000 per kilo), and it’s not surprising that NASA researchers have embraced synthetic biology as a potential answer to the food problem.

The idea is that the astronauts will take fewer pre-packaged supplies, and instead meet their nutritional needs by “farming” novel organisms, such as a synthetic cyanobacteria engineered to survive the high radiation levels and low temperature of space, in order to harvest their own fresh spirulina.

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IMAGE: Seasons of the Void installed at Espace Fondation EDF, Paris. Photograph by Sascha Pohflepp.

Artists Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sascha Pohflepp, and Andrew Stellitano are equally excited about the potential of synthetic biology to feed future astronauts (and humans), but note the likely morale implications of juicing for three years straight.

Instead, in a new installation currently on display at Espace Fondation EDF in Paris, they imagine “delicious fruits that are grown from redesigned yeast, gorging on electricity instead of sunlight.”

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IMAGE: Electrosynthetic growing tank with fruits at different stages of growth.

The fruit-producing yeasts would be cultured in a solar battery-powered growing tank, replacing photosynthesis with electrosynthesis. The result is a new agricultural calendar, in which growth is detached from Earth’s seasons and instead subject to variations in light intensity created by the spaceship’s slingshot trajectory as well as solar flares.

The project’s real charm lies in the way it makes visible that new seasonality of the void, culturing alternate layers of symbiotic bacteria to provide a cross-sectional grain that reflects the spaceship-planet’s varying light-levels over the course of the journey.

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IMAGE: Farming seasons over the voyage.

While spirulina undoubtedly offers a highly pragmatic nutritional solution to the dietary challenges of space travel, Ginsberg, Pohflepp, and Stellitano’s proposal offers a much more compelling vision: a menu of new textural and flavour sensations that truly embody their novel terroir.

Discovered via @160B. 
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The Pickle Index

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IMAGE: Two heads of whole zha cai with chilli paste; photograph by Sjschen via Wikipedia.

Chinese officials, charged with moving 250 million rural farmers into cities over the next decade under the central government’s sweeping “National Plan for Promoting Healthy Urbanization (2011-20),” have developed a “pickle index” for measuring the movement of migrant workers.

According to the South China Morning Post, the country’s National Development and Reform Commission has found that sales of zha cai, a pickled mustard tuber, provide a better guide to population flows than often unreliable provincial statistical data. As an unnamed planner explained to the Economic Observer:

Under normal circumstances, urban consumption levels of convenience foods such as instant noodles and pickled mustard is essentially constant. Therefore, we can assume that volume changes are mainly caused by a city’s floating population.

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IMAGE: Packaged zha cai, via.

Sales reports from the country’s largest pickle company, Chongqing Fuling Zhacai, certainly back up the latest figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, which reported in March that the number of migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze River Delta decreased by 0.5 percent and 0.3 percent respectively last year.

Chongquing Fuling Zhacai’s sales show an even more drastic shrinkage in Southern Chinese mustard consumption, while offering clues to the pickle eaters’ new locations:

Southern China’s share in the company’s sales fell from 49 percent in 2007 to 30 percent in 2011. The share of the central provinces — Henan, Hubei, and Hunan — increased from 2.6 percent in 2009 to 10.6 percent last year, and in other inland provinces by around 2 percentage points.

This ebb and flow of pickle sales from the megacities of Guangdong to the more rural northern provinces suggests that migrant workers are returning home en masse, which could signify either a national slowdown in urbanisation or — as the NDRC hopes — a shift in the geography of growth, away from Shanghai and Guangzhou and toward “second-tier” cities in China’s interior.

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IMAGE: Rural jobseekers applying for work at a Foxconn factory on the edge of Chongqing. Photograph by Justin Jin for The New York Times.

In either case, the anonymous NDRC official is concerned that “local governments have yet to sniff the increasingly strong mustard flavour,” and have not adjusted their budgets and “social management system” to cope with return population flow:

For some provinces in central and western China, you have tens of millions of people coming back in the next few years, with all the employment, affordable housing, health care, children’s education, and other issues attendant. It is necessary to begin to plan ahead for this thing.

In response, the NDRC will continue monitoring the “urbanization mustard index,” but is also developing proactive “mustard targets” to guide migrant worker flows. It seems that the humble pickle holds the key to managing the largest urban migration the world has ever seen.

Discovered via the BBC. Most errors courtesy of Google Translate. Previously on Edible Geography, a cupcake index to gentrification.

 

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Stuff

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IMAGE: Front cover of Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, by Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs.

Between 2001 and 2005, an anthropologist, two archaeologists, and one photographer conducted a detailed observation and visual enthnography of the material culture of thirty-two middle-class Los Angeles households. The researchers, based at the Center on Everyday Lives of Families at UCLA, set out to explore how American families interact with their houses, yards, and, above all, with the mountain of stuff that they acquire:

Marketers and credit card companies record and analyze every nuance of consumer purchasing patterns, but once people shuttle shopping bags into their homes, the information flow grinds to a halt. How do people interact with these material objects in everyday life? Which objects do they find meaningful? Are Americans burdened by their material worlds? Which key spaces inside the house serve as the main stages on which U.S. family activities unfold?

After five years of field observation, the team built up an archive of 20,000 photographs, 100 videos of narrated home tours, 32 detailed floor plans, and thousands of what they call “scan samples”: a record of each family member’s location, behaviour, and the objects they were using, taken at ten-minute intervals.

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IMAGE: The CELF team found that the kitchen was the most-used room in the house, hosting homework, bill-paying, and daily planning activities in addition cooking and eating. Photo: CELF.

Their new book, Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century, which I discovered via culinary historian Rachel Laudan, pulls out and illustrates some key themes from that mountain of data — many of which have to do with cooking, eating, and storing food.

The statistic that catches Laudan’s eye is that when families in the study cook weekday dinners from fresh, rather than pre-packaged, ingredients, it takes only ten to twelve minutes longer, on average, than preparing a convenience-food meal. This is surprising, because most of the parents in the study cite time scarcity as the reason they rely on frozen pizza, boxed macaroni-and-cheese, canned soup, microwave dinners, and the like for two-thirds of their family’s weeknight meals.

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IMAGE: One of many images of overfilled freezers in the book. Photo: CELF. Apologies for the scanning artifacts.

So why is making a meal from scratch perceived as taking much more time than it really does? The reason, the researchers explain, is to do with the additional mental effort required:

Perhaps the most important and clear-cut effect of packaged foods is that they reduce the complexity of meal planning. Dinners centered on convenience foods require less shopping and planning time since many separate ingredients do not have to be assembled. The family chef can invest less time thinking about the week’s meals. [...] Frozen foods require less advance planning and less cooking knowledge and skills than acquiring and working with raw ingredients to assemble a dinner.

As Laudan notes, it’s obvious, yet revelatory: the real convenience offered by convenience foods is the removal of decision-making in a food environment that has never been so overwhelmingly filled with choices.

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IMAGE: A high-density refrigerator door. Photo: CELF.

From my own refrigeration-obsessed point of view, perhaps the most interesting observation was the correlation the researchers observed between fridge door displays and household clutter. The refrigerator door functions as a kind of domestic command centre for most of the families in the study, displaying schedules, phone numbers, reminders, prescriptions, invitations, coupons, and take-away menus as well as family photos and souvenir magnets.

The average Los Angeles refrigerator door, the researchers found, “contains a mean of 52 objects, which consume up to 90 percent of the surface space,” although there is considerable variation — the family with the most extensive refrigerator display has managed to attach 166 objects to its front and sides. What’s more, it turns out that you can predict “how intensively families are participating in consumer purchasing and how many household goods they retain over their lifetimes” purely based on their refrigerator display style and density:

The look of the refrigerator door hints at the sheer quantities of possessions a family has and how they are organized or arranged in the house. By organization, we mean visual impact, which is a function of both the density and the neatness of the distribution of objects. A simple analysis using our coded material culture inventories reveals that a family’s tolerance for crowded, artifact-laden refrigerator surface often corresponds to the densities of possessions in the main rooms of the house.

Previously on Edible Geography, we’ve examined photographs of refrigerator interiors as portraiture; this finding implies that their exteriors can serve as a visual stand-in for domestic decor.

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IMAGE: Another high-density refrigerator door. Photo: CELF.

Elsewhere, the researchers explore the phenomenon of food-stockpiling, noting that forty-seven percent of their families keep second fridge/freezers, and nine percent actually have a third one, stuffed with overflow supplies of beer, soft drinks, and frozen foods.

Meanwhile, scan-sampling logs found that even fewer Americans eat dinner together than say they do, with nearly one quarter of families never dining together over the course of the entire study. Forty-one percent of all dinners were what the researchers call “fragmented,” with family members eating sequentially or in different rooms.

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IMAGE: Scan-sample map of family 11′s locations as observed every ten minutes over the course of two weekday afternoons and evenings. Image: CELF.

The book is filled with these sorts of details, extracting the extraordinary patterns and paradoxes of ordinary American domestic life. For example, despite Los Angeles’ perfect weather, and the importance of the backyard to the American dream, more than half the families in the study spent zero time in their yard during field observations.

The chapter titled “Material Saturation,” which enumerates the sheer quantity of stuff visible (i.e. not stored out of sight) in the families’ houses, offers the book’s most voyeuristic thrills, as photo after photo shows toys spilling across every surface, dirty laundry piled in a spare shower cubicle, and home offices drowned in a sea of miscellaneous objects.

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IMAGE: Clutter. Photo: CELF.

“The United States,” the researchers write, “has 3.1 percent of the world’s children, yet U.S. families annually purchase more than 40 percent of total toys consumed globally.” The resulting chaos is enough to induce a vicarious nervous breakdown.

Indeed, in their conclusion, the researchers point out that while the incredible material abundance they observe “signals personal pleasure and economic success, it also entails hidden costs,” noting that consumerism is connected to most of the major trends their study tracks: “waning outdoor leisure time, unprecedented and often burdensome clutter, reduced social interaction at mealtimes, clashing schedules, the invasion of kids’ material culture into all corners of the house, stockpiling, and more.”

As an archaeology of the present, Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century is undeniably fascinating. As a minutely observed portrait of a particular way of life, it offers valuable insights — but also pause for reflection.

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Tutti Frutti

Bompas & Parr, the culinary magicians behind aerosolised gin-and-tonics, cake-obstacled miniature golf, and architectural punchbowls, have published a new book exploring the olfactory, aesthetic, historical, and spectacular implications of fruit salad: Tutti Frutti with Bompas & Parr and Friends.

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IMAGE: Two of the book’s four fruity covers, complete with peel-able sticker.

I am honoured to be included amongst these friends, and contributed an expanded look at spaces of banana control for the “Fruit Essays and Insights” section of the book, which also includes an essay on plant geometry, a guide to the pineapple-shaped architectural ornaments of London, and a selection of gorgeous botanical illustrations from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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IMAGE: Map by Emma Rios to accompany Sam Bompas’ guide to the pineapple as architectural ornament. “You can find them everywhere,” in London, Bompas writes, from St. Paul’s Cathedral to Lambeth Bridge, as a legacy of seventeenth-century England’s pineapple mania.

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IMAGE: The Swiss Cheese Plant, Monstera deliciosa, from the Herbarium Library, Art & Archive at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Beth Adams of Bompas & Parr notes that the fruit’s flavour “resembles something between a pineapple, banana, and mango, retaining all of the best qualities of each,” but that, until fully ripe (a process that can take as long as a year), the plant’s delicious tutti-frutti interior is inaccessible, guarded by a matrix of hexagonal scales that are toxic to the touch.

Architect Sam Jacob of FAT adds a fantastic rumination on the “bright blue anomaly” that is the visual confectionary shorthand for raspberry flavour. Apparently, artificial raspberry colour was once a dark red, thanks to the coal-tar derived AKA E123 or FD&C Red No. 2. Unfortunately, as Jacob writes, “in 1976, E123 was classified as ‘Very Dangerous’ by the Food Standards Agency and withdrawn from the market. This caused a problem:

At the moment FD&C Red No. 2 was banned, there were simply no reds free that weren’t already used to signify other red fruit. Think of the congestion of radio frequencies, where it becomes impossible to broadcast on a particular wavelength because of the interference it would cause to its neighbours. In the spectrum of artificial fruit colours, red was already congested with strawberry, cherry, and so on, but the non-natural palette was, given the prevailing desire for colours to mimic nature, free.

Raspberry, in Jacob’s analysis, becomes the pioneer of an avant-garde fruit spectrum, one that breaks free of imitation and “revels in its artificiality,” suggesting “that the things we eat might become abstract notions: the taste of wavelengths rather than biology.”

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IMAGE: Raspberry-flavoured gummi rings.

The core of the book is devoted to fruity recipes, from bioluminescent durian sauce (“the powerful flavour will disguise how repellent bioluminescent enzymes can taste!”), lime slime (a “slimy and memorable sauce,” which you are advised to “use sparingly”), and a delicious, if labour-intensive, tropical trifle. The fruit salad is transmuted into jelly, bombe, sundae, and cocktail form by well-known chefs, a landscape gardening collective, and British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.

Tutti Frutti closes with a series of interactive fruit art projects. including an infinite tasting exercise designed by olfactory artist Sissel Tolaas and DIY instructions for building a gherkin chandelier, which will, Sam Bompas promises, fizz and spatter, wafting the sharp tang of pickle juice through the air as it glows with “a ghostly green light.”

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IMAGE: The world’s first gherkin chandelier, built by Bompas & Parr and photographed by Ann Charlott Ommedal. For those of you intent on trying this at home, Bompas reports that a small gherkin draws 300W, while a large one draws 500W.

“There is a real danger of death,” warns Bompas, noting the likelihood of fusing your mains, cremating the pickles, and accidentally electrocuting yourself while building an ornamental pickle light feature, “but the results will be worth it.”

Finally, as if to ensure no sense remains unsatisfied, there’s even a fruit music mixtape compiled by Mike Gabel of Hot Breath Karaoke.

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IMAGE: Bompas & Parr’s Tutti-Frutti boating lake at Kew Gardens. Photograph by Ann Charlott Ommedal.

The book is available in a limited edition of 2,500 from Bompas & Parr’s website: get yours here and feast your eyes, your mind, and, if you’re brave enough, your tastebuds on an exotic selection of fruit facts and fictions. If you’re in London this summer, you can also visit Bompas & Parr’s Tutti Frutti boating lake, pineapple island, and banana grotto at Kew (until September 1).

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Ecology a la Carte

Hot on the heels of my menu donation to the New York Public Library comes this intriguing news story about a team of ecologists using Hawaiian restaurant menus to reconstruct long-term changes in local marine populations. The menus provided the evidence needed to trace historical ecological shifts during “a critical 45-year gap” in the state’s early twentieth-century fishery records.

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IMAGE: Menu cover, Monarch Room, Royal Hawaiian Hotel, March 25, 1977. NYPL Menu Collection.

Drawing on library and museum collections, but mostly on souvenirs saved by friends and colleagues, Kyle S. Van Houtan of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, Loren McClenachan, assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College, and Jack Kittinger of Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions analysed 376 menus from 154 different restaurants in Hawaii, dated from 1928 to 1974.

The menus, Van Houtan et. al. explain in a peer-reviewed letter in the August 2013 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, came from “a range of eateries from local businesses to larger restaurants serving tourists (we excluded 60 cruise-ship menus because their pantries were not locally sourced).”

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IMAGE: Entrees, Monarch Room, Royal Hawaiian Hotel, March 25, 1977. NYPL Menu Collection.

By counting the mentions of different species on the menus over time, the team were able to track a striking decline in Hawaii’s nearshore fishery stocks and an increasing reliance on larger, oceanic species. Reef fish, jacks, and bottomfish went from being extremely common before 1940 to appearing on less than 10 percent of menus by 1959, the year Hawaii became a state. Restaurants filled the gap by serving large pelagic fish, such as tuna and swordfish, which appeared on 95 percent of menus by 1970.

The scientists benchmarked their menu-derived data against early market surveys and later government fishery statistics from either side of the gap in the historical record, giving them confidence that their findings accurately reflected shifts in wild fish populations rather than just consumer preference or culinary trends.

Hawaii, the team admitted, was particularly well suited for their experiment in menu archaeology as historical ecology because “its remote location meant most locally consumed seafood was locally sourced.”

Nonetheless, the menu presence of some species didn’t accurately reflect changes in the marine environment: molluscs and shrimps were mostly imported from the mainland United States, frogs were sourced from local aquaculture operations, and the majority of the islands’ sea-turtle harvest was sold in fish markets rather than restaurants. “These latter instances,” Van Houtan noted, “may still present important information, such as the market forces supporting wildlife harvests.”

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IMAGE: Menu occurrence of fishery items follows the rise and fall of local fisheries: wild-caught offshore fish species (top panel), imported and aquaculture species (middle panel), and wild-caught inshore species (bottom panel). Chart from Kyle S. Van Houtan, Loren McClenachan, and John N Kittinger, 2013, “Seafood menus reflect long-term ocean changes,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 289–290.

The team conclude their report by comparing restaurant menu analysis to the archaeological excavation of a midden in terms of its potential contribution to the historical environmental record — an unwitting testament to over-consumption, ecological pressures, and resource shifts. These menus “were often beautifully crafted, date-stamped, and cherished by their owners as art,” Van Houtan added, but “the point of our study is that they are also data.”

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Sewer Watch

The past week has brought two intriguing updates from London’s subterranean infrastructure of excretion. In a triumphant press release, Thames Water announced the removal of the world’s largest fatberg — a sewer-blocking, bus-sized lump of congealed cooking oil and wet wipes — from the drains under London Road in Kingston, Surrey.

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IMAGE: The UK’s biggest fatberg. Photo: CountyClean.

According to Gordon Hailwood, waste contracts supervisor for the city utility:

While we’ve removed greater volumes of fat from under central London in the past, we’ve never seen a single, congealed lump of lard this big clogging our sewers before.

The sewer was almost completely clogged with over 15 tonnes of fat. If we hadn’t discovered it in time, raw sewage could have started spurting out of manholes across the whole of Kingston.

Food fat and moist wipes — the two main culprits in what Thames Water calls “sewer abuse” — cause more than 40,000 blockages a year under London, at a cost of more than £1 million per month.

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IMAGE: Fatbergs (and fat stalactites) in a London sewer. Photo: Thames Water.

While the utility struggles to reduce wrongful flushing with its “Bin It — Don’t Block It” publicity campaign, it is also tackling the problem from the other end. When the world’s largest fat-burning power station opens in Beckton in 2015, Thames Water has committed to supplying half of its fuel, in the form of thirty tonnes a day of fat, oil, and grease (‘FOG’) “harvested from ‘fat traps’ in restaurant kitchens and from pinch-points around the capital’s sewer network.”

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IMAGE: “Bin It — Don’t Block It” is Thames Water’s campaign to end “sewer abuse,” complete with primary school activities.

Meanwhile, London’s head “flusher,” Rob Smith, whose intimate knowledge of London’s chicken shop geography and cleaning routines we admired on Edible Geography in January 2011, draws on his unique perspective on the city’s digestive processes to reflect on changes in British eating habits in The Economist.

Among the news of drastic declines in green vegetable consumption (down by fifty percent since 1974, to under 200 grams per week) and a wholesale rejection of Brussels sprouts (down by four fifths), The Economist reports that national mealtimes are no longer clearly defined, with one study showing that “at no point in the day were as many as 20 percent of Britons eating.”

“Over the years, peaks in sewage flow have greatly diminished,” Rob Smith confirms: our continuous low-level flushing a testament to our disordered dining habits.

NOTE: Fatberg link via @Londonist.
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