Monday, August 8, 2011

The Kitchen of the Future: Meatspace

Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want (1950); Jennifer Rubell (2011)

Most often, when the word 'modern" is used in a generic lower-case sense - i.e. modern warfare, modern aeronautics, modern audiences - it is being used in one of two ways; either to mean 'best practices' or 'early adopter.' At the moment modern cuisine is most strongly associated with the best practices of locovore organics championed by the Californian school of Alice Waters' Chez Panise; the minimalism of Mark Bittman; and the fundamentalism of Michael Pollan. The early adopter equivalent to the haute cuisine of Chez Panise and Bittman's minimalism are the 'molecular gastronomy' of Ferran Adria's ElBulli and Wylie Dufresne's WD-50. These chefs use the techniques of industrial food scientists at an artisanal scale. The alternative to Pollan are the industrial food scientists themselves. While Pollan urges us to eat only things our grandmothers would recognize as food, these early adopters, high and low, point to a future of food as removed from your grandmother's kitchen as conceptual art is from a Norman Rockwell painting.

I wholeheartedly agree with Pollan, that our food industry is broken; that it has been distorted by subsides that are devastating our environment, ruining our health, and degrading our oldest art form (the oldest professional was no doubt working in exchange for tasty treats and not cave paintings or dance steps). But I also agree wholeheartedly with the artist and host of Cross Species Dinners, Natalie Jeremijenko, that "Pollan's grandmother is hampering efforts to reinvent the modern diet." That the challenge of feeding 9 billion people requires the "agency to design the nutrient systems we are a part of," and that Jeremijenko was absolutely right when she told the audience at Food Print NYC that "we don't have to be passive inheritors of traditional food."

But Pollan is not the villain. He is advocating to get rid of damaging rules and subsidies that are degrading our environment and ruining public health. More than anything else he is arguing for us to work to make technologies now available politically viable. Pollan is in no way an enemy of innovation, he calls today's industrialized farmers "the most productive human beings to have ever lived," and celebrates indoor hi-tech marijuana growers "the best gardeners of my generation." Indeed, pot is a plant that has been transformed in the past few decades almost as profoundly as corn was by pre-Columbian farmers transformed corn. As long as most GM patents are used as bludgeons by massive corporate bullies, there are very real reasons to guard ourselves against industrial interests, but not at the expense of the modern palette. What exactly the modern palette turns out to be is any one's guess.

In his book, The Secret Of Scent, the biophysicist Luca Turin predicts a future unmoored from tradition - and finds contemporary precedence "for truly creative synthetic flavors":
Already in the UK, potato chips - or 'crisps' as they are known locally - scale new heights of fancy ranging from lamb in mint sauce, without a trace of either being involved in their manufacture, to a recent 'hedgehog' flavor I have yet to try. I once went into a pub and asked for burnt clutch and nitromethane flavored crisps and the waiter spun round to look at his rack before realizing I was having him on. Perhaps in future the rich will eat organic food, and white trash like myself will enjoy bilge-and-mutant-cucumber flavored crisps.
Crisps; Mouse growing a tumorous human ear

Turin is interested in smells and flavors becoming abstract, as unattached to nature as a Mondrian painting. And while Jeremijenko imagines her children eating bioengineered 'sheets' of snail flesh accompanied by GM seaweed, I began writing about the Kitchen of the Future over a year ago after watching a video of a conversation between the Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman and the scifi writer Charles Stross that raises the specter of a far more radical possibility. In the video Stross mentions an idea for a book in which well-to-do ladies eat "medical grade" human flesh grown from their own genes. The book, Rule 34, is out and I read it at the beach this summer:    
The Morningside Cannibals: a circle of polite middle-class people who dined out on each other, with aid of a medical tissue incubator tank. Figuring out what on earth to charge them with--cannibalism not being illegal in Scotland--was the least of your worries when the blogs moved in. In the end they, they were reported to the Procurator Fiscal for outraging public decency and corpse desecration: a flimsy case, as the defense barristers pointed out in court, given the dinner parties in question were strictly private affairs, and the human flesh on the plates had been cloned from ladies who were not only still alive but willing to testify that their own cultured meat tasted nothing like chicken. In the end, the case had collapsed amidst recriminations and calls for change in the law.
Old School bread machine (2009): Hi-tech home-brew

As it turns out that passage is entirely parenthetical. The book is a near future police procedural more concerned with sociopathic corporate (and incorporeal) malfeasance, the outskirts of sexual deviance (hence the title) than food systems dysfunction or culinary desires. To set the stage Stross peppers the story with details about AR, 3D printers fabricating pirated design templates, and self-driving cars. Mostly, food was incidental to the plot, although at least one thread did turn on a home-brew kit and GM yeast functioning "as a platform for synthetic biology" turning the culture into "funky new tools four handling buckytubes and exotic amino acids." I like tech-blather as much as the next guy, and Stross serves up especially good helping though-out this book, but truth is, I agree with Paul Krugman, this is not my favorite Stross.

As my mind wandered from the plot I found my imagination kept on circle around a little throw away detail of a kitchen: "sterile ultra modern, overflowing with gizmos from the very expensive bread-maker (beeping forlornly for attention) to cultured meat extruder (currently manufacturing chicken sans egg)." As I read I thought about my own misadventures in beer craft (speaking of yeast), my total disinterest in bread machines, and my life long desire to own a top of the line espresso maker. I kept trying to imagine was a "cultured meat extruder" would look like, and wondered what type of person would want one. Would it be the Black & Decker bread-maker of chicken-like protean, or will it be the La Marzocco Mondial 2 of grass fed beef?
Black & Decker bread-maker (meh); La Marzocco Mondial 2 (covet)

A couple years ago, about the same time Jeremijenko joked that Pollan was too hung up on his Grandma and Stross shocked Krugman with the idea of medical grade cannibalism, the octogenarian physicist Freeman Dyson wrote a essay for the New York Review titled, Our Biotech FutureIn his essay Dyson made a series of predictions, many of which creeped me out:
When we compare genomes of ancient lineages of living creatures, we find evidence of numerous transfers of genetic information from one lineage to another. In early times, horizontal gene transfer, the sharing of genes between unrelated species, was prevalent... And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes.
That bit about "species other than our own" gives me chills. Dyson believes the reason most of us dread a biotech future is because it is trill an centralized industrial scale enterprise controlled by a small cadre of very large corporations and states. "The public distrusts Monsanto" Dyson explains, "because Monsanto likes to put genes for poisonous pesticides into food crops, just as we distrusted von Neumann because he liked to use his computer for designing hydrogen bombs secretly at midnight."
Baraka (1992); Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

I like to think that while I have no interest in being an early adopter, that I have never been change averse, but Dyson's imagination gives me the willies:
We can imagine that in the future, when we have mastered the art of genetically engineering plants, we may breed new crop plants that have leaves made of silicon, converting sunlight into chemical energy with ten times the efficiency of natural plants... After we have explored this route to the end, when we have created new forests of black-leaved plants that can use sunlight ten times more efficiently than natural plants, we shall be confronted by a new set of environmental problems. Who shall be allowed to grow the black-leaved plants? Will black-leaved plants remain an artificially maintained cultivar, or will they invade and permanently change the natural ecology? What shall we do with the silicon trash that these plants leave behind them? Shall we be able to design a whole ecology of silicon-eating microbes and fungi and earthworms to keep the black-leaved plants in balance with the rest of nature and to recycle their silicon?
Dyson is probably largely correct about the source of public anxiety, but Montsanto is not what makes me anxious about Dyson's ideas. Large corporations may be powerful, but they also make for easy targets. They can be successfully sued and boycotted. Likewise, there are mechanisms for curtailing the actions of sovereign states, but lone gunmen and non-state players can be much harder to predict and difficult to bring to heel.
Nuclear Domestication: David Hahn's basement reactor (1994); Richard Handl's stovetop meltdown (2011).

Dyson predicts "that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years." He imagines that we will all become more comfortable with the biotech revolution when, like the PC revolution, it becomes cheap enough for hobbyist, teenagers and "housewives" to play with. "Now imagine" Dyson writes, "what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too."

"These games will be messy and possibly dangerous." Dyson admits, but "Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture." Already nuclear technology has it's enthusiastic hobbyists, mischievous teenagers and at least one great artists, but no one is going to be downloading apps onto handheld iReactors anytime soon, much less allowing children to experiment on the Jr. Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor™, no matter how safe Stewart Brand says the technology is.
James L Acord' who died earlier this year, grinding radioactive Fiestaware plates to make his Mark I Studio Reactor (ca 1991)

At least part of my problem with Dyson is that he imagines biotech moving forward the way computers have, complete with teenage hackers. He seems to think the rest of us will quickly become comfortable with the idea of allowing the code of life - a body of information that took 3.5 billion years to develop -to be manipulated by hackers, even though very few of us are comfortable with allowing our 12 year old nephews to brows the Internet using our computers because they keep on downloading weird viruses onto their grandmother's laptop (for instance).

Because DNA is a code Dyson imagines it as an information technology and projects it progressing in the ways PCs and smartphones have, but the far more likely model is the wet space of the kitchen. Biotech will shrink and become cheaper, but it will do so more slowly and with limits. While engineers have fit a room-sized bakery into a counter-top appliance, there will never be a pocket-sized bread machine. An all-in-one kitchen appliance that echoes the open architecture of digital technology would require nano technology, what Stross dismisses as "the shiny new magic dessert topping/floor wax/pixie dust of tomorrow."
Back to the Future (1984); Back to the Future (1985)

There is a real need for cultured meat extruders. There are a lot of us (7 billion) and there is going to be a lot more (somewhere between 2 and 3 billion more), and most of us would eat meat at every meal if we were given the chance. The answer is not more processed meats and other low quality substitutes - those who covet 1st world diets of beef and pork are not going to be satisfied eating bugs and dogs. But there is no reason to believe that those who want beef and pork want it from a cow and a pig.  The way the biotech of cultured meat production progressing is a lot like Dyson describes in his article, as long as the cultures and extruders are controlled by large corporations producing protean on an industrial scale they will be suspect and spurned. Cultured meat will be used to produce items like hot dogs and Spam, used as filler for down market fast food chains but t I am betting McDonalds and other major chains won't bite.

Cultured meat will begin its life as poor people food, and not just any poor people - the poorest of the poor. But it will take less time than you can say Kobe beef hot dog, for the-poorest-of-the-poor to become the-best-of-the-best. All delicacies begin their lives as desperation food. Americans spurned lobster for centuries until their cousins in Europe took a liking to it. Once upon a time puffer fish must have kept some family alive when nothing else could be found, but today fugu is a globally recognized marker of wealth. The artist and author Tom Jay used to tell me that during the middle ages apprentices in Paris had guarantees written into their contracts that they could only be served salmon a set number of times a week. I can easily imagine a time when anyone with taste will turn up their noses to cultured meat, but I can also imagine a time when the word pork and the word pig will have as much apparent relation as sad and full
 La Marzocco Mondial 2 (ywansville); iMakerbot 1000 (I covet)

The environmental imperative will drive many well meaning but softheaded consumers to embrace cultured meat just as it drives their softheaded contemporaries to buy organic wine right now. But the environmental imperative as well as the moral imperative will drive producers as well. I do not imagine that Hormel or Oscar Meyer can be counted on to do the right thing any moor than I believe Coors could have produced a culture of fine beer drinking in America. 15 years ago an army of micro-breweries began to fill the gap between the industrial production of Budweiser and the terrible desperation early home brewers like myself. But micro-brewing could not have taken off if home-brewing hadn't taken off first. Unlike the cloudy yeast brew me and most of my friends were making, the home brew fad produced a ton of home-brewers serious enough to get good enough to go pro, but it also produced an industry prepared to supply small scale brewers with whatever they needed. 

It is easy to imagine a time when Bushwick Brooklyn will enjoy a well deserved reputation as one of the world's best producers of premium beef extruders. And just as there is now an entire industry that caters to those interested in opening fine neighborhood coffee shops - supplying them with custom coffee bags, mugs industrial roasters and espresso machines, not to mention fair trade terroir beans - an industry will grow around the needs of artisans with the skills and interest in making fine meat. It won't be long after the first meat fabricators hit the market the staff at Manhattan's Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Seattle's Salumi, San Francisco's Boccalone - or where ever the pork-junky hang outs are by then - will be describing in detail the artisanal origins of their wares.
Gordon Matta-Clark, right, outside the artist run restaurant Food (1971); Momofuku Ssäm Bar's pork buns-as-art.

It is only a mater of time before store front husbandry will be a staple of trendy neighborhoods. Gleaming Italian-made vats pushing out endless marbled tender butchered by enthusiastic and well informed young people, to tattooed and bearded geriatric hipsters. But not too long after that it will also be a staple of village life in Afghanistan, when a group of tissue engineers quit Google Meats to form a start-up to supply poor and under served communities with inexpensive plastic extruders and train them to use them.

When wealthy Americans are paying $10,000.00 a plate to eat Kopi Luwak goat originally fabricated on a ten dollar unit in Ethiopia. While a French chef raises a trillion dollars from venture capitalists to lithograph soft-shell crab and the Japanese produce 80 meter long extrusions of baby octopus tentacles for the Malaysian market. But just as Freeman Dyson desires, there will be a generation that begins to play the feeder stock itself - less amateur geneticist and more hobbyist gourmand, they will deliver Luca Turin's dream of tastes and smells unattached to any precedent. Bilge-and-mutant-cucumber, it's what for dinner.
MakerBot; Wim Delvoye, Cloaca No 5 (2006)

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