Cells: The More You Break Them, The Better they Taste

For months now, I’ve been trawling around books with titles like “Yeast Research.” They make for exciting conversation starters, such as the time I moonlighted in an English department writing workshop, and one of the natives told me that a passing glance at my materials had caused her to conclude I was a Yeats scholar.

Alas. My work is even more scintillating. I’m writing a paper – much to my own surprise! – on the history of the field of zymology, or the applied science of fermentation. The history of fermentation for food preparation and preservation dates back to antiquity and is relatively well known. Most of our favourite, been-around-forever prepared foods–beer, wine, vinegar, pickles, cheese, yogourt, sauerkraut/kimchi/etc, coffee, tea–are all brought to us by fermentation. Less well-known is the modern history of “controlled,” aseptic fermentation (under sterile conditions) on an industrial scale, by which means microbes and their biochemical superpowers (e.g. enzyme excretion) make possible the production of everything from plastics to household cleaners, birth control to insulin, cosmetics to pharmaceuticals, vitamins to pesticides, to vaccines to germ warfare. These technologies are absolutely vital to today’s global food economy, providing the often invisible intermediary products of the petrochemical, agricultural, and pharmaceutical industries that form the fabric of modern life.

I’m looking into what’s at stake in the commercial application of fermentation in technologies that enable flavour and food companies to capitalize on the human experience of delicious flavour.  Elsewhere I’m working on how the latest-“discovered” and least understood official taste sensation, umami (Japanese for “delicious”), names the mechanism by which we experience the taste of broken-down protein. Speaking very generally, a protein source that has been broken down on a molecular level tastes better to us than one that has not. Raw grains versus bread or beer. Raw tomato versus sundried tomato. Fresh milk versus Grana Padano. Fresh soy beans versus soy sauce. Cabbage versus sauerkraut. Raw beef versus seared tenderloin. I could go on a long time. What’s more, food engineers simulate the flavour-effects of these slower processing techniques with economical, fast-track taste-smithing: MSG, yeast extract, hydrolyzed proteins, 5′ nucleotides, gelatin, etc. Some research has demonstrated that browning foods or grilling or cooking in oil, for example, makes cells highly mutagenic (to the tune of DNA-damage, cancer). Heterocyclic amine, anyone?

Are we all dining room masochists? Does delicious mean damage? Do we even know to ask?


Winter – Spring 2019

I’ll be offering a course (online) called Food & the Senses out of the New School’s Food Studies (BA/BS) Bachelor’s Program for Adults and Transfer Students.

See the course description here.

Winter 2018

On 1-2 February, I co-organized a critical eating studies event at UCLA with my colleague Dr. Rachel Vaughn. Featuring inspiring food justice work and new thinking from leading scholars of foodways in the United States & beyond, including…

Tanya Fields (Founder and Executive Director, The BLK Project); Rick Nahmias(Founder and Executive Director, Food Forward LA); Kyla Wazana Tompkins (Associate Professor of English and Gender and Women’s Studies, Pomona College; author of Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century); Heather Paxson (Professor of Anthropology, MIT; author of The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America); and many more…

For details and reflections, see the event page and my Rachel’s blog post.

Fall 2017

Delicious Destruction: Breakdown and ReValue in Big Food Science. Annual meeting of the American Studies Association (ASA), Chicago, USA, 9-12 November.

Fast Food for Lab Mice: Umami Taste Mechanisms in Non-human Animals and how they Relate to Doritos, as part of the panel: Bestial Technoscience: Nonhuman Animals as Technology and in Scientific Practice. Annual meeting of the Society for the Social Study of Science (4S). Boston, USA, 30 August – 2 September.

Summer 2017

Delicious Destruction: Breakdown and ReValue in Big Food Science, as part of panel: (Re)Value in Critical Eating Studies: On Discard, Waste, and Metabolism @ Migrating Food Cultures: Engaging Pacific Perspectives on Food and Agriculture, the annual meeting of AFHVS/ASFS, Occidental College, 14-17 June.

Winter – Spring 2017

Taste No. 5: Imperial Japan, Protein Chemistry, and Race-making with Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), as part of UCLA’s History of Science, Medicine, and Technology Colloquium, 22 May.

Tasty Molecules: Umami, Big Food, and the Chemosenses, as part of “Stop Making Sense: A Conversation between Sensory and Social Science about Food and Drink,” Chemical Heritage Foundation, 10 March.

Fall 2016

Musings on the Politics and Poetics of Deliciousness, as part of DISHING: a lecture series on food, feminism & the way we eat, hosted by the Center for the Study of Women, UCLA, Public Talk, 29 November.

Flavors of the Future, NonSalon @ Neuehouse hosted by Paloma Powers, Tasting & Conversation featuring the work of artist Sean Raspet, 27 September.

Deliciousness Added: Umami, Monosodium Glutamate & the Gut-Brain Axis, as part of the “Sensory Sensory Studies in STS and Their Methods” track at 4S/EAST Annual Meeting in Barcelona, 31 August – 3 September.

Summer 2016

Umami in a Box: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and the Paradox of Instant Deliciousness, as part of the panel, “Pleasure, Pain, Comfort, Deliciousness: Sensory Eating in the 20th and 21st Centuries,” with Nadia Berenstein (U of Pennsylvania) and Joel Dickau (U of Toronto), and chaired by Camille Bégin (Heritage Toronto), at Scarborough Fare: 2016 JOINT ANNUAL MEETING OF ASFS/AFHVS/CAFS, 22-25 June.

Developing Constipation: Dietary Fibre, Western Disease, and Industrial Carbohydrates. Co-authored with Sebastián Gil-RiañoDietary Innovation and Disease in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Conference to be held at San Servolo, Venice, Italy, 8-10 June.

This is a Post about Pooping.

**The longer, official, and only slightly less exciting version of this story appears in Global Food History (September 2016), available online through Taylor & Francis.

In the early twenty-first century, Human Microbiome Project researchers went “motoring down rivers in the Amazon” and “off-roading in the East African savanna” to capture an image of the gut flora of ancient humans (Velasquez-Manoff 2015).

In the late-1960s, former British colonial doctors plumbed isolated villages and prison populations, using metrics like “stool bulk” to elucidate the etiology  (i.e. to ask “where’d this come from?”) of what they called western diseases—a catch-all term for a series of chronic ailments linked to modern food production (Walker 1972).

These stories, separated by half a century, sound curiously similar.

For one, they both feature enterprising research-adventurers from (usually) affluent nations trolling around the geopolitical hinterlands for a kind of ground-zero of human biology. For another, they’re both fixated on figuring out how digestion and elimination are more than just the messy busy-work of living; they’re key arbiters of health.

At mid-century, physicians were alarmed by the prevalence of afflictions of the gut: things like diverticulosis coli, colon cancer, appendicitis, and ulcerative colitis. Startled by the observation that colonic disorders were practically absent in undeveloped regions yet ubiquitous in modern, affluent societies, medical authorities in the 1960s began hypothesizing that the transit time in which food was consumed, digested, and evacuated explained these differences.

Are constipated colons—with their cascade of inflammatory effects—an inevitable by-product of industrialized food systems, they asked? Is constipation an unavoidable feature of modernity? These are questions scientists are asking still.

A colleague (Sebastián Gil-Riaño) and I are developing a project on the digestive research conducted in Uganda and South Africa by a British physician named Denis P. Burkitt, a.k.a. “Dr. Fibre.” Burkitt surveyed the bowel movements, stool size, and diets of black and white Africans, and eventually identified dietary fibre as the key variable for making sense of the absence of “western diseases” among black Africans, and for the chronic constipation of white Africans and affluent peoples of all kinds (Burkitt 1972). So, Burkitt and his colleagues used unexamined and inconsistent racial categories to develop the theory of a direct, inverse relationship between progressive modernization (which looked like wage work, urban living, eating white bread and other commercial food products) and the quality of human digestion and elimination. In other words, the “better” you ate, the worse you pooped. And all those troubled No.2s had serious long-term consequences on your health.

Fun Fact: the connection between disease and digestion gone wrong has lived in the medical imagination since Pharaonic Egypt. However, the preoccupation reached fever pitch after the acceptance of germ theory by the late nineteenth century, which provided a new vocabulary and set of experimental techniques for investigating the effects of what The People’s Medical Lighthouse in 1856 called, “the disease of civilization”—or, constipation (Whorton 2000).

(If germs had been demonstrated to cause putrefaction of organic tissue outside of the body, what could they be doing on the inside, in that teeming cesspool that was the gut?)

When it was learned in the 1880s that gut microbes broke down proteins into compounds that proved toxic when injected into lab animals,  a full-blown theory of “autointoxication” was born: or the idea of self-poisoning through undigested matter in the intestines. Autointoxication became a buzzword for many chronic complaints unexplainable by other means (for instance, headache, indigestion, impotence, nervousness, insomnia) and as an explanation for an overall loss of quality of life and longevity–until around 1920, when studies proved that the nasty stuff couldn’t get into your bloodstream.[i]

The general physician’s recommendation to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, to exercise regularly, and to evacuate the bowels promptly warred in the popular constipation-arsenal with solutions that involved less work. All Bran cereal was introduced in the early 1900s and marketed for specifically this purpose. Also newly popular in this period: yeast, yogourt, a host of laxative products, colonic irrigation tools, electrical stimulators, rectal dilators, abdominal support belts, abdominal massage machines—and even a surgical procedure called colectomy, popularized by the celebrated surgeon of London’s Guy’s Hospital, Sir William Arbuthnot Lane. Its purpose was to “streamline” the human “drainage scheme.” Lane was convinced that constipation was a disease specific to urban, industrial civilization–in which living habits “distorted the colon’s anatomy in a way not suffered by (in his highly racist terms) the ‘savage races.’”[ii] So, Dr. Fibre was inspired by this previous work to actually go out and document the link.

Since then, Burkitt’s work has been credited with “chang[ing] the breakfast tables of the western world” (Ferguson 1993). His studies inaugurated what Sebastián and I call the dietary fibre paradigm – a rough period (1970s-present day) when it became good nutritional wisdom to “get more fibre.”

And the marketers scrambled to find new and exciting ways to offer consumers the same old, yummy white bread/rice/pasta (fibre-poor) AND whole grain options (fibre-rich) AND white options with fibre extract stuck in as a supplement (best of both worlds!). Because science would start proving that more fibre not only made you a happier camper when you visited the loo (and all the hours in between), it – for example – decreased blood cholesterol levels, stabilized energy levels throughout the day, and (as scientists have determined more recently) provided more diverse and more beneficial food for your gut microbes: those under-appreciated companions-in-living who are responsible for digesting much of our food, and whom we literally can’t live without.

If this hasn’t sated your appetite, check out some fun media coverage of this 21st century iteration of the DFP in the The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, and New York Magazine. It makes for great bathroom reading.



[i] For more on this delightful dimension of modern history, see James Whorton, “Civilization and the Colon: Constipation as “the Disease of Diseases,” Western Journal of Medicine 173 December 2000, p. 424-427.

[ii] William A. Lane, “An Address on Chronic Intestinal Stasis,” British Medical Journal 2 1913: 1126; William A. Lane, The Operative Treatment of Chronic Constipation (London: Nisbet, 1909), pp. 36-7).





Creative Destruction

The Rotman South Building Exchange Café has the best mediocre coffee on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus.

And the nicest washrooms. And no asbestos awaiting eventual removal.

Over the 2015-2016 academic year, as I finished my dissertation, I formed a habit of working there, hunkering in the glow of electric fireplaces and power-dressing vicariously through the self-conscious business casual of future-MBAs.

Rotman’s Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) has recently announced that it has expanded to the west coast (UBC Sauder). Not unlike myself (see UCLA, 2016-2017!).

Going west has a way of impressing upon you the implications of space. Lots of space. And I thought it a fitting time to post some thoughts on the connection between the promise of “scaling up” through tearing something else down. Growth through demolition. Generation through violence.

Why creative destruction, Rotman School of Management? Because I’ve been thinking about creative destruction as a name for the way the chemical, food, and pharmaceutical industries have used microbes and enzymes to generate value from waste products. Citric acid. Penicillin. Insulin. Monosodium glutamate (MSG). Countless products in the history of food science and biotechnology have become available through the deployment of microbial or enzymatic transformation and experimentation with industry “co-products” or wastes (e.g. sugarcane, corn, wheat, petroleum). So, breaking down leftovers to recombine them, and in so doing, turn liabilities into assets. See an earlier post for more on this.

What does professional Creative Destruction look like? The CDL program’s workspace is a three-tiered fish bowl commanding the northern side of the Rotman atrium’s stairwell. That staircase dares you not to appreciate how chic it is. Its saucy splashes of hot pink in an otherwise stark, modernist space remind you: we’re playful here. Innovative. On trend. (Check out this cross-section). Giant lettering in a modern, white font declares this glass box’s name: the Creative Destruction Lab.The CDL space has a big, white conference table. And a vertical banner in the corner that reads: “Build Something Massive.”

It is fair to say the CDL is preoccupied with size.

The year-long MBA program’s three advertised testimonials mention “depth and breadth.” Flying (and I paraphrase) to previously unimagined heights. Using the CDL’s “breadth and depth” of vision to turn your “relatively small vision” into something way bigger. It defines itself “as a unique program for massively scalable technology-based ventures.” Are you a tech geek with a little program, or a small business? The CDL program’s goal is to scale up that wittle potential into a commercial venture that “maximiz[es] equity-value creation.”

So, how is making things big (read: maximally valuable) about destruction? One testimonial gives the CDL’s distinguishing value as its “Demo or Die” philosophy. You can even attend DemoCamp and leave with the six steps to start-up success. How? The CDL program’s entrepreneur-coaches have “spent decades in the trenches of the startup ecosystem.”

And… we’re getting a bit rich in metaphors.

What do the above have in common? A foundational feature of capitalist growth. What’s the best way to get a really high rate of return on your investment? Start with something really small.

It’s the tyranny of math. Once your company’s big (in terms of $$s), it’s hard to have a steep rate of growth. What’s one of the most well-known finance adages? Buy low, sell high. Get in on the bottom, when something’s small, inject capital, promote promote promote, and then think about getting out when excitement and earnings are high (and before growth stagnates and profitability wanes). Make *&%ton of money. Open offshore account or three. Wait for furor over Panama Papers to subside. Repeat.**

**DISCLAIMER: This is not investment advice, nor does it intend to represent the complexity of contemporary financial markets. I became an historian so I could play with words and not numbers.

What I will say is that “creative destruction” has an important history in economics and political economy. Marx wrote about annihilation or destruction (in German, vernichtung), or the phenomenon by which he saw capitalism dismantle previous economic orders and assemble itself in their wake. He wrote that capitalism operates by necessarily devaluing existing resources (anything deemed by a society to be of value) in order to make possible the creation of new wealth, for example though war, dereliction, or economic crisis.

The German Marxist sociologist Werner Sombart has been credited with the first use of “creative destruction” (Krieg und Kapitalismus “War and Capitalism” (1913). Joseph Schumpeter, early 20th century Austrian-American economist, wrote about creative destruction as a process in which new technologies and products make old ones obsolete. Economic structures continually dismantling the ones that came before (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy 1942). In a detailed reading of Marx, Schumpeter calls “creative destruction” the seed of capitalism’s success–and its demise.

In 1976, Milton Friedman, Nobel prize-wining conservative economist, leader of the Chicago school of monetary economics, theorized that economic change never occurs without a crisis to shock the system into said change, i.e. natural, induced, or perceived (war, terror threat). No stranger to controversy, Naomi Klein wrote a book in 2007 called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, in which she argues that “disaster capitalism” is the phenomenon fuelling a new world economic order, in which “global instability does not just benefit a small group of arms dealers,” but is hugely profitable for the homeland security sector, for heavy construction, for private health-care companies, for the oil and gas sectors – and, of course, for defense contractors.

For now, I’l be channelling the destabilizing inspiration of being uprooted myself into more fully cooked research on this topic. Pondering… what does it mean – and how does it matter – that capitalism turns destruction and loss into a productive devaluation of somethings and someones, making possible a “massive scale-up” in capital value of other things and for other someones?  What are the “science-based startups” of the CDL destroying in order to reportedly create “more than $800 million (CDN) in equity value”?  (*Spoiler alert* They re-parcel investors’ less profitable funds into more, and more rapidly, profitable revenue streams.)

Are we going to see more crowdfunded food start-ups like the L.A.-based meal replacement product, Soylent (now backed by the same venture capital firm as Facebook and Twitter)? And why, oh why, among these creative destructors, are there so many dudes?


“Excuse me, but beef is certainly a most delicious thing, isn’t it?”**

Monosodium glutmate (MSG) is international. Full stop. (It’s not just in “Chinese food,” or exclusive to any other national or regional cuisine.) Let’s take a trip back 100+ years.

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, monosodium glutamate (MSG) was invented by a great and wise man, a father of Japanese protein chemistry. His name was Dr. Kikunae Ikeda. (My auto-correct just turned “Ikeda” into “Ikea.” Touché.) Ikeda traveled the globe conferring with the great chemists of the day, and brought their knowledge back home, to make it Japanese. Ikeda had a dream, a dream to help make a modern Japan great, to make its people strong, and to help its citizens eat more healthy foods. One day Ikeda was eating his wife’s soup, and he had a breakthrough! There was something special, something delicious–something distinctly Japanese in the flavour he was tasting. It wasn’t just sweet, sour, salty, or bitter. It was something else. Ikeda ran to the lab and toiled day and night to isolate the chemical responsible. At last, he stumbled on the cause: it was glutamate! Monosodium glutamate was its stabilized, salt crystal form. Ikeda took his invention and with a great entrepreneur, Saburosuke Suzuki, grew the Ajinomoto company–whose name translates to “the essence of flavour.” Ajinomoto brought delicious flavour to foods the world around. It made kids want to eat broccoli! Military rations less disgusting! Troops happier, wars more successful! Housewives more creative, more efficient! And everyone ate more happily ever after.

This would be the first chapter of my dissertation, if I were working for Walt Disney.

As it is, this mythic tale of discovery is recounted on the corporate website of Ajinomoto Group, Incorporated, today’s largest producer of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and leading force in amino acid products. (Click the link to watch their historical docudrama!) This story is also thickened in a succinct and insightful analysis by Japan historian Jordan Sand.

But my dissertation tells me, like any adolescent worth their salt, it’s so over tales of great men in distant lands. It argues that close and far are relative terms, and insists that I own my position, which is that of a white woman writing in Canada about a food additive that, in Canadian and American societies, is known most frequently as something “Asian.” Something to do with Chinese food. And being bad for you. Or, for more up-to-date foodies, as a retro-hip, cosmopolitan table-top seasoning that makes stuff taste awesome. Like your fusion noodle bowl. (Who doesn’t like fusion noodle bowls?)

In actual fact, my first chapter is a history about exchange across borders. It’s about a historical moment (the late-19th century) of unprecedented international collaboration and inspiration, in spite of–as well as because of–this being an era when the sun never set on the British empire. The ‘unequal treaties’ of 1858 had forcibly opened Japan to trade on terms favourable to the Five Nations: the United States, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Russia. (Euro-American trade in Japan had previously been strictly curtailed by the Japanese government.) So, Ikeda indeed traveled to Germany in the 1880s, but his ambitions rolled out in the context of the reformist Meiji government (1868-1912) plans to make Japan an imperial presence to rival the vexing heavy-hitters from the West.

The acquisition of Western-style food customs, or what was called yoshoku, was central to the Meiji programme for bunmei kaika (“civilization and enlightenment”). Besides demonstrating mastery of European tableware, seating, manners, and dress, reform-minded Japanese elite made a point to display a palate expanded to accommodate Western staples like long-taboo meat, especially beef, as well as dairy products and wheat bread. While the avoidance of meat-eating in pre-Meiji Japanese culture has been attributed to long-held tenets of Buddhism and Shinto, Japan’s native religion, the stigma attached to consumption of land animals (beef, horse, dog, monkey, and chicken from late spring until early autumn) has also been attributed by leading Japanese dietary and food historians Harada Nobuo and Ishige Naomichi to fears of livestock depletion stemming as far back as the seventh century. Meat-eating was limited to the elite and to rare ritual events and medicinal applications. These practices prevented the adoption of everyday meat-eating by the peasant masses, who surely would decimate livestock if given free land-mammal roasting license. (For more on these arguments, see a great history on modern Japanese cuisine by Katarzyna Cwiertka.)

In the immediate lead-up to the Meiji period, many Japanese were conflicted about eating meat. The apparent large stature and technological prowess of the barbarian West had associated meat consumption with physical strength. But public establishments serving animal flesh were stigmatized–called momonjiya, or “beast restaurants”–and their dishes were known by euphemisms to help them go down. Sakura (cherry) = horsemeat, momiji (maple) = venison, and botan (peony) or yamakujira (mountain whale) = wild boar. In 1872, however, the Meiji government formally announced that the Emperor’s daily diet now included beef and mutton, and meat-eating among ‘progressive’ Japanese was officially in vogue. This trend, or gyunabe, marked an emerging ethos of modern urbanity: free-spirited, adaptive, and cosmopolitanism. In the words of playwright Kanagaki Robun in a 1871 satirical book of monologues, Aguranabe (“Sitting around the Stewpan”), “In the West, they’re free of superstition. There it’s the custom to do everything scientifically, and that’s why they’ve invented amazing things like the steamship and the steam engine.” Progressive urbanites in Japan began to eat according to Western science.

The discovery of MSG, then, was undertaken in an era when reformist  Japan was hot for science and hot for animal protein. MSG was part of an international scientific fervour for unraveling the mystery of protein (as well as carbohydrate and fat) nutrition and flavour. (FYI: amino acids like glutamate are the building blocks of protein.) Ikeda’s scientific intervention was to declare a fifth taste sensation, umami (“savoury deliciousness”), whose existence was an evolutionary adaptation designed to incent us to consume protein sources (Ikeda 1909). And why should it not? After all, in turn-of-the-20th-century Japan, animal protein was the wave of the future. Animal protein was power. And animal protein was tasty. And if there wasn’t enough animal flesh to go around, well, at least Ajinomoto could make things taste meaty.

PS. No one worth knowing in the Euro-American scientific community believed Ikeda’s theory until a group of scientists based in Miami, U.S.A. published a study in 2000 identifying the sensory mechanism for umami taste perception. Why not seems to have been largely a product of global geopolitics and the hegemony of English-language scientific publishing. (But that’s my Chapter 5.)

**The words of Japanese playwright Kanagaki Robun in a 1871 satirical book of monologues, Aguranabe (‘Sitting around the Stewpan.’ In Katarzyna Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity (Reaktion Books Ltd.: London, 2006), 31.

Privilege and the Picket line: Why I’m on strike.

I want to write something about the current strike of CUPE3902 Unit 1 workers at the University of Toronto. I am a union member twice over, as a graduate student Course Instructor and as a Teaching Assistant. I teach HIS202: Gender, Race, and Science – an amazing class with many earnest and dedicated students. I’m bothering to add more words to the labyrinth of commentary because, despite some quite reasoned coverage by CBC’s Metro Morning and the Globe and Mail, I am wary of how easily labour strife can lend itself to simplification, into soundbites and Employer versus Union rhetoric.

I never thought I would be on a picket line. I walked to my first picket duty assignment on March 2nd with reluctance and trepidation, asking myself, “Is it possible to be a silent striker?” And then, as I found myself chanting the ear-worms written by our witty union leaders, plying hapless pedestrians with flyers, and joining my colleagues to strategically disrupt on-campus traffic, I was forced to ask myself, if I am doing this (and clearly I am), why does it feel so… bizarre?

I’ve been having a picket line existential crisis.

Which brings me to my point. I have felt disingenuous protesting my/our “poverty” status, when I know full well that I have never known true hunger, that my daughter wants for nothing, and that I spend an obscene amount of small change paying other people to make my coffee for me. I have felt a strange disconnect in playing the “working man”… because I know full well that I live a life of relative comfort, privilege, and safety. A large part of this is the fact that I am fortunate to have a partner who has a well-paid job… with relative job security and an adequate benefits package.

However, were I not so fortunate, I would be facing Year 7 in the PhD program in history with zero assured income in the year to come (all at this point is increasingly scarce and competition-based); an assured > $4,000 tuition bill (this will be the first year my tuition would be halved – each previous year, it has been $8,400); and zero assured TA work within the department, due to my being outside the “funded cohort” (5 years), and that despite my 4 years of TA experience. Any (max. $15,000) income would be the product of contingency and luck.

Am I still a fortunate person? YES. Is the above enough to live on – much less provide me sufficient peace of mind to focus my energies on the high-level intellectual work of producing a great dissertation? (Since that is the point of the University – and the state – funding my research: that I am at work furthering socially valuable knowledge and insight, and that the quality of my study and research => the quality of future undergraduate education => the quality of future citizens.) Not so much.

My first degree was in commerce. I worked in sales. I worked in accounting. I worked in PR. As someone who is aware of financial realities, I CHOSE TO ATTEND THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO to pursue a PhD in History (not only because I loved the field and found an amazing advisor here at UofT) BECAUSE OF THE FIVE-YEAR FUNDING GUARANTEE. I did not want to pursue a career trajectory that would leave me crippled with debt or leeching off family (who, while they are not in need, are certainly not in possession of wads of extra cash to throw my way). I did my best to make an informed and prudent choice, both intellectually and financially.

Do you know how many of those five guaranteed years of funding I have used? ONE. That’s 20% of my funding guarantee. Every other year, I have been fortunate to have successfully competed for external (government) funding for my research. So, 84% of my modest – and extremely appreciated – funding as a graduate student has come not from the University’s budget, but from the federal and provincial governments. (Thanks, tax payers! Be assured, my family and I pay taxes too.) However, those other four years of funding I did not collect from the University will not roll over past my Year 5. My only option will be to apply for small Dissertation Completion Grants and the same external government funding sources I relied on in the past (this too will cap out if I am awarded a scholarship again this coming year).

Sound like I’ve done pretty well by myself. Milked the system for as long as I could? The other side of the coin is that, while our funding reflects an assumption that the PhD program in history should be completed in five years, the reality it that the structure of the program is such that practically NO ONE can complete in this time… particularly if we are teaching at the same time. I know of two people in my seven years here (one of my years was parental leave) who have accomplished this. The more we are lucky enough to work (to earn money), the less time we have to focus on completing our dissertations. What’s more, some students are, like me, “direct admit” students, which means they are accepted directly into the PhD program without a Masters degree, due to their “strong research promise.” That means their PhD program is structured to be ONE YEAR LONGER than the usual. My funding guarantee is not one year longer. It’s still five years. My TA-work entitlement is not one year longer. It’s still four years. The history department’s promotional and informational materials did not mention the reality of its graduate students’ time-to-completion: anecdotally, as I’ve come to find, the average seems to be around 7-8 years.

Current program and funding structures assume that I will make up for this shortfall by being smart (lucky?) enough to win more external funding and “just work harder” to finish my dissertation already. I’m trying. (Right now I need to spend four hours of every day picketing. Haha!) Failure to live up to expectations within this responsibilizing logic (that powerful, neoliberal mode of socializing people to self-regulate and measure themselves against a host of achievement-oriented ideals and moral codes – i.e. there are no wider systemic forces at work, it’s just you not trying hard enough) results in self-loathing and frustration… and, as it turns out, a strike vote. Because striking is the only mechanism we have to make a hard point. Our existing funding guarantees were secured through previous union efforts.

A final word on neoliberalism on campus. The term can sound pretentious, needlessly vague. But it does something vital – it broadly names a move away from ‘welfare state’ practices that, whether we consciously align ourselves with them or not, benefit from and WANT. You know, like a minimum wage. Healthcare. A pension plan. Affordable transit. Regulations on things like day cares, schools, food manufacturers, public utilities. That our children get to go to school and don’t have to work alongside us to pay the bills. Crazy wild socialist stuff like that… they are results of the liberal, welfare state. And of labour mobilization.

I’m not a union firebrand. I’ve never even attended a CUPE meeting. I didn’t vote to go on strike. But I’m striking. You know why? (not just because to cross the picket line would be an egregious insult to my colleagues)

Because capitalism makes whores of us all. *this usage is figurative and not intended to denigrate sex work* Whether we work in a mine or a sweatshop or a university classroom – even, perhaps, if we work in the Provost’s office. We all get sucked into the obligation to sell our skills and our labour for a wage or salary.

The problem? Given these wider conditions, university administrations are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They deploy a liberal (think welfare state) ideal of universal access to higher education to support the relentless increase in university enrolment. Why? They need increasing tuition income – from ever-increasing numbers of admitted undergraduate and graduate students – to stay profitable (and be considered successful at their jobs). And then they turn around and use neoliberal (think shiny, new version of old-fashioned, elite conservatism) rationale to tell their armies of contract and part-time educators that there is no money for said educators to have job security, and that if said educators find the conditions difficult, it’s their own fault for choosing to go to graduate school. Just work harder. Spend less. Move in with your parents. If you can’t handle it, you should re-career.

At stake is the future form of higher education. Is it going to be an expectation of a majority of Canadian citizens? Or will it once again become an elite preserve? We all need to decide. And university administrations need to decide, instead of crushing precariously-employed educators beneath the weight of their hypocrisy.

That’s why you’ll find me and my Starbucks on the picket line.


In December of 2012, in the rosy pre-dawn of my life, before the hot glare of parental sunshine turned the river of my leisure time/ambition to mist, I watched on YouTube as three-Michelin starred chef and celebrity restauranteur David Chang declared to a packed auditorium at Harvard University that “microbes are the future of food.”

What followed was a twenty-minute exposition of food porn grounded in the happy accident of Chang’s laboratory kitchen that created pork tenderloin bushi—a gleefully carnivorous reincarnation of the traditional katsuobushi (or bonito flakes: slowly dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna). In the spring of 2014, Chang made this microbial fixation official, expanding his Momofuku restaurant empire, the “most important restaurant in America,” to launch the Kaizen Trading Company (KTC), a fermentation test lab and production facility based out of Brooklyn, NY. Its mission: the commercialization of novel, proprietary flavour bases for use in sauces, marinades, braising, and finishing—and all channeling the fifth taste sensation, umami (Japanese for “savoury delicious”). With his two flagship KTC products, Chang was riffing off traditional miso and soy sauce; he calls these Hozon (Japanese for “preserved”), a paste made from fermenting nuts, grains, and seeds, and Bonji (“essence”), a dark liquid made from a fermented grain. Neither is yet available on supermarket shelves; however, samples of both have been sent to a select cadre of chefs to be trialed.[1]

A Gen-X American of Korean parentage, self-consciously fusing “East” and “West,” Chang has been celebrated as one of the most innovative, charismatic, and successful chef-restaurateurs in America. However, Chang and other celebrated chefs hot for fermentation, such as René Redzepi, founder of Copenhagen’s Noma (the “best restaurant in the world”), are not necessarily doing anything new.[2] They are part—albeit a high-profile part—of a languorous twenty-first century love affair with the artisanal in the United States (and elsewhere), courting the ghost of a pre-industrial mode of production, making small what twentieth-century agribusiness made big.[3] Neither my personal inclinations nor my training disposes me toward neologisms or disciplinary jargon for their own sake; however, it occurred to me that Chang’s celebrated work reflects a sea change in both industry and popular engagements with eating—this change, it was A Thing.

This present-day phenomenon is an evolution of the now-familiar post-modern rejection of an industrial mode of food production, preservation, and marketing. A “post-modern” disposition to eating (roughly concentrated in the last three decades of the twentieth century) perhaps took hold with the first hippie to toss Wonder bread in favour of spelt, brown rice, and carob. It is the ideological home of the slow food movement (Carlo Petrini & co.); the industrial food exposé (Supersize Me, Fast Food Nation); of each iteration of locavorism (locavore was named the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007),[4] such as the renewed interest in community gardening and local farmer’s markets, eat local-think global campaigns, the phenomenon that is Michael Pollan; of every hipster-run dining hole showcasing reclaimed barnboard tables and shelling signature drinks in the false modesty of bargain-table glassware; and the motivation for every shabby-chic food truck overrun by a hungry middle America afraid of McDonalds and bored with Applebees. And fusion tacos. This post-modern sensibility lies behind every fusion taco, ever.

I depart from all this in suggesting that we have lately witnessed a “meta-modern” turn in eating. For me, “meta-modern” denotes a twenty-first century synthesis of the high-tech laboratory kitchen–or the food science that made possible the novelty packaged confections and frozen microwave dinners of the immediate post-war decades—and the pre-industrial, artisanal imaginary of local and sustainably-grown produce and livestock. Notice that I speak in terms of tangible infrastructures and sensibilities, rather than in just fixed eras of historical time; pre-industrial and industrial modalities of food production and consumption are salient today as both accumulated infrastructure and ideology, and each are integral to—not simply prior to—the post-modern sensibility within which food studies scholarship has come into its own.

Signifying the coalescence of rapid-fire (rate of digital) discourses of economic insecurity, resource scarcity, the global exchange of ideas and bodies, and unprecedented bioengineering capabilities, meta-modernism in eating is a reunion of the post-modern’s food fetish and nemesis. It names eating that does not eschew, but rather embraces, a sophisticated understanding of food science under the aegis of a fashionable alterity, and in the name of a green(er) future. It is an alternative approach that, I suggest, will become increasingly dominant. It is the modality behind some of the recent arguments for growing synthetic meat using lab microbes, of the proliferation of science-based primers for foodies interested (Harold McGee’s 1984 On Food & Cooking was a lone scout that presaged the arrival of DYI-science geek-gastronome hordes), and of the revalorization of a long-vilified flavour enhancer called monosodium glutamate (MSG), recently recast as just a concentrated source of our fifth taste sensation umami (Japanese for “savoury delicious”). And in one particularly evocative instance—that is, David Chang’s KTC—it is cooking and eating that embraces a sophisticated manipulation of microbes to make food that is novel and better in all respects than its supermarket predecessor. It is: meta-food.

~ more metafood musings to come ~

[1] Personal correspondence, Dan Felder, Research and Development, Momofuku Restaurant Group, March 2013; Jane Kramer, “The Umami Project: Inside the Momofuku Lab,” The New Yorker, January 21, 2013; Ann Hui, “Challenging Your Palate: Would you Try these Rotten, Mouldy Mixtures” The Globe and Mail, April 16, 201; David Chang and Carles Tejedor, “Microbes, Misos, and Olives,” Lecture 12, Science and Cooking Lecture Series, Harvard College, November 2012; Sam Dean, “Why David Chang’s Momofuku Is the Most Important Restaurant in America,” Bon Appetit, February 13, 2013.

[2]“The World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” William Reed Business Media. http://www.theworlds50best.com/list/1-50-winners <14/06/2014.

[3] Joanne Camas, “Microbrewing Soy Sauce in Kentucky. Yes, Really,” Epicurious magazine online. http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/blogs/editor/2014/07/microbrewing-soy-sauce-in-kentucky-yes-really.html?mbid=news_20140717_27992646 Accessed 17/07/2014; Joanne Camas, “Bootleg Biology’s ‘Chief Yeast Wrangler’ Talks Delicious Science” Epicurious magazine online, http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/blogs/editor/2014/07/bootleg-biologys-chief-yeast-wrangler-talks-delicious-science.html Accessed 21/07/2014; The Harvard Business Review coined the term “agribusiness” in 1956. “Agribusiness, N.,” in Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, 2002).

[4] Ben Zimmer, “Locavore,” WNYC (New York Public Radio online). October 10, 2012. http://www.wnyc.org/story/242445-ben-zimmer-locavore/ <Accessed 28/10/2014>.