MetaFood

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>.

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