I gave a lecture titled “dangerous eating and eating dangerously” during the Lucitopia Rural Design Challenge 2019, the transcript will be posted under.
First, I’d like to say that this is a speculative journey I want to share with you. You don’t have to take my words for it, it isn’t an informative lecture.
I prepared four points along the way, let’s see how long its gonna take and how far I can make it.
Before we go to the first point, I just want to point out that this picture here, I didn’t just put it here because of the flashy color. It is an electron micrograph of a human neutrophil ingesting MRSA, which stands for Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, this picture is the heart and soul of this talk. You will see.
- Now, eating is a dangerous act. Why do I say that, how can something that everyone instinctively know how to do be dangerous? Well, take human baby as example, the first thing we do when we are hungry, cry for food, and then our parents give us something to nibble on, mother’s breast, or pacifiers…. This act of feeding-eating is tightly linked to learning, including learning from hereditary information, things we inherit from our ancestors way before us. This act is also significantly dependent, as it is obvious in this case, the baby needs feeding to survive. Now this hereditary learning, may it be culture, epigenetic inheritance, we are also not alone, other species learn about food, eating, feeding strategies through what we can consider as culture as well. Now here is a very interesting theory called extended evolutionary synthesis that examines these issues closely, if you are interested, you can look it up.
Think about it, eating, putting food in your mouth, you are basically ingesting or being ingested with an alien organism. Imagine biting into a live organism, say a sizable inset, jumping up and done in your mouth, most of us who are not trained in the inset eating field yet would instinctively feel scared, then, why is it suddenly not so scary anymore once it stops moving?
If we go into a supermarket, we know if everything went well, all the fresh looking produce are edible, if you don’t have any allergic reaction of course, all those vegetables are not fatal when ingested, that knowing, comes from thousands of years of foraging experience, domestication cultivation process. When in the wild, if you are not careful, there might just be some juicy looking berries that can kill you with some crazy toxins. Here are some examples: the grape looking poke berry, tomato like horse nettle and something very familiar to whoever celebrates Christmas, holly. They are all poisonous. and a handful of them can do great harm to human body. At these moments, we are left to depend on our species accumulated experiences, accumulated knowing, careful examination, sniffing, touching.. And it is then, we can deeply sense our species fate intertwined with that of other organisms, those that possess the power to kill or cure.
Even when we come back to our local food market, we can still recognize our dependence in neutralizing the danger of our foods. Someone would have to choose the right origin, that the vegetables and animals were cared toxin free, that the transportation sees no disturbance, the slaughter house is well maintained, and the storage space is weather controlled… All these distributed effort and care spare us from fatal consequences.
The fundamental risk of eating can be contained through acquiring knowledge, experience and asserting care. In modern life style, this risk and danger is externalized to numerous third parties and creating a complex web of trust and responsibility.
I remember once hearing a joke, it says, imagine what kind of drag it must be if we are still in the food chain, if you have to escape the case of a lion to get to work everyday, after running for you life, you go sit behind a desk for the 9 to 5. I’m pretty sure we haven’t escaped the food chain, nor have we succeeded in cheating the system, not every type of eating food relationship involves what we consider as a struggle for life between two species. If we ought to see what human is to do facing the impending ecological catastrophe, we have to place our essential energy sourcing — eating back into the multi-species story.
- One of the most effective and charged topic that can lend its power in re-shaping this multi-species story is the microbes.
I’ll start with a dangerous scary example. I will not show image of it, as it can be rather graphical. A disease: necrotizing fasciitis, it is commonly known as flesh-eating disease, most common cases are caused by a group of different bacterias including MRSA which I mentioned before. They eat away soft tissues of infected individuals, moving rapidly and creating acidic environment for bacterial proliferation and eventually lead to the death of the infected body. But stapph- infection caused by the Stapphloccus bacterium isn’t at all that uncommon, nor as scary, since everyone hosts many trans of stapphlocuus on their skin, guts, throats. Though these bacterias and virus that usually live among us or inside us quite peacefully can suddenly became vicious and eat us away bit by bit. Human micro biome consists about the same amount of cess as our own cells, that is the micro organisms living on the surface and in the depth of my skin, as well as in my gut have equal number of cells as the other cells that function together as me. Microbes generously or you can say indifferently coats all organisms, their special composition reacts to each places’s specific temperature, weather condition ,water and soil, cultivates a unique microbial terroir. Through eating, we can literally connect our bodies with each and every unique terroir of which the food comes from, the journey it took, the hands it touched… through eating, we endanger our body’s seemingly concrete boundaries to the world, so much so that one may even ask when does the border of which I call my body ends and when and where do food begin.
Microbial terroir becomes apparent in all kinds of fermented goods. Each place’s unique microbial terroir contributes to the unique though subtle taste difference of its fermented goods, the alcoholic beverages, fermented sauces and condiments, vegetables and meats. .
We know by now that over use of anti-bacterial products violently disrupt the delicate balance between different species of micro organisms, resulting in – an upset belly, travel sickness that usually occurs first couple of days upon arrival. It is believed that drink a cup of water mixed with local soil can cure this. and more trouble some diseases caused by antibiotic resistant microbes that are creating fear of epidemic. We are perhaps the first generation to painfully realize that we have to work with a gigantic intricate system operates at the earth magnitude. Then we can see what a stupid mistake of thinking that nome-cultural farming would be a great idea, isolating a group of organisms out of its dependence on various connected parts, through visible and invisible chains. To really learn form the mistakes that brought us global warming, with meat produce, mono-culture farming contributing a huge sum of carbon emission, deforestation and all that terrifying news titles, we must face our dependence and interconnectivity to all other organisms. Food and eating isn’t as simple as growing crops to feed the hungry mouths, nor only as chic as calling farm to table as the ultimate savior. We can no longer assume banality of our actions.
- I’ll move on to talk about the theme of this year: edible. Well, the first question I ask myself is: what makes something edible and what not?
Cyanide, I’m sure lots of you have heard of it, especially if you are a fan of thriller detective stories. Hydrogen cyanide has been used as weapon of countless assassinations. It can kill a person quickly for just 200mg solution can kill average adult within minutes. Vitamin B17, sounds like something healthy, It is Amygdalin and was branded as supplement to cure cancer. It abundantly present in the seeds of apricots, bitter almonds, apples and some other rock fruits. Amygdalin has a nitrile group, upon ingestion, will release cyanide into the blood strain.
If you are a Chinese Wuxia novel reader, I’m sure most of you aren’t, but I highly recommend it, there is a phrase that is popular in these novels, using poison to tackle poisoning. Now my favorite example is in the return of the condor heroes, the main protagonist was suffering form a poisonous flower, here I’ll poorly translate it into flower of love, after numerous twists and turns he finally found out that the toxins in his body can be counter acted by a poisonous grass grow near the flower bush. It tastes so bitter it’s almost heartbreaking, this idea isn’t that surreal. Atropine, under normal circumstances, can kill an average adult with around 80-130 mg, though more than 500 mg to 1 g is used when treating pesticide poisoning. Of course, modern medicine tells us the importance of dosage, and cutting edge biological research has also suggested that the toxicity level isn’t a linear relation to dosage. So might we say that all foods are edible and inedible to an extent? Some plants have parts that are highly toxic, parts that are ultra delicious, of course everyone is heard of the crazy puff fish, rich of neuron toxins, yet deadly delicious. And we are not alone in finding it hard to recognize what is edible and what is not. Let’s talk about hay fever, or autoimmune disease caused by our immune cells mistaken our own normal cells as foreign and starts to attack them, dissolving, eating away our own cells.
Then why do we and most animals, insects, who can’t use photo synthesis to acquire energy using eating, this highly unreliable, risky way to obtain energy?
Let’s return to the earliest and basic life forms. Eukaryotes and Prokaryotes, Eukaryotic cells have nucleus and membranes enclosed organelles, while prokaryotes don’t. We are made of highly specialized eukaryotic cells, so we are also a type of eukaryotes, but let’s talk about the most basic one with single cell, most of them has something called mitochondrion, which if you still remember your middle school biology, is the place where ATP is produced and that’s the source of chemical energy for most animals. There are two theories that deal with the origin of mitochondria, and I lean towards the endosymbiotic theory, it holds that a small autotrophic bacterium was engulfed by a larger heterotrophic primitive eukaryotic cell, dissolving the cell wall of that bacterium, includes it as a functional part of the new whole. Later, this previous individual bacterium slowly becomes mitochondria and can not function alone without the larger cell that engulfed it, the formation of a symbiotic relationship between once an alien intruder and its predator lead to the first possible independent energy producing cell structure. The larger cell ate the smaller one and turned it into a powerhouse for itself. Endosymbiotic process does not only happen between these two specific organisms, it was also observed between larger cells, such as between algae and spotted salamander, the deep sea lantern fish and the bio-illuminent bacterium, and even possibly resulting in the formation of other functional parts which are called organelles of a modern matured cell structure. Now, if you take the logic of this process and follow it through, what is preventing us from entertaining the idea that organs, such as those of our own also had an endosymbiotic-like origin process? That this seemingly functional whole came from the ingestion of several small parts of various qualities? Or that by eating certain plastic-digestive microbes, we might be able to acquire a designated plastic digesting organ?
Serious scientists wouldn’t approve I guess, but we are gonna talk about design for dangerous eating, if you take my word, perhaps this crazy speculation I just gave could be the first blueprint.
Or if you’d like a more subtler approach, but taking the basic assumption that eating is dangerous none the less, I propose that there can be three level of design. I will illustrate them using forms of questions.
First, that of design for awareness: take a look at the landscape we are in, besides this little bits of clearing we are now at, all that surrounds us are dark mysterious mountain forests, now how might we engage with this risky environment, in which the potentials for harm, on both side, us and other organisms are lurking around each other. How might one be alleviated to a state of absolute alert, in which the highly concentrated attention will make a clearing in oneself, becoming open and vulnerable.
A little anecdote: one of the chatty lady that we met last year was this cow lady who keeps cattle to sell them for meat. I’m really sorry that i don’t know her name, but her personality has left in me a deep mark that I will not forget. One of her cow was unfortunately caught in a trap in the forest. Now this region had a lot of rare precious wild animals in the past, and one of the way to make quick cash for people here was to set up a trap and catch a few of those animals to sell. …
Second, that of design to cope with danger: Working with microbes can be very dangerous, and if you are into canning, you are probably well aware of the strict disinfecting procedure. Though wild fermentation has been practiced for centuries without involving scotching heat. Here is a Miao woman preparing their typical fermented fish, by rubbing marinade made from rice grains and spices onto cleaned fish and pack them into a jar and leave for couple of months. This part of china we are in now, is humid and warm, that is perfect condition for a lot of lactic bacterium to flourish. People here make alcoholic beverages from rice grains. Making fermented goods is also a very coded procedure, certain specific beliefs are held as in some special steps need to be taken, if you unpack those coded procedures, perhaps we can get a glimpse at the core of how to deal with danger? Calm and confident, with a bit of magic spell maybe. And in this process of coping, How might we cultivate a mutually caring relationship between the potentially mutually harmful bunch? Be careful towards danger but also care for what is dangerous.
Lastly, that is what I call dancing with fire: here is a book written by a guy called Li Shizhen back in 1578, it’s translated as compendium of Materia Medica. In this book, Li described almost everything that you can imagine one can put in their mouth, how they taste like, what and if they have particular medicinal or toxic factors. Some people jokingly say that given the amount of toxins he has tried, he shouldn’t have been alive to write this book, let alone calmingly describe the taste of those poisons.. I will give another anecdote: I was walking down the street of florence with my mom last summer, we saw a side walk tree baring lots of cherry like fruits. My mom picked up one fallen on the ground, gave it a sniff, squeeze and just took a bite, I got so worried and said, what if its poisonous! She just shrugged at me, well, I’m sure that’s the only way mothers know how to deal with their kids, she said, nah, it’s astringent. Now, I thought, Yeah, that’s the spirit!
Well, I hope this journey hasn’t bored you too much with those fancy scientific terms I like to throw in just for show, but it’ll be great if it has sparked any ideas, sensations, tingling feelings in you, and wanting to embrace and be unassuming about eating dangerously. Thank you.