I intended to write about garlic today. I always find the new season of plump juicy cloves very exciting, but last night I attended a dinner that was so intellectually stimulating and such tasty fun that the new season of garlic has been trumped.
The Cross[x]Species Adventure Club is the brainchild of environmental art activist Natalie Jeremijenko who collaborates with experimental chef Mihir Desai (and others) to produce a future-focused dinner that playfully engages the diner in thinking about the relationship between humans and non-humans. Bringing together performance art, ecology, science and molecular gastronomy (I can hear you groaning but I promise Mihir can convert even the most sceptical), food becomes a medium for re-imagining how we can create biodiverse ecosystems that allow a multitude of life forms to live together and eat well. It’s an idea that is wildly simple and complex at the same time, and it’s the most radically convivial, pleasurable, political and provocative way of thinking about sustainability that I’ve come across. (Plus there are not too many dinners where you get to run your hand through a vat of liquid nitrogen, race snails and make ice-cream popcorn as part of the fun.)
Curious, enthusiastic and delightfully energetic, Natalie is no intellectual slouch. With a background in biochemistry, physics, neuroscience and precision engineering, she applies her knowledge of science to design public participative events that explore opportunities for non-violent social change. Amongst the million of other things that she does, she has set up the Environmental Health Clinic in New York City which runs like a normal health clinic but with a twist. Its “offices” are located around the world in the middle of roundabouts (a traffic control tool that Natalie believes is emblematic of collective, non-authoritarian decision-making), waterways and even up in trees. Instead of being prescribed drugs, patients leave with prescriptions for actions to improve their local environment. Natalie’s work addresses what she describes as the “crisis of agency” or, in other words, the question of how people can create change in partnership with the other living things with whom we co-habitate in urban and rural environments.
Natalie’s gastronomic partner in crime, Mihir, is similarly clever and multidisciplinary. He has a PhD in political philosophy from Harvard University but, lucky for us, applies his intellectual prowess to the culinary arts and shares with Natalie a love of science. His edible cocktails and other gastronomic experimentations give consideration to the interdependencies inherent in everything we eat. Together with Natalie, they set out to create food that is both strange and marvellous.
Take, for example, last night’s Dinner of Drought and Flooding Rains, a meal that playfully explored how we might eat in ways that allow us to walk more lightly on this delicate continent. As a nod to the Australian love of the punt, Natalie kicked off the evening by assigning us each a numbered snail in exchange for a $2 bet. Ever the upwardly mobile creature, our snails set off to race up the large AgBags (a clever but simple device designed by Natalie for vertical urban food production) hanging from the ceiling. Disappointingly, I was lumped with a particularly lazy snail who peaked too early and spent the rest of the evening snoozing in its shell. Or maybe it knew what was on the menu and was trying to keep a low profile.
Our entrée of snails, saltbush and pine mushrooms was an excellent starting point to get us in the cross-species mood. I stopped eating snails once I grew old and silly enough to be squeamish about slimy things, but they were once a childhood favourite so these were a real treat for me. As a gardener, I have spent a good many hours trying to rid myself of snails, but these voracious little herbivores are a brilliant protein alternative to industrial meat. They are a sign of good environmental health and make a positive contribution to local biodiversity, so why not cultivate and eat them in cities, Natalie asks. In fact, she puts to us the concept of snails as “vegan meat”. It’s food for thought, and nobody seems particularly put off by the idea. In the hands of Natalie and Mihir, the snails’ final days are spent on a diet of parsley rather than the traditional cornmeal. They die happy and well-seasoned. Instead of the usual garlic butter, Mihir serves them with pine mushrooms. One fungi and the other animal, these two life forms together on a plate evoke thoughts of the terrestrial. There are few creatures that have a closer relationship to the earth than the humble snail, and fungi are essential for the development of healthy soil, acting as a conduit for water, minerals and nutrients. We need fungi; without them, we’re stuffed. The fact that we were eating wild mushrooms in early summer, rather than autumn, had us talking about how quickly climate is changing.
But wait, there’s more. Our snails were garnished with a little saltbush, a plant that is highly tolerant of dry conditions and salinated soil. Oldman saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) is good for the land and encourages native wildlife to cohabitate with grazing animals, while providing cattle a rich source of minerals and nutrients. It also happens to produce a very tasty meat which fortunately a few lamb producers have figured out. It’s so win-win that one wonders why we don’t do more of it in Australia.
Our little entrée packed in a lot of flavour and a fair bit of intellectual punch. Next was the orchid root, macadamia and lychee gazpacho. This is where Mihir’s love of the molecular comes shining through. I’m a little sketchy on the detail (molecular gastronomy is really not for the home cook), but from what I could gather, the orchid root is essentially centrifuged to obtain a cream that is mixed with macadamia nuts and becomes the basis of a rich, cooling soup. The creamy nuttiness of the gazpacho bore no similarity to the desiccated orchid root which Natalie passed around for us to taste. Reminiscent of vanilla (which is, after all, an orchid), it also surprised us with hints of pepper, cardamom and clove along with a very slight and quite curious anesthetising effect on the mouth. Orchids are myco-heterotrophic creatures which means they live in a symbiotic relationship with fungi in order to feed themselves. Our soup was a tasty reminder of the mutualistic interactions and cross-species dependencies of food systems.
The following course was a medallion of wild rabbit served with fennel and red mustard seed along with a dollop of brilliantly sticky bacon “jam.” A St Ignatius shiraz was the perfect accompaniment with its hints of cassis and cinnamon. The shiraz comes from vines that are not irrigated, forcing the roots deep into the soil where they can reach the minerals that allow the wine’s unique terroir to fully express itself. Serving a feral (and wonderfully delicious) pest was Natalie’s strategy for provoking a broader conversation about the types of meat we eat here in Australia. Along these lines, Natalie went on to suggest rather controversially that crocodile might be a more sustainable alternative than kangaroo. After a collective gasp and bit of muttering around the room, she explained that kangaroos are limited in how many joeys they can produce in a year. By contrast, crocodiles produce around fifty eggs at once, with the expectation that predators will kill most. It’s a kind of reproductive surplus that kangaroos just can’t compete with. Crocodiles live in wetlands which are amongst the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. So crocodilian habitats offer a home to a multitude of plants and animals, but they also perform the bonus function of filtering pollution from waterways. Our environmental health is dependent on wetlands.
So where will we find all this crocodile meat? Plenty of crocodiles are farmed here in Australia for their valuable skins rather than their meat, which is effectively a by-product of the leather industry. Most is shipped overseas to China where there is growing demand for it. Why send this perfectly good meat overseas when we can eat it here? And why try to farm or harvest kangaroos when the ecosystems that are good for crocodiles also support such a diversity of human and non-human life forms?
These were just some of the questions we were left with as we were served our BioChaCha “cocktail,” a solid block of alcohol-infused vegan marshmallow (made from the methyl cellulose of the marsh mallow plant) and topped with biochar. The marsh mallow plant (Althaea officinalis) is an edible weed that needs marshes and swamps (more wetlands!) to grow and historically was a healthy food source for human populations during times of scarcity in many parts of the world. Biochar, on the other hand, can be produced by transforming municipal waste into a form of charcoal that sequesters carbon and helps retain moisture in the soil. Some recent trials have found that soils enriched with biochar are twice as productive agriculturally. Consumed in small quantities, it acts as a gastrointestinal decontaminant and food flavouring for humans. Our BioChaCha cocktails were an embodied way of reflecting on the possibilities available to us for improving our environment and farming practices at the same time.
It was an eye-opening meal of cross-species deliciousness, as Natalie calls it. I went home feeling energised, excited and upbeat about the future (or was it just the devilishly good 666 Tasmanian vodka left on every table?). The convivial atmosphere allowed me to connect with interesting people who might even down the track become co-collaborators in one way or another. At a minimum, there will be farm visits with new friends. This is exactly Mihir and Natalie’s intention: to create participative and connective mouth-watering art that mobilises people to think and act differently. Cheers to that.
Major kudos goes to Carbon Arts for curating an amazing series of cross-species culinary events with Natalie and Mihir.
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