Friday, February 10, 2012

Glowing sushi and 3D-printed cricket nuggets

Cormac Sheridan, contributor
Artist Andy Best in Gas Bag (Image: Patrick Bolger)

Food can be a tricky subject. Bombarded by conflicting messages from advertisers, health promotion agencies, scientists and celebrity chefs, it’s hard to know which is the right food or the wrong food, and even those elusive definitions are shaped as much by economic interests as by biological evidence. And overshadowing those considerations is the stark fact that almost a billion people do not get enough to eat.
I was a bit wary, then, when I approached the Dublin Science Gallery's latest exhibition, Edible: The Taste of Things To Come. Yet the show, curated by Cathrine Kramer and Zack Denfeld of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, adroitly sidesteps many of the exhaustive - and exhausting - debates on food. It follows the curators’ own gleefully subversive agenda on issues such as food biotechnology and plant breeding. The results are satisfying, flavoursome and not at all stodgy.

2nd-pic-Glowing_Sushi_3.jpgGlowing sushi (Image: Jason Sherwood)

Unlike the gallery's last show, Surface Tension, which explored the future of water, Edible does not have any major visual show-stoppers. The most eye-catching exhibit, Andy Best and Merja Puustinen's Gas Bag, a huge, colourful, inflatable stomach complete with sound effects, resembles a bouncy castle more than an artwork. Yet it encapsulates perfectly the tone of this exhibition, which is one of playful exploration rather than scientific dissection. There is a little of the latter too, though, in the form of lab demonstrations and exhibits such as Centrifuged Food by Seattle Food Geek Scott Heimendinger. Centrifuged peas make delicious butter, it turns out.
As the title suggests, Edible is primarily a taste, rather than visual, experience. Our introduction to the show was a light lunch, inspired by the same aesthetic that Kramer and Denfeld have already exhibited in their online cooking programme, The Glowing Sushi Cooking Show, which demonstrates how to make sushi using transgenic zebrafish expressing green fluorescent protein.
Here, they served up black bean and kimchi quesadilla, a Korean-Mexican fusion dish - and early Twitter phenomenon - invented in Los Angeles and usually served from taco trucks. It was followed by a vegan version of the notorious French dish ortolan that has been banned from commercial establishments. It involves capturing and blinding the ortolan (Emberiza hortulana), a small migratory bunting, which is then force-fed to twice its bodyweight before it is drowned in Armagnac and roasted and eaten whole. Diners place a napkin over their heads while eating, to concentrate the aromas - and to conceal any accompanying shame.
The vegan version - the full recipe is supplied in the exhibition - contains tofu, hop flowers, preserved lemon, umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum), Shiitake mushroom, and seaweed, among many other ingredients. Figs soaked in Armagnac stand in for the head, and sesame sticks for the bird's bones. It had quite a delicate flavour, though it's impossible to say how close it was to the real thing. Denfeld refused to confirm or deny whether he himself had done the full monty. "Ortolan is like Fight Club - you don't talk about it," he declared. (Someone forgot to tell Jeremy Clarkson.)
Visitors to Edible can sample a range of dishes on offer from a menu that changes every three days. Later this month Heather Julius, from the Special Snowflake Supper Club in the US, will host the first of a series of "curated" dinners that will be held during the run of the show.
Several exhibits offered more virtual dining experiences: Steam Cells, for example, comprises a series of dining scenarios devised by postgraduate students from the National College of Art & Design in Paris and inspired by stem cell research at the I-Stem laboratory in Evry, France.
Insects Au Gratin, by a group of British artists, suggests that 3D printing is the technology that could make entomophagy (the consumption of insects) catch on. It has an ecological dimension - crickets take four times less energy to produce than beef - even if it also has a pretty strong yuck factor. But extruding the insect protein into alternative shapes could help to eliminate that. Given what we already do with foods the idea of munching on cricket nuggets may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.
Even if you’re not ready to tuck into a plate of insects at home just yet, Edible has plenty of ideas to whet the appetite for whimsical and delicious food of the future.

Edible opens today at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and runs until 6 April

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