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Food for Thinkers: The Grand Finale

Recipes for transgenic foods, the ethics of cyborg Jainism, lunar agriculture, and Harry Potter at the farmers' market: food for future thinkers.


On the principle of going out with a bang, rather than fading away, I present, with a drumroll, the Food for Thinkers Grand Finale.

First up is Zackery Denfeld at the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, whose post describes using "the lens of cuisine to investigate transgenic foods."


As part of a recent course Denfeld taught at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, he asked his students "to examine the USDA’s database of Field Tests of GM Crops, as well as those on the Petitions for Deregulation list, and write recipes using the plants they found." As Denfeld points out, the process of turning a biosafety review report into a recognizable set of culinary instructions meant that his students had to find, hidden somewhere within the legal, scientific, and business jargon of the corporate filings, the "supposed purpose and cultural narrative of a plant."

Read Denfeld's post, "Teaching Transgenic Food," in full to find out what to prepare from the fruits of biotechnology, from Kentucky Fried Tofu (from soybeans engineered to produce higher levels of fatty acids) to Quick Energy Potato Bars (from transgenic potatoes whose altered carbohydrate metabolism creates no amylase).

On BLDGBLOG, Geoff Manaugh contributes five short vignettes to the Food for Thinkers carnival. "Spaces of Food #1" examines the practice of agriculture as "long-term re-formatting of the planet's landscape;" "Spaces of Food #2" introduces us to a lunar greenhouse currently being tested at the University of Arizona's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center; "Spaces of Food #3" visits the mushroom tunnel of Mittagong, where "disused industrial infrastructure and an emerging food-production system fortuitously intersect;" "Spaces of Food #4" showcases the neon-lit oddness of Taiwan's betel-nut stands; and "Spaces of Food #5" features an architectural proposal for an odorless fish market in Camara de Lobos, Madeira, which relies on the designed interaction between solar heat and a complex ventilation system to achieve a "self-deodorizing architecture of thermal air control."

Shared across all five BLDGBLOG posts, each of which is worth reading in full, is a sense that food can reshape space in both intentional and accidental ways, whether it be thousands of generations humanizing the planet through agriculture or a team of scientists making the earth's surface simulate a lunar field.

Meanwhile, on his blog, Quiet Babylon, Tim Maly ponders the will of animals to live and the will of plants to live, and arrives at this terrible ethical question: if we become capable of not eating, could we be required to stop? His post, which is entitled "The Cyborg Ethics of Eating" and is far too interesting not to read in full, considers proposals for driving predators to extinction (to eliminate all cases of animals eating other animals, not just human carnivorism), demolishes arguments for according lesser status to plants ("If the goal is an avoidance of suffering, how to account for the knowledge that plants use chemicals to scream?"), and finally frames the question of eating in moral terms:

A growing pool of technology and knowledge brings with it a growing sediment of moral duties. Once we are able to do things, we must decide whether to do them.

It's not all that difficult to envision a research program driven by moral goals. How does a Jain with a multi-billion dollar R&D budget approach the terrible problem of eating? Why not cut out the clumsy middleman of mastication and develop new systems for converting energy and nutrients directly into sustenance? Imagine a research program devoted to enabling cyborg Jainism.

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Finally—and if your mind is not completely blown at this point, I give up—we move to a completely different kind of future, in which Robin Sloan saves the publishing industry through food. In an immensely enjoyable post on Snarkmarket, Sloan makes a powerful pitch for food as an "irresistible, universal hook"—"one of the most powerful tools" for selling ideas—and for fiction's dependence on food as an engine to move plot:

Today, in 2011, food isn’t just part of the background; it’s right up front, in sharp focus. We think, every day, about our food’s composition and its origin. We look at labels. We ask for options. We feel waves of angst and dread. We are uncertain.

This is the perfect environment for fiction.

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Building on this union of food and fiction, Sloan then notes the twin facts that "one of the big problems with books is that there are fewer and fewer credible places to sell them" and that "there are more farmer's markets than Whole Foods stores in the United States." The next step is now obvious:

So what if you set up a stand next to the radish-monger and sold books at the farmer’s market? What if wasn’t the same pulpy selection you get at Wal-Mart—the latest Lee Child and James Patterson—but instead an inventory specifically concocted to tickle the brains and tug the heart-strings of farmer’s market true believers?

The next boy wizard will enroll in a magical cooking school.

The next Jason Bourne will be pursued by a sinister agribusiness giant and/or the Tuna Yakuza.

The next Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be a girl with a street food cart.

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I have to admit, I have heard more unlikely stories. Especially over this past week. But don't take my word for it: visit Snarkmarket to read "Harry Potter and the Farmers' Market" in full.

And on that note, I think it's time to say goodnight.

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.

Images: (1) Teaching Transgenic Food by Zackery Denfield; (2) Betel Nut Beauties by Magda Biernat, courtesy of Clic Gallery; (3) Christmas Eve Feast by shadarington.

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