What is Edibility?
Salty jujubes? Horse meat balls? Baby formula? Mystery powders and drops?
These were some of the goodies on offer at the workshop on edibility during What is Food?
Along with artist, researcher and PhD David Szanto, doctoral candidate Laura Shine organized a tasting to make attendees question their thoughts on edibility. In five distinct stations, visitors were invited to sample, discuss and think about the challenging foods on offer. Here’s a virtual tour of the bits and bites. How would you have reacted?
What is Food?
Sea of Tranquiety
At the crossroads between tranquility and anxiety, two types of candy-like items were on offer here. Moonrock, a beautiful turquoise-blue tire-éponge, intrigued eaters with a dose of peppery heat. Ocean gels looked more innocuous — red, jujube-shaped, with a bouncy texture. Once in the mouth, though, they delivered an overwhelming saltiness, a menthol cold and an almost crunchy gelatinousness typical of agar-stabilized gels.
Instead of dissolving as candy might, they presented a chewing challenge and a quasi-impossibility of ingestion due to the salt levels. As one eater described it, the gels produced a sensation akin to choking on seawater — a unexpected briny, invasive, cold shot.
Lab Whiz Demo
Eaters were presented with two orange/brownish pastes, extruded from large syringe-like tubes and served together on a paper-like wafer. Both pastes were riffs on preservation.
The first paste was made with fermented ingredients, one of humankind’s oldest techniques for food processing. It contained sourdough bread, artisanal cheese, traditional Thai fish sauce (nam pla) and naturally fermented hot sauce.
The second paste contained industrially preserved equivalents: white sliced bread, processed orange cheese, Worcestershire sauce and an industrial hot sauce. Industrial preservation, achieved through means such as preservatives, stabilizing agents and packaging techniques (canning, sous-vide and so on), defines much of the foods we consume today.
The juxtaposed pastes invited eaters to think about industrial vs. artisanal preservation methods and their results, but also about how much they really know about the foods they eat — What ingredients are in them exactly? Who made them and how? What process have they gone through and how has this affected them?
Feeding Friend Z
Who do we trust to feed us and how close are we willing to let them get?
In this station, attendees were asked to prepare a “recipe” of their own creation with a variety of powders and liquids in small opaque bottles, to be combined in a spoon.
Each product was identified, but the name did not refer to any recognizable item (though all were food products). Once the mix was ready, it was offered to another guest, ideally inserted directly into their mouth.
This process challenged tasters to think about trust in and reliance on the food preparation process. It physically engaged strangers — or sometimes friends — in an extremely intimate act reminiscent of childhood and redolent of dependence: that of being fed by someone else, especially a food that is unknown.
Meanings of Meat
Why do we consume certain animals and shun others? Why do we eat cow and pig, but not wolf or muskrat? Why do we avoid insects, but accept shrimp and escargot?
In this station, tasters were presented with two kinds of insects — plain roasted crickets and salted, seasoned grasshoppers — and horse meat balls. Reactions to each proposition were varied. Some were interested in the insects’ nutritional value, others in the novelty factor. Surprisingly few refused to try them; instead, most found them delicious, especially the seasoned grasshoppers, which had many tasters asking for seconds.
The horse meat was also met with mixed feelings. A few eaters had tasted horse meat before, and felt it was a little different from beef. Others were bewildered, for ethical or emotional reasons. One man was “brought up with horses” and could not imagine eating a companion.
Another attendee readily tasted but was assailed with unexpected visions of horses; while eating other meats did not evoke the animals they came from, she was surprised that she could think of nothing else but horses while she was chewing on their meat.
Food choices, and meat choices especially, are highly culture-dependant. Which animals we eat, avoid, or keep as pets varies, as do our willingness to use and consume them.
Questioning how and why we categorize animals and establish distinction within categories reveals a lot about where we set the boundaries of edibility. Presenting attendees with comestible, though often shunned, animals invited them to think through their ideas about acceptable meats.
In this station, eaters were given two small samples of baby formula and asked to fill in some tasting notes. Formula is meant to completely fulfill babies’ nutritional needs, as a replacement for human breast milk.
This comparative experience invited attendees to reflect on the nutritionist paradigm, which tends to place nutrition above all other concerns in regards to food.
What do we consider primordial when edibility is at play?
What lies beyond nutrition?
How does the obsession with individual nutrients inform and transform sensory appreciation and how does it shape tastes?
Baby Formulas in Focus
Baby formulas are a savant mix of 30 or so ingredients, meant to cover babies’ dozens of micro and macronutrient needs. They are formulated first and foremost with nutrition in mind, rather than taste, deliciousness or even palatability.
It is far from being bland, however, since additives generally have strong off-putting flavours that need to be concealed. As tasters discovered, all formula brands are not equally formulated.
Nestlé® Good Start® was found to have no smell, the smell of a female body, milky, rich, almost like vanilla aromas. To some, it tasted metallic and slightly bitter, powdery, sweet, processed, with a fatty, watery, waxy finish. Overall, not bad for most, and gag for a few.
Human milk has a palatable taste to infants. In addition, its flavour changes depending on the developmental stage of the baby and the food the nursing mother is eating. Thus, for babies who are breastfed, milk serves as a first “gastronomical education”. However, due to a variety of reasons, formulas can be the best solution for some babies. How might this impact their future relationship with food and taste?
Laura Shine is a doctoral candidate in Concordia’s Humanities program, in the fields of food anthropology, food marketing and sensory studies. She investigates the changes in attitudes and behaviours towards novel foods, with a particular focus on entomophagy. She has served as strategic consultant on the board of insect start-ups and presented talks and workshops on eating bugs in schools and university settings. In 2017, she devised and taught an undergraduate course in Food and Culture in Concordia’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her research has been supported by scholarships from the SSHRC and the FQRSC, and by a fellowship from the Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research.
David Szanto is a researcher, artist, and writer, taking an experimental approach to gastronomy and food systems. Past projects include meal performances about urban foodscapes, immersive sensory environments and performance-installations, and interventions involving food, microbes, humans, and technology. David has taught about food at Concordia University, UQÀM, and the University of Gastronomic Sciences, and has written numerous articles and book chapters on food, art, and performance. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Montréal en Santé.