Food under the Microscope: Test-Tube Burgers and Mouse Liver Chocolates
On Saturday, I attended The Other Dinner at the Waag Society in Amsterdam. The Waag is the oldest building in the city that isn’t a church, as its turrets and winding staircases attest. Being so old, it has also seen many uses, from weigh station (hence the name) to the setting for Rembrandt’s painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp to, most recently, a space for researchers, designers and artists interested in exploring the intersections of science, art and technology.
The Other Dinner was a workshop and meal (eaten in the former anatomy theatre immortalised by Rembrandt), organised and designed by industrial design student Chloé Rutzerfeld in response to the recent development of the first in vitro burger by Professor Mark Post at Maastricht University. In the Netherlands, as in the UK, most people consume only a limited range of meat, and often that which is least obviously meaty (and least environmentally sustainable), like chicken breast and beef steak. The development of in vitro meat has partly come about as a response to the question of what we will do in the future if both population and meat consumption continue to increase and our current farming methods become unsustainable. So, as well as technological solutions like in vitro meat, she provoked the attendants to consider changing our attitudes to what meat we eat, by making and eating traditional recipes that use offal and eating wild animals.
I expect you might be wondering what this has to do with reproduction. It is tempting to point out that, in a sense, everything has to do with reproduction, not least how we feed ourselves and future generations. I believe that it is difficult and usually unhelpful to separate out questions of reproduction from everyday concerns, and food is certainly an everyday concern, even in developed countries like the UK and the Netherlands. More specifically, I think that technologies of food, and especially in vitro meat, provide a useful and provocative parallel to our thinking about assisted reproductive technologies, in the fruitful questions they raise about how we are constituted, the reach of science and technology into the realm of nature, how living beings are related and the ethics of making organic matter in labs.
The day was split into three chapters. The first focused on making food from parts of animals we don’t usually eat anymore, so we split into groups to make boudin noir, cibreo, a Florentine soup of chicken offal (we had to restrict our range to heart and liver, as it is impossible to get the other parts of chicken such as wattles and testicles from butchers and slaughter houses in the Netherlands) and zampone, which involves stuffing the skin of pigs’ trotters with spiced minced pork, as well as pig’s head, bone marrow and brain. For the second chapter, we watched a masterclass in skinning and preparing wild muskrats, which we tasted deep-fried as wontons. Finally, after we had finished dinner and chocolates filled with mouse liver parfait, we had a hands-on class in DIY in vitro meat. Throughout the day, invited speakers gave short talks on alternative ways of growing and eating meat.
I have always taken a certain pride in being less squeamish than many of my compatriots and like to think of myself as open-minded about trying different foods. Unfortunately, though, I have not enjoyed most of the offal I have tried, not because of what it is, but how it tastes. The soup of chicken heart and liver that we ate first left a lingering and strong taste of liver in my mouth which made me slightly queasy. The queasiness didn’t stop me from trying the other foods on offer, except for the mouse chocolates – much as I wanted to be able to say I’d eaten mouse, I couldn’t face any more liver; the muskrat would have to be sufficient as that day’s entry on my list of unusual animals I have consumed in my life. However, this very real queasiness did make me question whether being forced to reflect on my meat consumption had caused more than a physical distaste, but also an ethical one and I must admit I have eaten hardly any meat in the last few days. Sara Ahmed has written eloquently about the politics of disgust and this was an apt lesson in just that.
We have, with the industrialisation of food production, become increasingly divorced from how our food is grown and prepared, yet there is also a strong backlash to this, with people shopping ethically, campaigning for action on ‘food miles’ and growing their own vegetables and fruit. I have been thinking about this for a long time and my many vegetarian and vegan friends have prompted me to justify my meat-eating to myself on numerous occasions. Like most people, my food consumption is only patchily ethical. I don’t eat tuna, much as I love it, I have never bought eggs that weren’t free range, I have an allotment, I do some hedgerow foraging and three years ago I made the decision to make a large reduction in the amount of meat I eat. I believe that our current practices in farming are unsustainable, but I still make my morning porridge with cow’s milk and usually buy it from a supermarket, too. When I am in a restaurant, it rarely crosses my mind to consider the provenance of the ingredients I am eating too closely. And, faced with a forkful of pig’s brain last Saturday, I found myself focusing on the capers with which it was cooked as I swallowed it down, mostly out of bravado.
Eating and reproduction are both about crossing bodily boundaries and disgust is, as Sara Ahmed points out, a powerful and in many ways fitting response to such transgressions in reminding us that these topics are about the fundamentals of life. But one of the most powerful things they do is show the edges of acceptability, whether that is the bounds of heteronormative sexual reproduction or the heavy meanings of certain organs of the body.
During the day, there was some discussion about the different terms used to describe in vitro meat. While ‘cultured meat’ is favoured by those working on it, ‘Frankenburgers’ is generally thought to be most harmful to the reputation of the technology. ‘In vitro meat’, lying somewhere in between these two on the rhetorical spectrum, is seen as too cold and clinical, though as a social scientist, I have to wonder whether cultured meat is really the optimal term, as ‘culture’ seems more likely to spark associations of human activity than the liquid inside a petri dish to people without scientific training. For nations in which offal leaves a bad taste in the mouth, cultured meat might be a bit too obviously animal matter, the product of human creativity. Whatever terms Mark Post and his colleagues end up with – and, just as when we name our babies and they then spend their lives going by a nickname, usually these things get set through usage rather than by the will of their creators – the discussion points to the importance of public acceptance in getting such projects off the ground.
As Louis Buckley pointed out in his talk, the launch of the world’s first in vitro burger by Mark Post in London this summer was a peculiarly lacklustre affair, perhaps because the expensive American PR firm hired to oversee the launch judged that the best way to handle this potentially problematic product was to make it appear as mundane, and therefore normal, as possible. This might seem surprising since the ethical arguments for in vitro meat are easy to marshal, from the positive environmental effects of reduction in land use and methane production to the improved ability to feed the world that this technology posits. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have offered a $1million prize for the person to create the first ‘test tube’ chicken meat. Yet, these ethics are complicated. In vitro meat is no ‘victimless meat’, as the culture medium in which the muscle tissue is grown is, for now, derived from bovine foetal cells – another reason to reconsider whether ‘cultured meat’ is the best choice of term, perhaps.
Our after-dinner entertainment – punctuated by a few affectionate jokes amongst the Waag staff about playing Frankenstein – was a chance to make our own in vitro meat by culturing mouse cells. This was the part of the day I enjoyed the most and it was mostly an exhilarated fascination I felt as I dissected a mouse, cut away part of its stomach lining, placed that it in a phial with Ham’s (I kid you not) culture medium and put it in an incubator. Incidentally, the story interferes with another species boundary here, as the mice we dissected were, before being acquired by the Waag, destined for consumption by pet snakes and the incubator in which their cultured cells now lie is one that is designed for incubating reptile eggs. Such is the nature of DIY biology, which is another specialism of the Waag Society. If in vitro meat becomes a viable reality in the future, it may be that households will have kits for making their own burgers and steaks from stem cells in their kitchens, a further revolution to the farming industry that we have now. This was for me, as someone whose professional tools are the solid, dry media of paper, books and computers and who hasn’t dissected anything since I was at secondary school, a rare opportunity to confront my senses, to have a truly hands-on experience of biological research.