Thursday, September 29, 2011

Synth Meat Safari ? Tell ‘em they’re dreaming, son

In the first week of September, 2011, researchers were meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden, to ‘plot out a path towards meat without slaughter’ (New Scientist, 3rd September 2011 No2828 pp8-9. Yep, the lab just became the new game park with the trophy being synthesised lion ribs and silverback silverside, or at least that’s a possibility canvassed by bioethicist Stellan Welin who is cited as saying that because creating exotic meats in the lab wouldn’t be killing the animals ‘some of the ethical questions posed by panda burgers could be sidestepped’. New Scientist also says that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has put up $1million for the first commercial synthetic meat.
So, where have these new big game hunters got to so far?
Mark Post of Maastricht Uni, Netherlands, has apparently made muscle by feeding pig stem cells with horse foetal serum – now there’s a breakfast of champions! He’s grown muscle strips 2.5cm long and 0.7cm wide, which he exercises each day by anchoring them to Velcro strips and stretching. Charles Atlas eat your heart out – can’t wait till the strips kick sand in Post’s face. Mind you, they need the exercise as they are apparently anaemic because they lack blood and very little mycoglobin, the iron bearing protein.  Post is quoted as saying ‘I’m hopeful we can have hamburger in a year’. Whoa, Mark, last time I saw hamburger meat raw it was fair dripping with blood, and it wasn’t all muscle either. I for one like some fat in my burger mince to get that greasy, syrupy flavour soaking into my bun.  And I like my steak and roast rare with blooded, not just red coloured, juices to sop up so I’m not planning on sinking my teeth into synth meat from your lab just yet.
And what about the taste, you ask? Well, apparently there currently are strict regulations against consuming lab grown muscle tissue fed on calf foetal serum because of a low risk they may contain prions or other nasties. So, no-one’s put any of this synth stuff in their mouth, or at least they aren’t owning up to it.
 Hmmm, bloodless, potentially tasteless, boot-camped synth muscle – nope, it isn’t doing it for me.  It’s back to my friendly neighbourhood halal butcher for the foreseeable future for me.  

Three Kitchens: Part 4

My Bespoke Kitchen

I’m not being pretentious calling my current kitchen bespoke. Architect Misho Vasilevich and interior designer Olga Gruzdeff spent time watching how Marilyn and I, and our guests, used our kitchen, had meals with us, and Olga went so far as measure the volume of storage space we had for food, crockery, cutlery, kitchen equipment, and finally even asked us to measure our largest saucepan, longest platter, widest fry pan, tallest storage jar. It fits us like a bespoke shoe fits a foot.

This kitchen isn’t, on the other hand, anything special in terms of the way it functions like so many other kitchens of relatives and friends of mine now as a return in some ways to the social functions of the conversational circle of the hearths of Paiga combined with a sort of enhancement of the mystery of transformation through cooking by its public performance  that is very much now a part of both domestic cooking and of course the plethora of cooking media programs and events.

Thought it wasn’t meant this way, the Jona Lewie song ‘You’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties’ ought to be the theme song for the modern domestic cook. Invite some people around for dinner and there is an expectation that at least the first part of the evening will be spent with you and your guests drinking and chatting in your kitchen while you get the meal together. You will be making your ‘ethnic specialities’ or trying something clever you’ve just downloaded to make from the seasonal celeriac you scored at that nice little famers’ market on Saturday, and at least half the guests will be as interested in talking about what you are making and how as they will about gossiping or dissing or breaking news about boyfs/girlfs/bubs/pets etc. Some of them will undoubtedly want to know what they can do to help prep. No-one will feel the least bit uncomfortable about the cooking smells, the cramped space, the spills. Cooking at home for guests is again now part of the conversational circle. The cook is again no longer excluded from half or more of the evening; indeed, the cook often becomes the hub around which the first half of the conversational circle revolves.

My kitchen certainly functions like this. A bit of background and description is called for. I live in an Australian Federation style house, so named as it was built in the period just after the various independent States on the landmass of Australia federated into the nation of Australia, this house being built in 1910. We don’t have much information on the original layout of the house but the kitchen was certainly a room on its own at the back of the house, later converted into a bathroom, with a new kitchen being added on next to it. That was the kitchen in which I began my domestic life in the house.

When originally built, one of the rooms toward the front of the house would have been the dining room. My house is particular in that it has a second large detached building in the yard whose function is forgotten but which looks like it would have been a small ballroom. That room had been used as the formal dining room for guests the time I moved in. So it remained for some time, and I spent the first several years talking food from the kitchen outside and into this other building in all weather. Unsurprisingly I got a tad tired of being cold, wet, and blown away bringing food to my guests. So Marilyn and I decided to knock down what was an afterthought of a kitchen and build a new covered structure to incorporate a kitchen and an everyday dining room.

It was this that Misho and Olga designed for us, but in the way of these things, the function of the spaces created changed, particularly in ways that embedded the social relationships Marilyn and I have with relatives and friends who come to dinner.

What we’ve ended up with is a single space that is now both kitchen and guest dining room (Marilyn and I tend to eat our domestic meals in the dance hall that is now mostly our tv or reading room though it still has a large dining table at which we sometimes have social dinners or seat overflow children or other guests). What it allows for is the expansion of the conversation circle to encompass both these spaces in a way that allows the cook and the kitchen circle to interact freely and flow to and from another circle created around the dining space. In this way it is a return to the inclusive hearth of the Paiga round hut.

At the same time, the placement of the kitchen creates a stage for the mystery play of cooking. The kitchen end of the combined space is created by a wall of cupboards facing the dining space, with a galley in front of it for the cook, and an island bench that creates a second ‘wall’ for the kitchen, but one that allows movement and conversation and visibility easily across and around it, and also allows the transformative processes to be seen and engaged in. It is a space for the preparation of basse cusine as well as the space for the creation of ‘culinary dreams, maximising the element of surprise and mystery’. The canny cook in a space like this can play with the possibilities of their role and manufacture mystery and surprise while all the time apparently being transparent, indeed, welcoming scrutiny. It’s the key to magic; expose yourself by encouraging participation and scepticism and then floor them with more than just a rabbit out of a hat.

Part 5
I don’t think Jones is a host/cook. I found much to reflect on in his kitchen typologies but they don’t seem to me to be developed by someone who cooks for others as a social activity.  I think there are some pretty fundamental practical reasons why you might like to separate a kitchen from a dining/conversation space that he overlooks or just doesn’t get. I bless the day someone invented chimneys, and more than that, invented the over-stove-kitchen-extractor-fan. I think he also underestimates the potential for mystery of transforming material into a meal in front of your guests and so majorly upping your status. The women of Paiga are as skilled at showing a guest how well they can use their hearth to create something personal and surprising as any chef in a three hat restaurant in Sydney.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Three Kitchens: Part 3

Rosaline’s kitchen

The second, and for me better remembered, kitchen of my childhood shares Jones’ description of the kitchen at Jerf-el-Ahmar where ‘culinary preparation happens in one place, and the transformed creation is taken to a second venue for consumption’. In the case of this kitchen in Sri Lanka, in a middle class Burgher household, the kitchen was at one end of the house, separated from the dining room and main body of the house by a small room that was the sleeping quarters for Roasline, our Singhalese cook.

I remember it as dark and cool, the only daylight coming in from the door into the main house (actually onto a small enclosed verandah and then into the main part of the house) and a doorway into the long narrow back yard.

 It’s during the day that I knew it, after school or on weekends and during the holidays. I would watch Rosaline as she shredded leafy greens with extraordinary rapidity on the edge of a knife precariously wedged on the bench: take a brave turn at grinding seeds and chilli with vinegar into curry powders using a cylinder shaped stone roller on a flat grindstone patterned with shallow indentations; wrap my hands around the wooden pole that she expertly pounded into the large mortar, transforming rice into flour for hoppers, thrilled by the vibrations and the fine powder that rose with each drop of the pole. These are the same practices identifiable by the artefacts at Jerf-el-Ahmar.

It was certainly bigger than the 8 square metres of the kitchen at Jerf-el-Ahmar, but not as big as memory makes it. There was a brick based shelf on which were three kerosene burners for cooking (I can’t recall that there was any particular kerosene smell or taste to the food, though then again, maybe that’s what’s missing from my curries!). There was a sink with a cold water tap, shelves and cupboards for storage and a bench top for working on.

It was very much the place for the preparation of basse cusine and not the space for the creation of ‘culinary dreams, maximising the element of surprise and mystery’. I don’t recall any meals being surrounded by particular ceremony; no cook emerging with some steaming dish to the delighted gasps of goggle-eyed diners. The only food event that held something of surprise and mystery was the making of the Christmas Cake, an activity that was the prerogative of my grandmother and the later my mother. But the scene of its preparation was the table on the back verandah on which the cake was always mixed in its enormous bowl and then the oven of my aunt’s kitchen across the road (we had none) within which happened the mysterious transformation of the wet, lumpy, batter, heavy with dried fruit, into the moist dense firm cake. But its presentation to guests was delayed further as it had to be topped with an almond icing, then royal icing, then cut into narrow oblongs, which were then wrapped in white wax paper and brought out over the days of Christmas visiting.

Everyday family meals were straightforward. Rosaline would make the requisite number of trips to and from the kitchen to the dining table to place the dishes before the family. I don’t remember us ever saying Grace. We were helped to or helped ourselves to what was laid out. We dined in a combined lounge-dining space that was common in houses like ours. There was enough space for someone to walk comfortably around the table and to the fridge which stood against one wall. It was, though, a space reserved for dining, the table not an all-purpose one for other childhood or household activities like school work or sewing.

Dinner guests would begin their visit in the lounge are, having a pre-dinner drink (alcohol for the men, soft drinks for the women) and some snack food; this would be murruku (spiced lentil paste made into noodles, deep-fried, then broken and mixed with chilli, fried green peas, and peanuts), or ‘short eats’ like fish or vegetable filled half moon fried pastries called patties. Dinner set on the table, guests would move there to eat, and then retire again to the lounge for more drinks or a cup of tea.

And each night, the kitchen would fall silent as Rosaline went to her bedroom, the rest of the family having earlier retired to ours.

Jones has a limited and rather fanciful idea of why the kitchen became a separate space, it seems to me. Reflecting on this childhood kitchen, a couple of other reasons occur to me. Getting away from smoke for one would be a good reason, though not a complete one, I guess since having a hearth in other living spaces for warmth wouldn’t solve the issue of smoke in the householder life, not until the invention of effective chimneys at least.

Jones doesn’t speculate, and there is no evidence, whether the development of the kitchens like that at Jerf-el-Ahmar were accompanied by the development also of a servant class who would have had the responsibility for cooking. I wonder to what extent the development of this separate space was also related then to establishing the domestic hierarchy, separating the cook from the householders and their guests. In our house, the kitchen was very much a servant’s space both in the sense that it was to the side of the everyday life of the family, one into which the woman householder would go from time to time perhaps to supervise the cooking of special Burgher (European) dishes or for conversations with the cook about the day’s menu and shopping, but also one that in a positive way became the space over which the cook could exercise control, organising it to suit her work, having the right to send interfering children out of it and even to have limited disciplining rights in the space of said children (the occasional smack of the little hand wandering yet again into the dry fish or lime pickle jar), and having control over other domestics (Rosaline could for example send the houseboy off to market, doing some of the grinding and chopping and so on).

Perhaps, too, as class/castes developed, being able to distance oneself from the smells, processes (such as handling raw meat with the associated blood), and possible spread of disease associated with cooking became a maker of difference. Being able to converse with guests away from all of this would also have been a social marker of wealth, or at least the aspiration to it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

3 Kitchens - Part 2

 Paiga Hearths

The round hut is still the characteristic accommodation in Paiga and its cooking space certainly fits Jones’ description of ‘the conversational circle of the familiar group around the hearth, the focal point of food preparation at the centre of the social action’.

It’s hard to miss the fireplace; indeed, the unwary newcomer entering your first round hut, bending as you usually will have to do under the kunai grass roofing extending over the doorway to provide protection from the rain, passing from the often bright light outside into the darkness of the hut’s interior where the fire is the usually the only illumination, is very likely to stumble right into the fireplace, stubbing toes on the rocks that form the hearth circle and perhaps knocking the shin on the improvised grill laid across the fire for supporting pots, yams, perhaps a cob of corn, all much to the hilarity of those gathered inside.

There will be a cleared space around the hearth, wide enough to allow the cook to sit beside the fire and prepare the greens or meat for the pot but narrow enough to allow the gathered family and guests to reach over comfortably from time to time to turn over the grilling vegetables from where they round the fire on the raised living/sleeping platform that takes up most of the floor space in the hut, legs dangling into the cleared hearth space and, yes, making for yet another hazard for the wary or the late comer who has to stumble past others to get to the spot furthest from the fire or most directly in the lint of smoke (about which more below).
Wood for the fire is usually stored at the back of the platform near the fire, and the fire is fed from the front facing the door – another hazard, stumbling into the stoker.. Seasonings – inevitably salt and frequently a bought bottled sauce, pots, any crockery, cutlery, cooking utensils will also usually be on the platform near the wood, within easy reach of the seated cook. There is not running water to the hut; water is collected from a stream a few minutes walk away and stored in plastic containers.

Round huts have no chimneys or other openings to release smoke; they are usually windowless and the woven pitpit grass mat-like walls are surprisingly impermeable. The entrance to the hut is no exit, not when as is common these days there is a door that will usually be kept closed to keep out the chill of the night. In fact, this door adds further to the discomfort of all as every time it opens, which is extraordinarily frequently over the course of an evening, the rush of air blows the smoke that had been drifting slowly upwards directly into the faces of those unfortunate enough to be sitting opposite. What initially looks wilfully antagonistic to the good health of all does have benefits. Look up from your perch around the hearth and you will notice that the kunai grass ceiling is blackened and shiny with soot that acts as an excellent sealant against rain working its way through and dripping unpleasantly onto the household. It also helps to dry corn that hangs in bunches from rafters, but I haven’t ever seen it being used to smoke meat.

There is no table. Yams are taken in hand off the grill, or fingered out from the ashes. Rice and greens are heaped into the two or three plates there are with men and children getting the first share, then young boys, then women and girls.

This hearth is everything Jones describes – a conversation pit where news and gossip are exchanged (the precursor of that quintessentially ‘60s domestic space which often also had a fireplace as a focus albeit not one on which any food was prepared), the place of food preparation and consumption, and the site where family and community matters are discussed and activities planned. They are also where singing happens; songs created by family or other community members that celebrate everyday life – recollections of courting (failed and successful), mothers thoughts of their children as storms approach, songs of longing for family who’ve moved to the towns - learned aurally line by line and sung in glorious group voice.

3 Kitchens

Part 1: ‘The oldest kitchen’

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Feast. Why Humans Share Food by Martin Jones (OUP 2007). I was particularly taken with his discussion of what he describes as perhaps ‘the oldest kitchen’ that has yet been uncovered in an archaeological dig at Jerf-el-Ahmar, on the left bank of the Syrian Euphrates dated to about 11000 years ago.

 'In one room of the building, a careful removal of the collapsed mudbrick revealed a series of stone implements in their places of use around the room, a space approximately three metres by two and a half. These implements comprised three limestone basins, one small limestone bowl, several pounding stones, two flat polished stone plates, and three long grinding stones or 'saddle querns', over which a kneeling individual would work an upper stone back and forth to prepare flour...the charred plant remains could be sampled and their densities plotted across the room, and in relationship with the various species of equipment. The most abundant remains Wilcox recovered were barley seeds which had been mostly broken up into fragments...That small room less than 8 square meters, was a busy, crowded space. It gives the general impression of serving another unit rather than being self-contained. One such candidate is its near neighbour, the largest building in the group, a sunken round building...What seems clear from the organisation of activities across space at both Mureybet and Jerf-el-Ahmar is that culinary preparation happens in one place, and the transformed creation is taken to a second venue for consumption...An enduring feature of food-sharing among our own species, as we have explored in the preceding chapter, is the conversational circle of the familiar group around the hearth, the focal point of food preparation at the centre of the social action. At these sites, the logic of the central hearth is broken, the focal point has been taken from the conversational circle and transferred to a separate space. The room that has been so meticulously sampled at Jerf-el-Ahmar may well be the oldest 'kitchen'.

He links the development of this separate space to a shift in the mobility of people and the increased likelihood that someone outside the family may arrive at a meal time – the guest – and a corresponding shift to removing ‘the preparation of food to an ancillary space, to conceal its transformation from the eyes and senses of the diners....Looking at food in far more recent societies of Asia and Europe, the anthropologist Jack Goody had drawn our attention to an axis of food-sharing, between the basse cusine of ordinary family meals, and a differentiated haute cuisine amongst diners of status, a status that may be both preserved and discreetly contested in the drama of this distinct form of meal...Haute cuisine involves a large element of theatre, display, and disguise, prestigious ingredients and exotic flavourings hinting at distant, almost mythical regions. Not all kitchens are found in prestigious places, but a separate place of preparation does serve well as an ante-room to culinary dreams, maximising the element of surprise and mystery. Today, we are used to kitchens in much lowlier, homelier contexts, but even here, they remain places where food is transformed and disguised in order to impress. Moreover, even in the lowliest of homes, the separation of spaces for the preparation and consumption of food typically reveals much about status and differentiation. There will typically been a distinction of gender or age in who is in the kitchen and in the dining space.’

This set me thinking about three kitchens with which I am most familiar. The first is the ‘kitchen’ in the round hut I stay in when I visit with my wantoks in the village of Paiga in Papua New Guinea. The second is the kitchen of my childhood in Sri Lanka, the kitchen presided over by our cook, Rosaline. The third is my own home kitchen. I decided to look at these three through Jones’ lens to see how they fit his schema for the transition of this core domestic space.