Imagine Nature’s kitchen as a mix of performance piece, foraging expedition, cookery course and shared meal. Somewhere in your local woods, we will meet and prepare to eat together. Guided by chaperones, you will forage some food, and then prepare it, collaborating with other people – some of which you might know, whilst others might be total strangers. There will be twists along the way – you will, for instance, not eat the food you and your co-chefs prepared. Sitting down amongst the trees in the forest – or in a field – on a hill, you will be eating the food an earlier cohort of foraging chefs cooked for you. The meal that you prepared, you prepared for the future, for the cohort that comes after you.
The reason why the food you made for these people will still be palatable when they come to eat it (and cook for yet a future lot) is that you’ve teamed up with invisible co-chefs – the microbes. Over centuries, microbial communities have gifted us the digestibility of many plants, the ability to preserve perishable foods, and the range of tastes we can enjoy from the same foods. Bread, Beer, Chicha, Dosa, Filmjölk, Fish sauce, Garri, Kechup, Lassi, Tsukemono or Vinegar are just a few examples of traditional foods that require microbial community action in their preparation.
In Nature’s kitchen we invite you to spend time with us reflecting on our symbiotic existence with the plants and people in our community. We’ll think about treating others with respect by leaving enough for them behind, whilst keeping a firm eye on the necessity to also feed ourselves in congenial ways. We will also think about our symbiotic existence with the microbes that make our life possible. When you sit down to eat, your meal will be served on plates, in bowls and cups that were thrown by human hands and decorated by the microbial communities of the food you will eat and the drinks you will drink.
The background to this piece is that while the human population is growing, the world’s arable land base is shrinking, thereby making global food security a huge challenge. Food production is affected by climate change, dependence on fossil fuels, loss of biodiversity, destruction of soils and the use of food crops for bio-fuels.
What is more, during the 20th century, many of the traditional food-making processes were replaced by seemingly more efficient ones that created diets comprised of food riddled with preservatives and other enhancers that are difficult to digest. The way we eat and the way we grow has evolved to overlook microorganisms, the important role they play for us, and the important role we (along with the plants we grow) play for them. We are only just beginning to notice, that we have eliminated microbes from our diet that help our bodies stay well-energized and healthy. And microbes have been taken out of the production chain in other areas: our modern agricultural systems have lead to a reduction and often destruction of the communities that sequester carbon in soils, recycle nutrients to plants and protect crops from pathogens. Understanding and re-balancing microbial activities in the foodchain is a necessity in the development of novel strategies that can contribute to improving food security through more sustainable yields of food plants, reductions in spoilage and re-establishment of healthy diets.
In the same way, that most of us have lost our intimate knowledge of fermentation processes by adopting seemingly better food preservation methods, we have also lost our knowledge which of the many plants that grow around us are edible and which ones aren’t. Even those of us who grow food in their gardens tend to get rid of plants that are perfectly good to eat, are rich in nutrients or have medicinal properties. Foraging has become popular again in the last few years, but we have to learn how to become friends with the non-human world – giving and not just taking. Nature’s kitchen invites you to join the wider community, to meet your plant neighbours, to meet the microbes, to share and prepare with those before you, those which are right with you, and those who will follow you.
For this project, I’m collaborating with the choreographer Fiona Millward, the performance artist Anya Gleizer, the Flute and the Bowl, and the ABC Network of The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH).