Artists Miriam Simun + Miriam Songster have teamed up to bring a taste of the future to the streets with GhostFood: a food truck dishing out a menu centered on three familiar foods facing extinction—cod, chocolate, and peanut. This participatory performance piece, commissioned by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for Marfa Dialogues/NY, is designed to promote a dialogue around climate change by imagining how we may come to eat in the not-so-distant future when our favorite foods are in scarcity.
When we eat, what we are actually “tasting” is the synthesis of taste, smell, and texture—a fusion that collectively creates the food’s flavor. Drawing from this basic physiology, Simun + Songster have designed a 3D-printed headset that dispenses specially manufactured fragrances that—when combined with an edible textural analog—conjure up a taste + flavor reminiscent of these endangered dishes. So as you munch on flaky cod-substitute, your nose is fed the fragrance of the fish. On fashioning this future dining experience, Simun says:
We are creating this experience where you’re eating these foods, but you have to wear this special device and you’re not eating very much. It’s this interesting thing—an instant nostalgia for what you have right now. Because we welcome people into this near-future experience where this is the way you eat peanut butter or this is the way you eat cod and this is the only way it’s available.
With prices on the rise, foods that were once cheap mealtime staples are experiencing the economic effects of scarcity. But behind the ever-increasing price tags lie real-life species that are under ecological threat as their habitats have turned hostile. The GhostFood menu draws from at-risk species across three ecosystems: ocean, grasslands + rainforest.
Overfishing aside, our climate-changed oceans have created uncomfortably warm waters for cod—nearing the top of cod’s livable temperature range—while changing currents have led to depletion of their nutrient-rich food sources. Up on land, seasonal changes in rain + temperature patterns have created prime conditions for toxic molds to flourish on our favorite crops, including corn, wheat, and peanuts. And with rainforests bearing the burden of deforestation, drought, and rising temperatures, the world’s cocoa supply is also at risk as cocoa trees are unable to beat the heat, not to mention the rise in disease and pests due to devastating disturbances in ecological order.
By creating this fundamentally different // highly ritualized dining experience, GhostFood innovatively takes these species off the supermarket shelves, challenging tasters to place each food in its ecological context. As Songster explains:
Certainly there’s an intention for this experience to have some emotional resonance—and hopefully through that resonance people are able to think about the species from an emotional perspective. We’re giving people this very hands-on, me-centered experience of eating and smelling—because it doesn’t get more personal and self-involved than actually eating. And yet we’re also hoping that the emotional impact of the experience will allow people to step back and actually think about the species as not just food.
The quasi-apocalyptic aside, these foods were carefully curated based also on their place in the North American diet—each dish made all the more poignant + pungent by its familiarity. Interestingly, the fragrances of these dishes are fed directly to your nose, appealing to your olfactory sensibilities, which are intimately tied to memory. The region of the brain responsible for sensing scent—the olfactory bulb—is actually a member of the brain’s limbic system, which plays an important role in long-term memory + emotional life. Songster adds:
There’s a historical memory in the experiences of eating these foods, which makes them more meaningful for people. But it also creates a little bit of friction between what you’re eating now and what you remember eating. We’re mimicking these foods, but we’re not necessarily trying to create an exact replica. We know that there is going to be a gap there and that gap is part of what this opening is about—to ask, “What is it like to eat this way?” And to think to yourself that it’s sort of the same, but it isn’t really the same—there’s something both exciting about it being different, and also maybe sad about it being different.
But beyond the emotional, this familiarity supplies a necessary frame of reference for this out-of-the-ordinary culinary experience—a gastronomical anchor to our present-day // everyday reality. By simultaneously imparting excitement for possible foodie futures to come, while providing a taste [or lack thereof] of what diners stand to lose, the GhostFood experience distills the conflict that comes with progress. “Augmenting reality and simulating things is a popular way to go in terms of technology today,” Simun notes. “So all of that came together into this device that would use our olfactory sense to compensate for the species that we are losing due to other decisions that we make.”
Given the basic physiology of flavor perception, creating effective food + flavor combinations posed an interesting challenge. Early in the project, Simun + Songster consulted with scent experts at the Monell Chemical Sciences Center, later teaming up with flavor + fragrance company Takasago to engineer the GhostFood aromas evoking the flavors of these phantom dishes. Songster laughs, “When we went to meet them they had some of their bigger perfume brands on display—for example, Victoria’s Secret. Meanwhile, we’re asking them to do the smell of fish!” Creating the GhostFood flavors posed an interesting challenge for the group based on the physiology of flavor perception.
An inevitable consequence of any simulation is its imperfection—its ability to only approximate and not replicate the real thing. And, to me, that is the real beauty of GhostFood’s design. Food fragrance is typically perceived both through the back of the mouth—retronasally—and directly through the nostrils—orthonasally. In fact, certain odor molecules—including chocolate—activate different parts of the brain depending on whether they are delivered through the mouth or through the nose. However, the GhostFood device only feeds scent through the orthonasal route, creating an interesting neurological // physiological experiment, while viscerally highlighting that GhostFood is indeed a simulation of a well-known + well-loved epicurean experience and not the real deal as we know it now.
Perhaps most exciting of all is GhostFood’s unique take on the edible future that goes beyond our favorite sci-fi forecasts for the future—those bare-bones // on-the-run pastes + pellets. Instead, Simun + Songster creatively re-imagine the future of not only our food, but also our culture, highlighting how the innovations of a very tangible future stand to re-invent the rituals of hearth + home. Simun shares:
In a way it is sci-fi because we’re using 3D-printed technology and we’re using signs and the language of the future. But in other ways we’re doing the polar opposite: we’re making eating even more complicated and even more sensorial and even more multi-faceted than all these other dominant visions of what food is in the future—where it’s just a pellet or a paste or an injection and you’ll never need to eat again—which only look at the role of food in human life in a very singular, small way.
For a firsthand taste of the future, find GhostFood in a street-parked food truck near you! On what to expect, Simun slyly mentions: “We have GhostFood staff that we’ve hired to run the truck… our food is unique so our staff is trained in a special way too. Just as we imagine eating to be different in this GhostFood future, we imagine service to be different also.”
GhostFood makes its premiere at Pop Up Place for DesignPhiladelphia 2013’s benefit launch party // October 9th 6-9 pm. And be sure to catch the truck as it hits the streets for Marfa Dialogues/NY: October 11th 6-10 pm, October 12th 12-6 pm, and October 13th 11-4 pm @ Gallery Aferro, Newark, NJ // October 15th 6-8 pm @ Robert Rauschenberg Project Space, New York, NY.