Sci-fi writers have often speculated about a completely technified biosphere where seasons no longer exist. In this version of the future, the earth itself positively fulfills the promise of the “greenhouse effect” and our planet is a cosmic hothouse, terraformed into a more-perfect lifeworld. Organic produce bursts forth from every inch, and we relax on cosmic beaches year-round. In some ways this is the dream of the urban metropolis, where plumbing replaces rivers and bodegas
replace gardens. Humans have always dreamed of more perfect, more comfortable interior dwellings, in environments that are entirely self-contained.
One of the most perfect crystallizations of these space-age bioengineering fantasies is the modern supermarket. If there was ever a season to celebrate the dormant profundities within our grocery store aisles, it would certainly be wintertime. For most of human history, food preservation efforts were a yearlong effort, made so that winter’s fallow months could be comfortably endured. Was it in the middle of a blizzard that the patron saint of supermarkets, Louis Pasteur, discovered the relationship between microorganisms and food spoilage?
Before the 19th century rise of refrigeration and sterilization technologies, practices such as drying, pickling, and fermenting stretch back to the dawn of civilization. In an uncanny way, we can see our struggle in 2020 against coronavirus mirrored in the millennia-long quest for shelf-life stability: how do humans navigate their microbiological milieu? Up until the 19th century, there was no choice but to develop symbiotic microbial relationships. At room temperature, bacteria in milk will quickly cause spoilage, so for the first thousands of years of milk-drinking culture, the only option to keep your milk palatable was to strike up a friendship with Lactobacilius. It’s due to these alliances that we now have cheese, yogurt, kefir etc.
However important these microbial relationships were to keeping oneself fed during the winter, the mechanism of fermentation remained obscure until Pasteur’s discovery of microorganisms. Since his research, there has been a new, eponymously named method to fight milk spoilage — instead of introducing advantageous bacteria, we eliminate bacteria entirely. This principle of pasteurization plays a role in virtually everything we eat from a supermarket today. As the 19th century laid the groundwork for shelf-stable foodstuff, the 20th century built skyscrapers atop the foundations.
One 20th century event stands above the rest, “In the universe of processed food, World War II was the Big Bang.” In “Combat-Ready kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat,” Anastacia Marx de Salcedo traces the origins of modern food engineering technologies through their origins in military history. For example, canning was invented during the Napeolonic Wars to feed troops, and heat sterilization (allowing meat to be canned) was widely introduced during the Spanish-American War. There are too many examples to list of now-ubiquitous foods that were inspired by research at the Natick Center (the military’s food engineering headquarters). If you wanted, you might even eat an entire day’s worth: an energy bar and instant coffee for breakfast (the first energy bar was called the D Ration and was specifically manufactured to taste “a little better than a boiled potato”), deli meat with processed cheese on packaged bread for lunch (all enzymatically treated with technology developed by the Quartermaster Corps), and a shelf-stable pizza for dinner (though unless you are an active member of our Armed Forces, this entrée might be difficult to source).
The technical processes which allow for these marvels of food engineering are not without their downsides. Sterilization often causes nutritional values to drop, and vastly increases the pollution generated by food production. Once stripped of its microbiological flora, denatured food requires precisely controlled environments to survive the trip to consumers, and these environments usually require a lot of plastic. This is one of the factors that contributes to the unfortunate reputation the U.S. military has for being one of the worst polluters in the world. Not to mention, a life spent eating shelf-stable pizza every day would be a pretty sad existence. I don’t have the statistical data to back me up, but just ask any service member who is returning from a tour-of-duty whether they miss their rations—I’m sure they’d choose a coal-fired margherita slice any day.
What’s interesting to consider are the ways in which these technical breakthroughs in food science adapt to real-world conditions once they leave the world of military oversight. Perhaps one of the most recognizable American military foods worldwide is Spam. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that this tin of processed flesh is an iconic emblem of our armed forces. Despite the utilitarian circumstances that gave rise to Spam’s use in combat situations, in postwar global cuisine Spam has taken on a new, almost-unrecognizable life.
Wherever American navy bases cropped up in the decades following WWII, Spam followed, and slowly assimilated into the local culture of the surrounding region. American naval influence in Okinawa and Hawaii led to a number of delicious Spam recipes, which could never have been dreamed up by the engineers at the Natick Center. The most popular Japanese Spam recipe is probably Spam musubi. At its most basic, Spam musubi is grilled spam sandwiched atop a bed of white rice, and secured by a strip of nori. Like the Pacific islander’s equivalent of a bacon, egg, and cheese, Spam musubi is cheap and savory, easily transported and filling, with endless possibilities for customization. You can find Spam musubi with furikake seasoning, a teriyaki glaze, or a layer of scrambled egg. Less than a decade after WWII, when American soldiers were activated during the Korean War, Spam accompanied them across the East China sea. Spam musubi is somewhat difficult to find in NYC (Noreetuh, Omusubi Gonbei, and Suzume all make recommended versions), but if you go to virtually any restaurant in Koreatown you will find budae-jjigae, or “army stew.” It’s hard to imagine a more starkly “fusion” dish; the most famous, ancient, classically Korean ingredients of kimchi, gochujang, and gochugaru are married to grocery store modern classics like Spam, hot dogs, instant ramen, and American cheese.
Let’s be clear: budae-jjigae is not elegant. It’s not healthy. It is an assault on the senses. A nuclear arsenal of flavor. Every possible flavor enhancer from the last several millennia of culinary tradition is combined, to force tastebuds into total submission. And what’s absolutely fascinating is that it combines two irreconcilable methods of food preservation into a single dish. You have all the processed, technical foodstuffs of today, which have been totally stripped of any microbial content, right alongside ingredients made from the most ancient styles of fermentation, which are defined by their bacterial assemblage.
The absolute maelstrom of hybridized flavor known as budae-jjigae shouldn’t be seen as a random happy accident. I would argue that such an invention must be understood within Korean culinary culture as a whole, which places a heavy emphasis on preservation. The two aforementioned ingredients — kimchi and gochujang — are the international ambassadors of Korean food; both are the results of fermentation, and both are crucial seasonings in budae-jjigae. These ingredients have become relatively well-known in the West, but they represent only the tip of the iceberg of Korean preserved foods.
Kimchi has become as ubiquitous as Shen Yun ads. Proponents will suggest you put it in grilled cheeses, tacos, scrambled eggs. In Korean dining, kimchi is often served as part of a spread of banchan. Roughly meaning “a smorgasbord” (the literal translation is “side dish”) the banchan help to fill out and diversify whatever meat and starch are being served for that meal. A subcategory of this Korean schmear is the mitbanchan, or “preserved side dishes.” Under this heading you might be served some combination of jeotgal (salted pickled seafood), myeolchi bokkeum (dried anchovies stirfried until sweet and crispy), kongjaban (slow braised soybeans), or assorted pickles. The preserved nature of these dishes makes a cook’s job easier, as a large amount of one of these banchan might be prepared once a day, so leftovers will carry into the coming week.
Like kimchi, gochujang has been popularized in the West over the last years. Its intense pungency is the result of several months of co-fermentation (traditionally in large earthenware pots) which melds soybeans, gochugaru, sweet rice flour, barley powder, and salt into a thick and fiery paste. Yet Korean jang has so much more to offer than just heat for your meat. As a category, jang (“thick sauce”) refers to fermented pastes, usually made from soy. Imagine them as miso’s slightly more outspoken cousins: the suave beatnik (doenjang), the au naturel hippie (cheonggukjang), or the easygoing socialite (ganjang). With so many options, it’s not hard to get good jang for your buck.
Perhaps it is due to the longevity of Asian cultures, which has inspired their preservation positivity. In Japan, the expression “mottainai” is a common exhortation against waste. Dogen, the classical Japanese Zen philosopher, often urges his students not to waste a single grain of rice. In Seoul, compost bins are as ubiquitous as trash cans, and this biological waste is turned into fertilizer or animal feed. We can look to these examples as inspiration to transform the industrial and wasteful atmosphere which dominates American food culture. This isn’t an absolute dichotomy: as soon as you sit down to a bowl of budae-jjigae, it’s clear that the standard “East vs. West” or “ancient vs. modern” distinction is overly simplistic. Nowadays banchan not only includes kimchi and myeolchi bokkeum, but will often have a Korean version of potato or pasta salads, those preserved staples of American picnics.
The sterilization epitomized by military bio-engineering idealizes preservation as an unchanging norm, a sterile perpetuity which tries to eliminate microbiological diversity. A ferment, on the other hand, is a constantly evolving community of organisms. Wine, miso, fish sauce, and gochujang are all examples of fermented foods who develop increasingly complex flavors as they age. Killing off the microbiological activity of these foods would strip them of their immunological longevity as well as the depth of their flavor.
Seeing microbes as universally harmful “germs” is simply a harmful misunderstanding. The list of examples is growing all the time. New research into intestinal microbiology shows a link between gut flora and mental health. In cassava processing, fermentation is required in order to breakdown the deadly cyanide compounds which naturally exist in the root. Soy is hard to digest in its raw state but very high in protein — only due to fermentation do we have foods like tofu, tempeh, and seitan. On the other hand, the most dangerous food-borne pathogen, clostridium botulinum (or botulism) can only thrive in anaerobic environments such as cans or jars, where other, less virulent microbes have been excluded. Sometimes sterilizations causes more problems than it solves.
In our globalized society, it’s obvious that technology is needed to navigate increased complexity. But is our only option to eat shelf-stable pizzas? Self-engineered environments are really quite flimsy, and the coronavirus is an urgent reminder of the limits of our ability to control this environment. Science fiction’s dreams of atmospheric bubbles remains a fiction. Social distancing is necessary at the moment but we can’t cloister ourselves forever. Self-isolation will only get us so far, before we have to engage microbes in a more dynamic way, to guide us towards healthfulness.
Microbial symbiosis: a summary of vaccination. These defanged proteins will hopefully make Covid-19 a relic of the past. However, at the immunological deli counter, they tell us an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. How can we stop the next pandemic before it happens? It seems clear that when we preserve our environment, we preserve ourselves. Hopefully this time spent in isolation will underline just how important it is to be with friends and family, gathered around a stew, a ragú, a jjigae, sharing in each others’ warmth and proximity.