Dystopia Part One.

If there’s one thing we should have learned from science fiction, it’s that if a car drives down the street with a revolving camera on top, we should shoot at it. But, clearly, Google street view is a noncontroversial thing. I really don’t know, should we live in an engineered society or not? Adult beverages produce a lot of CO2e. Eating does too, and takes a bunch of time besides. Sex, don’t even get me started on the inefficiencies inherent in that method of reproduction. Still, I can always trust that my food lacks surveillance capability ((?)!).

Traditionally, the people who create food have an agenda: to make money. Even the unhealthiest of genetically manufactured, wet milled, deconstructed junk food has at least the purity of the motivation of its creators and investors. Neither Frito Lay nor Taco Bell has won the argument that their products are intended to comprise the majority of a healthy diet.  When pressed as to why they do the things they do to corn, wheat, and soybeans, they insist: Our products are intended as treats, not a steady diet unto themselves. Great, now we just have to convince everyone they don’t deserve a treat just for being.

Not so for the new breed of food technologist. When you take good-old-fashioned greed and extrude it through the impulse of silicon valley to better the world through “hacking” and “disrupting,” you get an uncannily efficient way to eat. Note how the senses of those words differ from Tech speak to Regular speak. To “disrupt” is what one rudely does to another’s household, or meal. To “hack” is to make a fucking mess of. A hack is someone who lacks competence: skill, suavity, fluidity.

Efficiency sounds like a good thing to everybody now, but has anyone ever asked you to perform oral sex more efficiently? If the answer is yes, you presumably stopped immediately and never spoke to that person again. When cooking, we talk about being efficient, but we generally mean something very specific and low-tech, like never traveling with empty hands, or immediate and zen, like economy of motion. Engineers, be they genetic, chemical or agricultural mean something quite different. Generally, I think they mean minimum inputs for maximum outputs. That’s great because, population and climate. Right?

Genetic engineering has, for two decades now, been the target of food system critics everywhere. The basic reasons for that, as near as I can tell, are twofold:

– Genetic engineering, despite the insistence of its proponents and supporters, is radical and novel. The potential long-term consequences are largely unpredictable.

– Genetic engineering creates a new level of commodification. The consequences of that are completely predictable and have already begun to be seen.

Genetic engineering firms respond, appropriately, by touting their technology as the wave of the future, the only way forward in a world on it’s way to 10 billion inhabitants. Take a look at Monsanto’s website, where they lay it all on the line: We are saving the fucking world, you lazy stoners.

“Some people believe the correct answer to our challenges is to move backwards in time toward an agricultural system that relies less on human innovations and more on human labor. While we respect that opinion, we don’t share it. Agriculture has benefited from technology and the people who grow our food have sought new ways to improve their own lives—and ours—by producing more with less.”

People — is the object noun of that phrase. Notice how in this passage innovation is synonymous with technology. To believe in progress is to hold faith in high technology. Also note, primitives, that Monsanto respects your opinion. That should comfort your crying heart.

I’m sure they believe it too. Just as Sergey Bryn believes that what the world needs now is meat, in vitro meat. That’s why he bankrolled the world’s first lab grown hamburger patty, which debuted this past August. It garnered lukewarm reviews, but not as bad as you might think. It was only a prototype and will likely improve with refinement. But will it ever be as good as the best meat from an actual steer? I’m pretty sure that doesn’t matter since people, like dogs and pigs, seem to accept whatever they’re given. Rob Rheinhart, who I blogged about before, seems to be on a mission to prove that, especially where sustenance is concerned, people are little better than livestock.

You might remember that Rob has a food replacement product called Soylent. Rob hopes it will make eating a thing that driven people like himself do only for pleasure, on the weekends, like World of Warcraft, or hitting up Farenheit Lounge for single malt and marketing grads. Rob and his ilk wonder: what could be more inefficient than cooking food and cleaning up? Shouldn’t we just leave cooking to the pros? That’s what we do with every other chore. He’s kind of right though: too lazy to cook (or driven, depending on your POV), should mean too lazy to eat. Maybe a techie pouts, “But Gangster is too lazy to build his own website, just uses WordPress and prebuilt theme.” And I would reply, “I’d be fine without a website, try eating code.” Which is essentially what Soylent is, edible code. It’s even open source. So, you got me, Rob.

There must be a middle path, right? Can’t we all at least chew our radically rearranged biomass? We could. We could become vegans and eat… Oh, I hear the vegan diet is so varied and flavorful… Hampton Creek Foods mayonnaise and Beyond Meat’s chicken will make a fine salad. We could eat lentils. As a lad, I worked at a restaurant that made a fine lentil burger. And it was fine. Not as good as I could do nowadays. But no, it will never do to eat grains crudely forced into the image of the carnivore’s desire. We shall teach them through science. We will deconstruct the kingdoms plantae, fungi, protista and bacteria, and rearrange them into Improved Proteins®.

Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Hampton Creek Foods seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces.

With unexpected modesty, founder and CEO Josh Tetric tells Mother Jones that, “Our processing isn’t any more intensive than chickpea flour that you might buy from your local organic grocery store”. Aw shucks, that? That ain’t nothin’ but regular ol’ flour that we extracted from the backside of a pea plant, jus’ usin’ regular old gel electrophoresis to isolate the exact proteins involved in lipid suspension. Hain’t nothin’. I’s jus’ proprietary knowledge is all.

We could try to create a better egg industry, but then we’d have to make a better economy and that would be like, way too much unprofitable work. Like, what a pain in the ass labor is, right? Also, we’d still have to kill animals…


Mineral Water

Environmentalists are always bitching about beverages anymore, and I’m mostly fine with that, until they start coming after mine. 138 ounce big gulps? Put it down, you unhealthy slob; your pancreas will thank me for that. Bottled water? Don’t be such a lazy fucking rube, water’s way cheaper from your own tap than somebody else’s. Fancy bottled mineral water? Wha…? It’s not plain water. It involves no government subsidized monoculture. It’s arguably healthy. And it’s better than plain water. What’s the problem, enviro-nazi?

My Gerolsteiner comes from Germany, and has to be shipped overseas and bottled in glass, all of which consumes a bunch of energy. What a bunch of fucking killjoys these guys are. What about beer? Two pounds or so of CO2 per bottle? So I should just sit quietly in an unheated room and subsist on tap water, insects and seaweed?

Sitting in this cold room gives me an idea. What if I made my own sparkling mineral water? These guys down at Grain and Gristle have it on tap, but it’s terrible. What if mine tasted like Gerolsteiner? Or even better than Gerolsteiner?

Turns out this guy Martin Lersch has been doing it for some years, and he’s all good with computers and chemistry and stuff, so he even developed a calculator to turn tap water into mineral water. But in order to use it right, you have to call up the local municipal supplier and get the rundown on the mineral content of your water.

Well that sounded like a pain in the ass, but I’m desperate. I have a 15-dollar-a-week water habit I need to feed. I give the call and, surprise, my questions fly right over their heads. “It’s on the website.” No, it definitely is not on the fucking website. I could have just used the default settings, but then my computer doesn’t want to open the file and on and on. I need text, not math.

So I found this article, in which Paul Hinrichs develops recipes based on an average municipal water supply. What’s more, he gives measurements in volume rather than weight, and makes solutions of the minerals to buffer the potential consequences of sloppy measurement (and volume measurements are always sloppy.) This is good because my drug dealing days are probably over, and I didn’t have a scale that measures fractions of grams.

Rather than a soda stream, which is what those guys are using, I use a five gallon corny keg with a C02 tank. Turns out, this is exactly what I needed.

Keg, All labeled up and ready to roll.

Keg, All labeled up and ready to roll.

Both Lersch, at Khymos, and Hinrichs, at Salon said they had problems getting the salts to dissolve for the Gerolsteiner recipe, and I haven’t seen an update. I tweeted Lersch and… no reply! (Twitter is the best place to blather on about shit into an empty void paradoxically full of people.) Well, I was trying to tell them I found the secret: lots of pressure exerted upon cold water, over time. Makes sense when you think about it; the conditions in an aquifer must be similar.

I mixed up the salts like Hinrichs calls for, five gallons worth at a time, hook up the C02 at 40 psi, roll it on the floor for 5 minutes or so, put it in the fridge overnight, shake it again, and it’s ready the next day. What a lot of work! I know. Someday, I’ll be selling it to you as the green alternative to bottled mineral water.

Some cloudy ass water. This needs more time in the fridge.

Some cloudy ass water. This needs more time in the fridge.

Another problem I encountered is that after a few days the municipal sanitization chemical, chloramine — an appetizing blend of ammonia and chlorine —, starts to gas out from the water. All that work for naught. It now smells exactly like a swimming pool. I then learned that brewers use potassium metabisulfite, campden tablets, to break down chloramine from their brew water. One quarter of one campden tablet treats 5 gallons of water, and it works. The change in the flavor of the tap water is immediate and dramatic.

Campden tablets need to be crushed before adding to the water. Rockin' like an apothecary.

Campden tablets need to be crushed before adding to the water. Rockin’ like an apothecary.

Someone might be thinking, “are you a chemist? Because I’m pretty sure I’m not going to contaminate my drinking water with a bunch of chemicals that some so-called Gangster of Food recommended.” And that’s why I’m not going to give you any recipes, you can get those from the other blogs I linked to, at least one of those guys is absolutely a chemist. You can take or leave my advice about the campden tablets, but I have it on good advice from my aunt, who is a chemist, that Potassium Metabisulfite is pretty harmless, especially in the quantity that I’m using it.

At this point I’ve gone off the rails on a crazy train and slid into to water nirvana. I bought a little scale that measures tenths of a gram, and I’ve been making my own recipes, using only the chemicals that Hinrichs and Lersch and one other guy, Darcy O’Neil, have listed.

My little scale. That looks like a lot of lime!

My little scale. That looks like a lot of lime!

O’Neil is a chemist and bartender with a special interest in the history of soda fountain. His book, Fix The Pumps, is a lively little tract about the secret history of the soda fountain as a place of now forbidden pleasures. Because of the belief that the famous mineral waters of Europe were healing tonics, pharmacists attempted to replicate them in their labs. O’Neil publishes some of these recipes in his book and, although I learned some things from them, I can’t recommend using them because they all call for enough minerals to choke a horse.

My idea has been to try to isolate the flavor that each salt imparts and therefore, through a rather more intuitive process, make a really great mineral water rather than an imitation of Gerolsteiner. The Gerolsteiner clone I’ve made is good, but it’s no Gerolsteiner. I can tell you so far that Magnesium oxide imparts a sweet and soft taste that makes it indispensable for my recipes. Lime (the stuff you want is calcium hydroxide, aka pickling lime) adds an astringent angularity that’s also extremely pleasant. Magnesium sulfate, epsom salts, adds a subtle and elusive saltiness. Magnesium chloride, derived from seawater and labeled as nigari for setting silken tofu, is bitter and medicinal. I can’t yet tell if ionization of the salts makes magnesium taste like magnesium, and chloride like chloride, but seemingly not, or not every compound ionizes completely. I believe, for example, that magnesium oxide is not highly soluble, but three or four grams in five gallons of water disappears under pressure, with time. I follow the rule that great mineral water has high levels of calcium and magnesium and low levels of sodium. When adding salt, sodium chloride, I either use hawaiian pink salt or Redmond Real Salt to try to get some trace minerals in there.

There are, as far as I can tell three main safety considerations in creating your own recipes (and if you know otherwise….): Acute toxicity, cumulative effects and unintended chemical reactions. I’m still working on that last one, but dozens of gallons later, I’m still standing. Acute toxicity isn’t too much of a problem with this stuff. Sure, potassium chloride is one of the chemicals used in lethal injections but it takes… well quite a fucking bit. The cumulative effects are rare and also take quite a bit. I read somewhere that Gypsum (calcium sulfate) can cause kidney stones since  kidney stones are made of calcium oxalate. Same apparently goes for calcium hydroxide. Magnesium oxide, which I’ve been using in place of magnesium hydroxide, can rarely cause enteroliths, which are stones in the digestive tract that form in response to a physical irritant. Mammalian pearls, in other words. Sign me right up; I’ve been waiting my whole life to pass a pearl.