"As an antidote to the increasingly bland flavours we've grown accustomed to in grocery-store fare, modern chefs and researchers have been working together to amplify the flavours of foods. Can we turn to science to make North America delicious again?”
That was the question posed to food researcher and postgraduate student Joshua Evans at this year’s Terroir Symposium in Toronto in May. The former Lead Researcher of Nordic Food Lab just finished a Masters in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, and will be starting a PhD in Geography and the Environment in the fall at the University of Oxford, on the Geography of food fermentation. His current work focuses on microbial ecologies and domestication. In his previous work with the non-profit Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen he investigated the use of insects, wild plants and fermentation techniques as underutilised edible resources.
Evans took a break from his research to explain what drove him back to school, why microbes might be more than just a trend and what’s fermenting in his kitchen right now.
How can your work studying microbial ecologies and domestication make more delicious food?
We tend to think about agriculture as a process by which 'Man' brought Nature under the yolk for his own purposes, changing and domesticating other organisms as we wanted them to be. But many other organisms have changed us as well. Flavour and deliciousness are multi-species phenomena - they are not things we make on our own. Recognizing all the organisms that make our food delicious can only help us make it more delicious. Microbes, because of how different they are from us, help us see this potential particularly clearly. So I'm interested in using fermentation as a model system for what this kind of convivial, multi-species gastronomy would look like.
Did your desire to do post-graduate research in History and philosophy of science come out of your time at the Nordic Food Lab?
In part, definitely! When I was at the Lab, I worked on a project about the gastronomic potential of insects. We did a lot of fieldwork to learn how many different insect species are already valued as delicacies across the world. For example, I remember when we were in Kenya, digging for queen termites, we asked people how they knew where to find the queen in the hive. Some local farmers told us she moved around in the mound following the sun. Others told us she followed the moon. Local entomologists told us she did not move, but stayed in a special chamber. But, invariably, the local farmers were pretty good at finding the queen - certainly better than the entomologists! So there were different kinds of knowledge at play here, and these questions about how different kinds of knowledge interact - and fail to interact - in producing food and flavour were fascinating and troubling to me. I had many experiences similar to this one throughout my time working at the Lab, and when it came time to return to graduate school, it seemed to me that history and philosophy of science would be a great area in which to explore these questions further.
What’s the most exciting part of your research?
Ideally, being able to have one foot in the academic world and one foot in the food world. I don't think I could do just one or the other—I know I would always find myself asking, 'Yes, but what would a chef think about this?' or 'Isn't it more complicated than that?' or 'How can we reframe this question so that it is interesting to both chefs and academics?' I have a strong impulse to be able to both make things and think about things, and I really value being able to work with people who do each much better than I do.
Is there a specific kind of microbe (or many?) that makes food taste better?
So very many—but most are particular to certain substrates and techniques. Most of the microbiological knowledge we have about them, though, is about their pathogenicity, and their metabolism only insofar as it facilitates industrial applications—we know way less about their positive aspects for flavour and nourishment. So the emerging field of applied positive microbiology is a great example of an area where scientists and chefs and fermenters can really expand knowledge by asking questions together.
How can your research make fruits or vegetables on grocery store shelves taste better?
Probably not directly, right now. But I see my work contributing to a larger argument for building the kinds of food systems that let a diversity of life flourish—which also happen to be what makes food taste best. We know the current way we produce most of our food is pretty destructive. What would alternatives look like? That is a really important question, and I want to contribute to some potential answers.
How else can your work affect our daily lives in the long term?
The more we can interact with and know other species, the more sensitive we can become to their needs and appetites. Listening to them helps us pull ourselves out of the centre of things, while keeping ourselves still tangled in the larger web - it turns 'ego-logy' into ecology. Getting this transition right is one of the crucial challenges of our time. Especially with microbes, we need them way more than they need us. Working with microbes is thus particularly humbling, and a little bit of this humility, I think, would go a long way.
What's your favourite thing to cook?
Vegetables, hands down. Also, does fermentation count as cooking? What's fermenting in your kitchen right now?
I just baked a loaf of Danish rye bread, and my kitchen table is full of fermenting elderflower bubbly. Also, a fermented chilli paste I just started for my parents - they like spicy foods, and are keen to learn more about fermenting at home.
In the pictures above:
1. Aspergillus niger fungus, used to make fermented pu erh tea. | 2. Bee larvae taco with nixtamalised Øland wheat tortilla, strained yoghurt smoked with juniper wood, angelica salsa verde, kale flowers and sea arrow grass.
3. Joshua Evans checking a fermented grasshopper garum. | 4. Lovage flute with bee larvae, steamed with lovage and wild cherry blossoms.