May 1, 2014 by louis
This guest blog post comes from Josh Pollen, one half of London-based food designers Blanch & Shock. Guerilla Science collaborated with Blanch & Shock on our Brain Banquet, and here Josh describes the ideas behind the five-course menu, which formed the centrepiece for the event in March 2014…
“Are you going to cook real brains?”
“A veal calf’s”
“Gross ! Will you be able to taste its thoughts?”
This kind of conversation was typical in the weeks leading up to the Brain Banquet. The prospect of eating brains seemed to capture people’s imaginations, but as Mike and I started to design our menu, we were keen to offer a whole range of perspectives on the links between mouth and mind. Not least, we wanted to explore the different sensations of eating, and examine how our perception of what we eat can be altered – by environmental change, visual effects, familiarity, and, in some cases, by injury to the brain itself.
In the weeks before the banquet, we spent several sessions cooking with members of Headway East London, a charity that provides support and a place for people with brain injuries to socialise. From Headway we learnt about the potential effects of brain trauma – flavours triggered by touch, olfactory systems that confuse aromas, relationships with food changed by memory loss – which gave us ideas and inspiration for our developing menu.
We were also lucky enough to have a meeting with neuroscientist Ed Bracey, and a neurosurgeon, Arnab Ghosh, who gave us insights into the mechanics and behaviours of the brain, and links between the senses. Many parts of the brain are said to look like food, not least the Hippocampus (named after the sea horse), which led to a discussion with Ed and Arnab about whether to serve these tiny fish to our guests (we decided not to!).
Brains themselves have been eaten ever since they’ve existed, and they continue to be consumed by a huge proportion of the world’s population, mainly in cultures for whom not eating them would represent profligate waste and economic madness. Brains are food, whether we choose to eat them or not, but for a society whose food systems encourage favouritism of primary cuts, brains are the final frontier of extreme carnivory.
“If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing.” – Fergus Henderson
Despite this long culinary tradition of eating grey matter, we questioned our decision to serve brains as part of the event. We’d spent time with people who were trying to assert their independence in the face of serious brain injuries, and it felt uncomfortable to be proposing that we dissect and fry up these very same organs. Headway members assured us, however, that it wouldn’t be inappropriate, and we also felt that cooking and eating was a way of exploring the brain that couldn’t be provided by other aspects of the project.
With our decision made, 42 brains arrived, each one in its own small compartment in a plastic tray. They came from Holland, from a farm that does not practice the archaic and cruel veal crate system, and were sourced by our wonderful butchers, the Muscat brothers of Buntings in Peckham. Holding one in the moments before embarking on the monstrous and bloody task of peeling the dura mater and removing blood vessels with our fingertips, we had a chance to note how very fragile a brain is, how easily the edge of a paring knife would damage the tissue, and how perfectly apt ‘grey matter’ is as a descriptor.
Thinking of a brain in culinarily terms is to think of it as a piece of meat, admittedly one with a distinctly unfamiliar texture compared with most cuts. It is unassertively flavoured, but takes very well to being simmered, coated with flour, and fried in lashings of foaming butter.
However interesting a challenge for us to cook, the brain represented so much more in the context of the event, which after all was not simply a meditation on eating offal, but a sequence of experiences, talks and installations based on the action of the brain as a living, functioning organ.
Our menu began with a course based on the contentious notion of ‘brain food’, a gluten free pumpkinseed bread with cultured butter, beet slaw and an emulsion of pilchards. A white salad of roots and cheese followed, onto which we had different coloured lights projected, transforming it from familiar to off-putting and back again. One of the favourite dishes served at Headway East is egg and chips, and so next was a bowl of pork-bone broth with an unctuous slow-cooked egg and a giant potato crisp. We had been told that the texture of food can become hugely important when other qualities, such as taste or smell, are taken away, and we wanted to change the texture of the dish to emphasise its decadence.
We served the brains with a salad of burnt brussel sprout tops and preserved green elderberries – vegetarian guests were served a cross section of pot-roasted cauliflower, which looked, perhaps, more like the familiar image of a brain than the real thing. We finished with a dessert based on the memory of the aromas of cut grass, using herbs and spices rich in the volatile aromatic compound coumarin such as tonka bean and sweet clover.
The reactions to the brains were mixed and various. One guest liked them so much we made her some tacos with the cerebella we had removed. Others converted to vegetarianism as they saw the plates leave the kitchen.
Whatever the response, we were delighted to have been part of a project that asked so many questions and gave so many answers – to us, our guests, and the numerous people involved in the project. It was a pleasure to design and execute a menu both gastronomic and academic, and to work with ideas and ingredients so intimately connected to each other.