A Recipe In Three Chapters

I: Data, Cities

When we analyze cities through the lens of data and maps, how and when do people enter the picture?

Data City, our data analysis and mapping seminar in the Master in City & Technology, was meant to explore the production, transport, consumption, and disposal of food at an urban scale, through the lens of data analytics. Our professors, Pablo Martinez and Mar Santamaria of 300,000km/s, believe very strongly in this method of analysis, and to drive their philosophy they felt it necessary to steer us away from a natural tendency for architects: to design things, to manifest things physically. Several times, including on day one and during the final review, they said that the course strives to remain in a formless state because there is no single way to physically describe a city. Any attempt to do so is inevitably oversimplified. This fact has haunted architecture and urbanism for at least the last century and a half. As Jane Jacobs says: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” This statement reminds architects that their influence is far smaller than they imagine; that cities are highly complex ecosystems manifesting the lives of millions of individuals. The Situationists of the 60s also helped to de-formalize the image of the city. Matteo Casaburi, discusses their impact in Architecture + Urbanism: “The Naked City [map]… expresses the incompatibility of Cartesian logic with the real experience of the city.” Even in the important postwar fields of traffic & mobility, the standard method of measuring vehicular flow at intersections with a simple sensor or counter is too minuscule to have a strong impact alone. Researchers at MIT have found real-life applications for traffic flow analysis, but those applications have to remain specific and event-based (responding to citywide emergencies such as natural disasters). Even into the 80s, when big data started playing an influential role, analysts found it necessary to simplify and distill numbers into something digestible. The “Big Mac Index”, for example, uses the cost of a fast food staple as an economic benchmark.

A traffic flow counting device. Via Jamartech.
The Big Mac Index. Bar chart by Statista.

Mapping, on the other hand, can comfortably overlap both the physical and the invisible realms. A strong map can bring together processes, vectors, statistics, territories, buildings, and traffic patterns in one image. It comes closer to painting the full picture because it is more densely packed with information. The Data City seminar took this philosophy to heart. Coming, for the most part, from architecture, we took on the challenge of representing phenomena whose language we didn’t speak. We became willing to admit what we didn’t know.

Geographies of Innovation. Mapping centers of innovative activity in Barcelona. Map by 300.000 Km/s. Image via urbannext.
Photo credit Luciana Teodozio. Via her Instagram page.

During the final review, however, the guest jurors inevitably became confused by the multitude of maps and charts on the wall and said, “This is a class about food, but I don’t even see any images of food!” But, as I just mentioned, trying to hopscotch from urban patterns to food items will inevitably frustrate. However, this critique slowly sharpened over the course of the discussion, as naturally happens when people have some time to think about the present work, and by the third time it was brought up, it had matured.

One of the few images of food that were included in the presentation.

II: Codes, Recipes

Troy Innocent, visiting UI/UX resident at IAAC, spoke. “Why not focus on something specific in the human-scale food experience, like a hamburger or a pork bun, take the recipe for that food, and see how you could affect the food experience by adjusting the variables of that recipe?

Troy had made a profound connection without realizing it. When most people learn about coding, the first analogy that teachers use to demystify coding is cooking. Imagine a code as a recipe, they say, it’s just a set of instructions, and anyone who can read the recipe can reproduce more or less the same food.

The other point in the analogy is that of ingredients. One can adjust individual ingredients and customize the food as they desire. Add salt to taste. Substitute coconut oil for vegetable oil. Don’t have tomatoes? Use mushrooms instead…. Slowly, by adjusting enough ingredients, one can arrive at a different food entirely. That is the approach that Pablo and Mar use in their practice. They use a collection of indicators (like median income, cost of a loaf of bread, distance to transport, average age…) to identify unique regions in a city. One region is distinct from another because at least one of the indicators changes significantly. Then, by the same logic, one can see how changing that same indicator in one region could transform its identity. An “innovation district” could become a “cultural magnet,” or a “cultural magnet” could become an “academic enclave” with subtle changes.

The Matrix code was inspired by sushi recipes? Read the story at foodandwine.

There’s our in. To take this class to the next level, we should look at something like a hamburger or a pork bun, break it down into its ingredients, then see how we could adjust the the recipe by adjusting one of the ingredients. For example: if Shanghai really wants to promote food sustainability, then it needs to reduce the carbon output of its agriculture, and if one were to reduce the carbon output of its rice fields, then the taste or cost of a bowl of rice might change. This would connect the city-scale mapping-scale analysis that we did with the personal, cultural dimension that was missing in the final presentation. It would also force us to acknowledge that like in most closed systems, there is always a loss to balance every gain, and we must be conscious of those impacts.

Our group’s proposal for turning Shanghai’s metro system into a food logistics infrastructure. ProMetro.

III: Low Heat, Long Time

I went home that day a little under the cava and made it to Lidl just in time to buy groceries, including more cava. As I entered the apartment, with its crusty walls and bathroom tiles aglow in leftover sunset beams, I remembered Ashraf.

He is tall and lanky– his limbs are in constant motion, from his oscillating head down to his goosestep. When he speaks his hands unfurl like kelp stalks, or clumps of earthworms, or as if he’s about to pull an ace out of his sleeve. I had never seen anyone so clumsy move so smoothly. Even when he first walked into my apartment two hours after being scammed by an Airbnb host, and six hours after setting foot outside India for the first time, he was smiling. As he told me his story, as he asked me if he could pray in the living room until he found a mosque, he was smiling. It began as a nervous, uncertain smile. We bonded over football, our admiration for both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (something I found easier than expected given that we were in Barcelona), the transfer gossip, the managerial drama, and the coming World Cup. He was doing his best at pulling off the magic trick of adulthood– it was almost as if he were mocking it, mocking the care with which we all handle our bodies, the gravity with which we carry ourselves, and the burdensome mortaring, like cooking and cleaning, that we toil over every day.

For the first week of our cohabitation, he kept surprising me. One day he asked “So, Ivan, can you teach me how to cook?”

I stared at him. “But what about all that masala your mother brought you? I thought you knew.”

“No, she just packed that. I don’t know how to use it.”

So I showed him. From the beginning. I filled a pot with water, and set it on the stove. High heat, short time. When it started to boil I threw in some soft grains and turned the power down to minimum. Low heat, long time. Those are the basic variables of cooking. Heat and time. And they are usually in balance, like any closed system. More of one means less of the other. We fried eggs– heat the oil, which gets really hot, then throw the egg on. Short time. We made rice– throw everything in and heat, cover, and let sit. Long time.

I had never taught cooking before. Normally one starts with ingredients, tools, techniques, and recipes. But for Ashraf– for us– even that was too much to begin with. We broke the process down even further. I hope my newfound affinity for coding helped.

In the end Ashraf never quite “took up” cooking like one would expect, accepting its indispensability like one does when one moves out to go to college. It’d be more accurate to say he tried it, like skydiving. But his beard grew out, he started wearing contacts, his smile became knowing and mischievous, he started teasing and messing with people. One time he pretended to be hypnotized by Francois at a party, and everyone believed it, because they saw Ashraf as gullible. Only I knew he was mocking his former self. After the party, Ashraf sent me a text message: “You were the only one who was totally unconvinced. I should get more professional I guess. But don’t tell anyone Francois wants to fool everyone longer.” If I could describe his sense of humor now, I would say low heat, long time.

Food on demand

There is a pattern emerging in the past decade or two in the cultural niche of apocalypse-gazing. Namely, we have become increasingly enthralled with the kind of world’s ends which are categorically insidious, infectious, and truly uncanny– the notion is popular that an apocalypse will sprout germ-like from a familiar flower. Both zombie swarms and global warming are great examples, in the very Freudian sense, of some basic and familiar entity putting on a foreign guise, and attacking from within.
Looking at both of these makes you go. “Ah, I recognize that,”and then “Oh shit.”
The uncanny royally complicates attitudes towards its object. Previously, things that disgusted us or made us darkly sad and uncomfortable could easily be lumped together with fearful or dangerous things, and thereby avoided entirely. After it, how are we supposed to feel about uncanny objects? We can neither flee them nor meet them head on. Increasingly, I am finding my attitude toward common visions of apocalypse I invent to have this same upside-down hesitation. One the one hand, I tend towards them— the vast majority of my short stories and poems mention the inevitability of death, or otherwise human beings’ self-alienation through technology (how can these futures be made to appear simultaneously real and unlikely?). But on the other hand, I often dread writing about them— surely there are some unwritten children’s tales or limericks that I can compose, to keep the mood light. Being a person who strongly values versatility and plurality of views, I hate that I have these thematic tendencies. Thus is my writing so uncannily colored.
A recent idea I’ve had of this sort (characteristically fucked up and fascinating at the same time) addresses the future of our food. The thought came while discussing bio-engineering and its moral pitfalls with a friend. It excites me that we are on the doorstep of a new age where we’ll be able to seriously interfere with evolution. Breeding and cloning aside, we’ll be able to really shake things up on the level of nutrition, and create an immense shift in how the average person consumes food. Changing the method of supply will alter the patterns of demand. Soon, fast food will not be connoted with high triglycerides, sugar sugar sugar, or fat Americans in drive-thrus. Food on demand will be engineered and supplied when we need it, for essential nutrition. That is where the current demand is going, and that is what companies will sniff out. And as that industry accelerates beyond control, there will remain a kind of semi-nostalgic desire for things like meals, dinner parties, DIY cooking… all the intangible social/cultural qualities that accompany traditions of eating. I foresee a rift opening between food that we consume for nutrition and food that we consume for pleasure (le goût, in French, for which in English there is no satisfactory equivalent).
Cooking will soon be a luxury, because its preconditions, time and fuel, are scarce and expensive. The daily meals of middle-class workers will be a piece of lab-grown meat product or what have you which you eat in one minute on the way to work, replete with enough calories, protein, lipids, HDL cholesterol, iron, magnesium, Vitamin C, etc. to get you through the morning till the next serving. In this scenario, what that food actually is, or what it tastes like, is arbitrary.
I love the before & after. Petri dish –> sesame bun. Looks totally different!
Humans often search for the path of least resistance, or at least pursue the opportunity to regress to leisure as frequently as they can. One definition of technology is: the means by which we domesticate ourselves. Laziness will grow a new limb with the advent of food on demand. What is your favorite food? If you had to eat only one type of food for the rest of your life, what would it be? I am a lover of bread. Soon the day will come when I can eat nothing but bread, and it will be engineered to contain all the nutrition I need: all the amino acids, lipids, vitamins, omegas, good cholesterol, fiber, balanced carbs, the whole package. My day-to-day life, streamlined for me to work the maximum amount of efficient hours (contributing, fittingly, to the very food industry which feeds me), will be fueled with these cyborg breadloaves. Only during weekends and holidays (the time discretely apportioned for leisure) will I have friends over, season steaks, chop vegetables, bake cookies, mix cocktails… cook meals.
I guess it’s already happening. Rye bread, almost a superfood. Image courtesy of saimaalife.com.
Many visions of the future, it seems, strike a cacophonous chord blending the unfeeling detachment from nature with immaculately commodified, custom-made pleasures. In the lion’s den of capitalism those skeptics among us are certainly warranted to think this way.
PS: Let’s not be so quick in deciding this development to be evil and evaded at all costs. All criticism of this future as too bleak to be true stems from the notion that it’s too disruptive of the natural processes already in place– altogether too unnatural. But who are we, as human beings, to lament the loss of our connection to nature when there is actually NOTHING natural about our species to begin with? Walking? Holding stuff? Growing plants? Thinking? Writing? Cities? All those were severely new things when they came about hundreds of thousands of years ago.
As Louis CK says: why is littering in NYC so bad? NYC already is a giant stinky piece of litter.
“This is not the environment. This is where people live.”