If your cheese smells like feet, that’s because it may be swimming with the same bacteria. And that, says Vassar College Assistant Professor and visiting food scholar Thomas Parker, may not be such a bad thing.
“There’s bacteria on that cheese because it may not have been pasteurized, and neither have your feet,” Parker says. “But that bacteria’s a probiotic. You could be filling your body with bacteria that helps keep you healthy.”
Parker, a visiting fellow at Duke University, wants you to think about your food. This month, he’s leading a freakish project for Duke undergraduates in the Humanities Writ Large program intended to make students rethink conventional food dogma.
“The idea is to challenge students,” he says. “You’re grossed out by insects, but other people eat them as a good source of protein. Maybe there are ways to prepare them that would appeal to you.”
Parker said he was inspired by the architectural concept of a subnature, or marginalized characteristics of a space that may be reappropriated for other uses. In Durham, Parker pointed out builders rescued abandoned tobacco warehouses to house restaurants and loft apartments. Parker says he wants students to consider a culinary subnature, or any food source typically discarded in popular culture.
Parker said he also wants to teach students the French culinary concept of terroir, meaning that a food should be enjoyed for its ties to a particular region and place as much as its taste. For example, he said, French regions often specialize in distinct meats, cheeses and wines.
North Carolina food is often associated with smoked meats. Thus, using a university grant, Parker and students constructed a 25-by-14-foot plywood smokehouse outside the Allen Building on Duke’s campus, in which they plan to cure and smoke meat, butter and, yes, insects.
Last weekend, Parker used the temporary structure to prep pecan-smoked pigeons. When finished, the plump bird yielded a flavorful dark meat similar to a cooked duck, he said.
“Pigeons used to be a delicacy for Romans,” he said. “Now, because of cities, we think of them as rats with wings. They’re a subnature if you want. They have this social, political history that’s shaped our perception of them.”
Parker plans to challenge those subnatures and intestines over the next few weeks, with plans to serve up smokehouse creations for Duke students, faculty and staff Sept. 18 on the East Campus quad.
Because the smokehouse food may not conform to health code standards, he’s not allowed to sell the food. “If you eat it, you’re taking on the risk,” he jokes.
In October, the public will get the chance to test its chow boundaries. Parker has planned a five-course meal Oct. 2 at the Cotton Room in Durham’s Golden Belt, pulling together six Triangle chefs and Denmark’s Nordic Food Lab, a group globally known for its innovative cuisine.
Courses include air dried beef heart sausage, sturgeon roe, pickled shiso, coffee-sesame dirt and urban parking lot-cooked fowl, served with, according to the menu, “roadside fragrances” and “industrial edibles.”
Chefs include Matt Kelly of Durham’s Mateo, Kim Floresca and Daniel Ryan of Chapel Hill’s ONE Restaurant, Andrea Reusing of Chapel Hill’s Lantern, Steven Greene of Cary’s Umstead Hotel and Aaron Vandemark of Panciuto in Hillsborough.
This kind of weirdness doesn’t come cheap. Parker said organizers will sell 150 tickets for $185 apiece (including an e-commerce fee of $5.40). Find out more at http://sites.duke.edu/subnatureandculinaryculture/nflandcarolinachefsdinner/.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Smoke it if you’ve got it”