Making the Best of It: Jellyfish
Core Collaborators: Ryan Pera (Coltivare), Justin Yu and Ian Levy (Oxheart), Marina Zurkow
Supported by the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences (CENHS), Rice University

Making the Best of It is the umbrella concept for a series of regional site-specific pop-up food shacks, installations, carts, tea houses, delivery drones, and designed community dinners that feature edible climate-change enabled, and often not normally eaten, indicator species as part of the menu. These events are designed to engage the public in tastings and conversation about the risks of climate chaos, our business-as-usual food system, and short term food innovations at our disposal.
During a month-long residency in 2016 at CENHS (the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences) at Rice University in Texas, Zurkow worked with stellar chefs Brian Yu and Ryan Pera to explore what it would mean to eat jellyfish fashioned into a collection of American-style snack foods: jelly beans, jerky, chips, and instant soup. This iteration of Making the Best of It laid the foundations for a participatory public art project positioned as an innovative food product line.
With this proof-of-concept in hand (the snacks were tasty), Making the Best of It: Jellyfish is now a proposal for a mobile, mysterious, silent, snack-vending system, intent on introducing jellyfish snacks to ocean-side consumers. The system will be comprised of a white electric mini truck accompanied by a close-range drone, each underlit by glowing LEDs that evoke the phosphorescent qualities of deep sea creatures. This mobile snack system will resemble an undersea diving vessel and allude to the ghostly quality of jellyfish and other deep sea creatures.

Jellyfish are old animals—relatively unchanged (continuously successful, biologically speaking) since the Pre-Cambrian era 250 million years ago, a time when they were top predators of the ancient seas. In a more balanced ocean ecosystem, they may bloom and disappear amidst a biodiverse array of other animals. But jellyfish appear in large numbers and far more frequently today; they often indicate a distressed ecosystem. Depleted oxygen levels, nitrogen run off, oil spills, pollutants, and overfishing transform the Gulf of Mexico into an increasingly large dead zone. Jellyfish do well in oxygen-poor and disturbed environments. Their ability to flourish positions them in the center of an unfortunate recursive feedback loop: They are a “plug” in the food chain, eating most everything below them, while few animals consume them—primarily sea turtles, molas (sunfish), and...humans.
As many of the formerly reliable Gulf fisheries declined, jellyfish have become an important economic resource(1). They are netted in great numbers for the Asian market, where jellyfish consumption is common. They are tasteless, but very crunchy with an unusual mouth feel. Given their drifts and blooms, jellyfish are not a consistent or reliable fishery, raising provocative questions about feeding the world, supplementing diets with jellyfish foraging, or thinking in systems rather than species-specifics about foodstuffs. As jellyfish are rarely seen outside of Asian markets, Chinese restaurants, and specialty grocers, this foodstuff seems grotesque, obscure or too exotic for American tastes. In the U.S.A. they are an unutilized food resource. Arguments to eat them include: making the best of their sporadic but abundant population blooms, reducing their numbers and therefore allowing more diverse competition for the animals they prey on, and consuming a healthy food (jellyfish contain collagen, proteins, and are low in fat). In fact, I might characterize jellyfish (of which there are at least 12 edible species) as an American dream food: a zero fat protein with nutritional benefits that may include aiding beautiful skin and prolonged youth.

Making the Best of It: Jellyfish aims to raise awareness about systemic environmental degradation, the structuring of fisheries and the systems our sustenance depends on, and how jellyfish participate in and disrupt these systems. They are not only good to eat, but also very “good to think.” (2)
Many thanks to Juli Berwald, for her research on jellyfish and her new book Spineless, out in fall 2017.
(1) ‘Jellyballs’ are Serious Business’, The Atlantic, May 2014
(2) “Les espèces sont choisies non commes bonnes à manger, mais comme bonnes à penser.” Claude Lévi Strauss, The Savage Mind (1962)