Outside the Work: A Tasting of Hydrocarbons and Geological Time (March 20, 2014)
With Lucullan Foods
Tasting/Participatory performance for 50 guests
Rice University
Presented by CENHS (Center for Energy & Environmental Research in the Human Sciences @ Rice)
Hosted by Joseph Campana and Timothy Morton, with generous support from The Arts Initiatives Fund and The Humanities Research Center.
Photos; Judy Natal and Lynn Lane
Placemat design: Nancy Nowacek

Outside the Work,A Tasting of Hydrocarbons and Geological Time:
Placemat #1. These vinyl placemats came stacked at every placesetting. Behind each guest was a bag where used mats were then stored. The guests were asked to take them home.
Click to enlarge.



A dinner for 50, co-hosted by philosopher Timothy Morton and poet Joseph Campana, that explored the concept of Deep Time and the multiple million-years-long process of fossil fuel formation, embodied in a seven course meal. The guests were primarily from the academic and arts communities in Houston. The purpose was to field test the effect of creating a meal that at once felt like a familiar banquet, and created the strange feeling of dissolving into deep time through food and interactive design, in order to explore our complicated relationship to—and dependency on—petroleum. The table set was created collaboratively with Rice University students. The food and presentation was developed over time with feedback from a community of artists and academics at Boston University in 2013.

Tonight’s course of events will follow the chronology of how a tiny marine creature becomes a particle of pure energy, a hydrocarbon, a fossil fuel. Lauryn and Anna have worked to conjoin kitchen techniques to these events of Deep Time. I hope you will find their output as sensuous as I do. 
On the table before you, you will find a user’s manual for the night’s endeavor in the form of a series of placemats. These mats are menus, as well as time-maps. Please do NOT zoom forward in time. I ask instead that you stay on the same page with me as we eat our way through time.  There are eight of these stages or pages. As each course progresses, each placemat, too, will give way to the next, and I will give you the cue to move forward.

And now, let’s presume, consume, and dig in.



(geological time):

- - -
(human time)

- - -

In the Beginning: Iceberg water
Organic matter dies and sinks
Blooming and settling
The Tiny Gigantic Kingdom: Blue-green algae
Salt of the Seas: Red algae and frisee salad
with salt-cured mullet roe
Buried and Compressed
Salt-baked Gulf mullet with fried mullet gizzard and sardine skeletons
Airless Spaces: Sourdough "Texas Toast"
with umeboshi butter and beer
Heated, Floating, and Trapped
Heating and clarifying
Adding oils to water
Migrations: Deconstructed gumbo with aspic domes of Gulf marine life, broiler chicken consommée and liquid smoke, and finished with oil
- - -
- - -
A Brief Pause: Jellyfish and Star ruby grapefruit sorbet with Gulf oyster
Drilled and Gushing
Encrusting and Melting
Black Gold: Composed Strata of edible "rocks", licorice "coal tar", and chocolate "clay")
Transforming into products
- - -
Jellyfish beignet


Please peel back your first placemat to advance in time. If you like, you can place the Past in the plastic bag hanging on the back of your chair.
Step One. The Tiny Gigantic Kingdom

In front of you, on the riser, you will find a glass with an eyedropper.
We begin tonight’s meal with a shot of reconstituted, wild-harvested, blue-green algae from Klamath Lake, Oregon, served in local Houston water.
Blue-green Algae is considered a “superfood”, a health food industry marketing term used to promote the exceptional nutritional value (and price) of a product.  And it’s true: blue green algae is packed with proteins, Omega fatty acids, and antioxidants.

But long before it was commercially wild - harvested or farmed, these mycrophytes were already “super.” They are technically not an algae at all, but an edible species of cyanobacteria, -- the “inventors of photosynthesis:”  those who magically convert light to stored energy, and produce oxygen as a byproduct. Ancient and ubiquitous, these tiny organisms 2 ½  billion years ago drove the conditions that support life as we know it. Today they account for 90% of marine biomass, and 50% of the oxygen on earth.

When microorganisms die, they might sink to the bottom of seas, swamps and lakes. They might mix with sediments. As they decompose, if conditions are right, they might become pure carbon and hydrogen. We all might become hydrocarbons over time.
As we now drink these microscopic creatures, we have a chance to reconnect to deep time, and to the stored sunlight in these organisms; and to oxygen.
On that note, please lift your glass to the light .
Take a deep inhale.
Squeeze the contents of the dropper into the shot of water.
Watch it bloom.
Let’s all drink to the power at the bottom of the food chain.
To microphagy!

Step Four: Floating Upwards
Layers of sedimentary rock fold, fracture and collapse. The material effect of compression and fermentation on organisms -- Petroleum --  is expelled. Rock oil. Floating upward, the hydrocarbons may become trapped in porous rock, forming a petroleum reservoir.
Waiting on the riser before each of you is a tiny dome, encasing a tasty specimen of marine life.  On your tray, you find an almost empty bowl. The sandy bottom is a roux, to enrich and thicken your soup. You may slide the aspic dome into your bowl.  Soon, a dropper of liquid smoke will come your way:  add the oil sparingly.  Finally, you will be sharing carafes of broiler chicken consommé. Pour the very hot liquid gently over the dome in your bowl, up to the line, and observe.
The table will be obscene. All servers should step behind the partition in the pavilion for a costume change.  Servers will remove black aprons and one article of black clothing, exposing either a white undergarment or flesh. Then Servers will put on their yellow aprons and teal gloves.
Servers reappear and aggressively clear the table, pushing contents towards the middle.  All that should remain at this time are the final placemats and any Berg water bottles with remaining water in them.  When the table is adjusted, servers change back as though nothing happened.
Step Five: Drill, Crack, Gush
Drilling begins with a prospect: if conditions are right, wells are drilled. It may end in bankruptcy, ruin, and rusting equipment. Or, it may end with a discovery. Once discovered, crude oil is pumped from the earth and into a Pandora’s Box, a Big Box, of products and processes, many of which we depend on to grow food, heal our ills, power our lives, and endlessly entertain ourselves.
At the bottom of your dessert cup is locally distilled Vanilla Rum, enhanced with petrochemically based coloring agents to mirror the many shades of crude.  Moving up through the strata, is a black licorice gelée, then gingered sorghum crumble and finally dark chocolate pot de crème. The kitchen has bruleed the tops for you, garnished with glass sugar and edible charcoal pebbles.
I invite you to puncture with your straws, drill down with care,
and slurp up the crude that is resting in its reservoir. 
Excavate with your spoon at will.