Making the Best of It: Jellyfish
2016
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
 

DESCRIPTION
Making the Best of It is the umbrella concept for a series of regionally site-specific pop up food “refuges” (shacks, installations, carts, tea houses, delivery drones) and designed community dinners that feature a climate-change enabled (and often unwanted) edible indicator species, in order to engage publics in tastings and conversation about the risks of climate chaos, our business-as-usual food system, and the short term food innovations at our disposal.
The 2016 work in Texas laid the foundations for a participatory public art project positioned as an innovative food product line. During a month-long residency at CENHS, Rice University, Zurkow worked with stellar chefs Brian Yu and Ryan Pera to explore what it would mean to eat jellyfish fashioned into a collection of western-style snack foods: jelly beans, jerky, chips, and instant soup.
With this proof-of-concept in hand (the snacks were tasty), Making the Best of It: Jellyfish is now a proposal for a mysterious, silent, mobile, snack-vending system, intent on introducing jellyfish snacks to Houston consumers. The system will be comprised of a white electric mini truck, and accompanied by a close-range drone, each underlit by glowing LEDs that evoke the phosphorescent qualities of deep sea creatures. The 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, when they were truly top predators of the ancient seas. In a more balanced ocean ecosystem, they may bloom and disappear somewhat mysteriously, amidst a biodiverse array of other animals. But when jellyfish appear in large numbers, they often indicate a distressed ecosystem. Depleted oxygen levels, nitrogen run off, oil spills, pollutants, and overfishing transform the Gulf into a growing dead zone. Jellyfish do well in oxygen-poor and disturbed environments. Their flourishing 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 recently become an important economic resource (1). They are 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 consistent or reliable even seasonally, raising provocative questions about feeding the world, or supplementing diets with foraging. And yet jellyfish are rarely seen outside Asian markets, Chinese restaurants, and specialty grocers, making this foodstuff seem grotesque, obscure or exotic for Western tastes. In the US, they are an unutilized food resource. Arguments to eat them include: making the best of their sporadic but abundant appearance, reducing their numbers and therefore allowing more diverse competition for the animals beneath them in the food chain, and consuming a healthy food (collagen, proteins, low 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 our food system dependencies, 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)