Can Microbes Help Us Taste Alternate Worlds?

VISION: Use microbes from the past as a “spice rack” to evoke alternate times and places.

Team: Sara Nejad and Nikhil Kumar

School: New York University, Integrated Digital Media (IDM) (2020)

Cultural records can be preserved through photography, stories, song, or poetry, but what about taste? The olfactory gland is very closely linked to the memory processing part of the brain. Certain tastes—most famously Proust’s madeleine —can elicit intense memories that formed long ago. 

Similarly, in the distinctive flavors in their wines, vintners can capture terroir—the unique ecosystem where the grapes were grown. Climate, soil, and microbes all contribute to a wine’s aromas and flavors. 

Students from New York University’s Integrated Digital Media program wondered whether microbes abundant at particular times and places could be used to bring distinctive time-and-place-based flavors to other foods and drinks. 

Driven by curiosity about what it would be like to taste the past, or even the future, they imagined capturing the flavor and scent of periods and places through microorganisms. For example, they imagined capturing the tastes of Manhattan in 1921 or Paris in the 1800s by collecting microbes from those times and places. 

As a first step, the students used yogurt, a food ubiquitous across culinary traditions, as an example where the microbes of a particular terroir might be preserved and catalogued in a culinary archive and used to evoke terroir in different meals.

“When I think about a time and place I’d want to capture and use in the kitchen I think about a time before colonial rule. I think about sampling DNA inside an old fermentation vessel from West Africa prior to colonization, and creating a sort of flavor of freedom,” Nikhil Kumar said when asked about the flavors he’d create. “Every time we eat food we are eating our history. I think it would be so empowering to imagine recipes for an alternate world.”

Your participation enriches the conversation

Respond to the ideas raised in this essay by writing to [email protected]. And read what others are saying in our lively Forum section.

Cite this Article

Challenge, Biodesign. “Can Microbes Help Us Taste Alternate Worlds?” Issues in Science and Technology (April 23, 2021).