When high-tech meat collides with Leviticus.

NEW YORK — The more I explore the concept of clean meat, the more I grow curious about what happens when new food technologies collide with established culinary culture. Most recently, this curiosity took me down a religious rabbit hole. 

What happens when Silicon Valley startups start brushing up against millennia-old religious rules over what's kosher and halal? It's an important question to ask, especially considering more than 1.6 billion people in the world today are Muslim (about 16 million are Jewish).  And these are sizable markets, worth more than $1.6 trillion. 

I discovered that religious scholars in both major religions are questioning this new technology, though no consensus has been formed. The thing is, with the first clean meat product anticipated to hit the commercial market sometime this year, the pressure is one to figure out whether true believers will be able to incorporate this high-tech meat into their diets.

My reporting for this took me to New York's Upper East Side, where I sat across from Chernor Saad-Jalloh, an imam at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. As he learned for the first time about clean meat, he reacted both with bewilderment and a calm thoughtfulness. The experience was a reminder of just how sacred the act of eating is for humans. No matter how much money you make, where you live, or what religion (or lack thereof) you prescribe, food is a common denominator for all of us.

"I'm glad you came by today," Saad-Jalloh told me as I gathered my coat and scarf after the interview. "I learned something new today."

"Me too," I told him. "Me too."

Check out the story in Quartz here.

The Mission.

 Working from the heart of San Francisco offers a welcome reprieve when New York is encased in the frigid grips of winter.

Working from the heart of San Francisco offers a welcome reprieve when New York is encased in the frigid grips of winter.

 A writing companion who doesn't complain when I use too many em dashes.

A writing companion who doesn't complain when I use too many em dashes.

SAN FRANCISCO — There are nooks and crannies where its old spirit can be found, but this is no longer the city you hear about in songs and recollections.

If the unavoidable protrusion of the new Salesforce tower on this city's skyline isn't enough of a sign, a ground-level stroll through the historic Mission District will clear any remaining confusion. San Francisco is a place that's gone through radical change.  That is, in fact, what brought me here. 

There are about eight companies in the world working to get cell cultured meats into the commercial market. Food re-envisioned in a re-envisioned city. Three of these companies call the Bay Area home: Hampton Creek, Memphis Meats, and Finless Foods. On more than one level it's appropriate these start-ups are based here, after all Silicon Valley is synonymous with cutting-edge.

Still also, though, are the parallel questions about identity. Founded (and largely funded) by vegans, these food technology companies are wrestling with exactly what kind of message they should communicate to the outside world. Should they market themselves as vegan? (The preeminent thinkers seem to think not.) And what should they even call the meat they're creating? 

The latter is a topic I'm especially interested to watch unfold. From a recent piece I wrote for Quartz:

The need to find a name indicates how close the technology is to jumping from lab to market. But translating terminology from scientific jargon to consumer-friendly lingo is nettlesome. Forces within the nascent cell-cultured meat industry are working to get everyone to coalesce around one name: clean meat.

Not everyone in this space is in agreement on that term, though, and the debate has led to some interesting conversations at the intersection of marketing, public policy, ego, and activism—the crucible in which these start-ups figure out more precisely how to carry out their missions.

These young companies are coming into their own during a ripe moment, buttressed by promises to deliver food that's better for people, the environment, and the future. The opportunity to document their first steps, and I'm eager to see where that takes me this year.

Margaret Atwood plays with her food

 The CN Tower is the signature sight of Toronto's skyline. Pictured here through fencing.

The CN Tower is the signature sight of Toronto's skyline. Pictured here through fencing.


 Exploring Ossington district with these two. 

Exploring Ossington district with these two. 

TORONTO, Canada — It's appropriate that I would take a weekend trip to Toronto and return to New York with a 20-page academic paper exploring the role of food in Margaret Atwood's literary works.

I came across the paper because a very close friend from the city unearthed it and printed me a copy. I'm glad he did, it made for a fascinating read.

Atwood herself resides in Toronto, though her best-known dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, takes place in the US. The paper, first published in The Japanese Journal of American Studies, takes a deep dive (pdf) into how food is represented in that novel, as well as in Oryx and Crake. The latter interested me most because it's the one in which Atwood plays with the idea of artificial, super-processed future foods, including some that were clearly the product of biotechnological rejiggering of common goods. 

Take for instance so-called "ChickieNob," which is described as a chicken engineered to have twelve drumsticks and no head. This is, of course, a far cry from what scientists in today's food labs are tinkering with, but the concept is an interesting and relevant one as I embark on an intense level of research for the book project.

For that very reason, I think it's noteworthy, too, that Atwood chose to set both these novels in the US. She expanded upon this decision in a book by Earl Ingersoll, a literature professor at State University of New York, College at Brockport:

"The States are more extreme in everything...Canadians don't swing much to the left or the right, they stay safely in the middle...It's also true that everyone watches the States to see what the country is doing and might be doing ten or fifteen years from now."

It just so happens that three of the world's eight food technology companies trying to get a high-tech meat product to market are based in Silicon Valley. And of those three, one has said it plans to be the first to get a lab-grown, "clean meat" product to market first. 

I love that Atwood was playing with this idea.