Awake in the canals

 Unable to sleep, a view from an Amsterdam houseboat in the quiet hours of the night.

Unable to sleep, a view from an Amsterdam houseboat in the quiet hours of the night.

 
 A spray of color along the Old World passages that circle Amsterdam's city center.

A spray of color along the Old World passages that circle Amsterdam's city center.

AMSTERDAM — For four days I got to live on a houseboat in a canal in the Netherlands. I was six hours removed from my native timezone, tucked away in one where I barely slept, opting instead to stare dreamily out my bedroom window by night as passing boats rippled the water in a vain attempt to lull me into another place.

There's a saying in that tiny country (though from whom it originated I don't know) that, "God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands." It makes sense taking into consideration the human ingenuity it took to forge a country below sea level and behind seawalls. It also applies to the area of my research. What better place on earth to foster the idea of an environmentally-friendly meat, grown without animals, as a means of making a more efficient food system?

But I'm already familiar with the story of Willem van Eelen. It was the daughter of the late-van Eelen with whom I sought to meet on this trip, along with a handful of entrepreneurial spirits who are working hard to make cell-cultured meat a reality.

My journey took me deep into the city center, to its north, and also to the south of the country, where in a small town the treaty was signed that officially formed the European Union in 1992. 

The trip was invaluable, and I'm increasingly excited to share what I'm learning about this very particular corned of the food space, and the people who inhabit it.


UPDATE: In the previous post I'd mentioned the issue of so-called 'clean meat' being kosher. The conversation around that topic is evolving. My latest on the subject in Quartz.

 

 

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.