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Part I: Jonathan Balcombe, What A Fish Knows
Jonathan Balcombe is the director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy and the author of four previous books, including Second Nature and Pleasurable Kingdom. Visit his website at www.jonathanbalcombe.com and follow him on Twitter at @Jonathanpb1959.
Part II: Erin Orr, Secret Estate Illuminati Ball
Erin Orr is a chef, storyteller, puppeteer and educator based in Brooklyn. She endeavors to create experiences that encourage and foster community — whether they are crafted from food, with words or via visual spectacle. She maintains the food blog Big Sis Little Dish, where she shares original, adapted and passed on recipes and stories about the memories and gatherings connected to them. She is currently executive chef for Cynthia von Buhler’s immersive theater excursion “The Illuminati Ball.” For this she’s assembled an eight-course vegan tasting menu that guests of the ongoing event series continue to concur is both delicious and satisfying.
TRANSCRIPTION PART I:
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass, and it’s time for It’s All About Food! It’s all about food. Ah, how long can you go without food? That’s how important it is. I know I’ve spoken about fasts before. It just came to my mind, how long can you go without food? I know that I can go at least three weeks without food because I did a three-week water-only fast probably about 15 years ago or so. And it was a fascinating experience, but I’m not saying that we should go without food.
Unfortunately, there are many people who do go without food and they’re not doing it for any intentional reason. They’re hungry and there are many people who get very little food. And we talk a lot about food on this program. I love talking about delicious food, healthy food, and I know that I am very fortunate and privileged to have access to an abundance of healthy, delicious food. And I know that there are many that don’t. I’m aware of that, when I encourage you to eat healthy, delicious food and to enjoy the recipes that we put together at responsibleeatingandliving.com.
But I always keep in mind that there are those that don’t have this privilege. And it’s always fascinating to think every time we sit down to eat – and I know most of us don’t do this, and I don’t do it enough – to really think about where our food comes from. It’s a fascinating journey to take, and I repeat suggesting to go through this because it’s something that we can easily take for granted and it’s fascinating.
Hello, Jonathan! Are you there?
Jonathan Balcombe: Hi, yes I’m here.
Caryn Hartglass: Great, yes, good. So I’m glad that I got you. I was just talking while waiting for you and I need to give you the appropriate introduction; how important it is to think about where our food comes from, and it’s so easy to take for granted when we have access to healthy, delicious food all the time, for those of us who do, to not realize the long chain, the long journey, all the people and nonhuman animals that are involved in getting the food on our plate to our mouths.
Jonathan Balcombe: Yes, indeed.
Caryn Hartglass: I like to say tune in live and tune in love – that’s what we do during this program.
Jonathan Balcombe: Very nice.
Caryn Hartglass: I imagine that you are extremely busy today because your new book, What a Fish Knows, was released today. Congratulations.
Jonathan Balcombe: Thank you. It’s nice to – after four years of work, it’s nice to finally actually have it fully in the public eye.
Caryn Hartglass: Now just so my listeners know, Jonathan Balcombe is my guest and he is the director of Animal Sentience at the Human Society Institute for Science and Policy and the author of four previous books, including Second Nature and Pleasurable Kingdom. And he has a website, jonathan-balcombe.com. And you can follow him at Twitter @jonathanpb1959. I’ve read your book, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to read it. Every page brings magic and wonder. It really exposes us to the greater – it’s like there’s another universe here on our own planet, which is the ocean. Something we know so little about and we’re just starting to discover, and you shared so much of the little that we know today, about the life underwater.
Jonathan Balcombe: Well I can tell you, Caryn, one of the delights of writing this book was the discoveries that came along on the way. I wrote the book for two primary reasons. One of the key reasons was that there’s so much great science on the inner lives of fish now, but most of it never makes it to the public eye. It’s buried away in scholarly journals and once I started working on it, there were just so many more discoveries, as I went along, that were very exciting. It was exciting to discover a new study of individual recognition or social behavior or sexual behavior or personalities in fish and know that I would be able to work that into my book and that I was going to putting something together that the people could see and just, hopefully, just open their eyes and realize just how rich these animals’ lives are, and how we underestimated them.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, let’s put the idea of eating fish aside for a moment. I want you to know I am vegan and I promote a plant-based diet and we talk about eating nonhuman animals and what that does to the planet all the time on this program. But putting that aside, why is it that a lot of this research has been unheard of and doesn’t get a lot of media attention? Because I really think people would love to hear this information. It’s fascinating!
Jonathan Balcombe: Well, I guess it sort of works in my favor that it has been shrouded in a bit of mystery. It’s a great question, and I don’t have an immediate answer because the press, certainly these days, you see more and more really cool animal stuff in the news. I mean, I can mention two animal studies that have come across my desk in the last week on fish themselves. One is, a couple of days ago I saw a new published study, which is pretty sad and tragic, that farmed salmon become severely depressed. It’s very common. There’s these dropout fish; they give up. They just float to the surface, and they’re listless and they don’t eat. The other fish are three times as big. They basically wither and die. The scientist measured the cortisol levels in these fish – that’s a hormone associated with stress, and you could say misery – and the cortisol levels were way higher in these dropouts, these apparently depressed fish. They showed all the hallmarks behaviorally and physiologically of what we define as depression in mammals. And I do write about emotions in the book. So that’s one study.
The other study that just came to light, just today, is a new study of archerfish, which are really cool and I dedicate several pages of my book to them. They’re called archerfish because they hunt by – they catch food in the water, but they also, if the opportunity arises, they’ll squirt water out of their mouths into the air and actually pick off flying insects or insects perched on a leaf with great accuracy. And they learned this by observing other fish doing this. It’s pretty remarkable, but they’ve just been found to recognize human faces. It frankly doesn’t surprise me, Caryn, that they can do this because, as I describe in my book, individual fish are very good at recognizing individuals in their society. They have their soul mates; they have their preferred individuals to hang out with. They’re very visual in many cases, and so not surprisingly to me, they can recognize a human face and distinguish that face from another human face.
Caryn Hartglass: There are too many things that we have assumed as humans – that we have assumed as we think being the most intelligent things around – that other living species cannot do all the wonderful things that we can do. And it’s really a very ignorant assumption, and an arrogant assumption, and every page in your book talks about the amazing things that we’ve taken for granted about the life underwater. You just mentioned recognizing faces. You’ve shown – and the studies have shown – that fish can recognize their own, their community, as well as when they’re in a tank, they can recognize some of us. I’ve just been fascinated by this book, and the fact that fish use tools.
Jonathan Balcombe: Do you want me to elaborate on that?
Caryn Hartglass: I would love you to because that’s one of the things that has been exploding these days with land animals using tools. That was supposed to be the evidence that we were so superior to everything.
Jonathan Balcombe: I want to preface that by just saying there absolutely is a huge amount to celebrate about humans. We are a remarkable species, we have a number of characteristics that I think are fairly unique to us, but we have to realize that other creatures also have their wonderful characteristics, and they also have their uniquenesses, if you like. In fact, I think we should celebrate the fact that fish are so vastly different from us, and yet they are our cousins – I deliberately use cousins in the subtitle of the book to provoke, but also to remind readers that, they are members of the vertebra clan. They are direct links to us. I was about to say “ancestors”; I actually don’t like that word because evolution is ongoing. It’s not as if fish stopped evolving when the first ancestor of mammals and birds and terrestrial animals crawled out of the water a couple hundred million years ago. No, they have continued to evolve and flourish. In fact, we are in an age of fish. The age of mammals is long past. The fish are the ones who are most diverse today.
Let me speak about tool use. It’s something that we don’t generally associate with fish, and I try to present a number of – I present a number of things in the book that might raise eyebrows when you consider that fish actually can do these things. But fish that have the disadvantages of not having grasping limbs and fingers and such, they are limited in the kind of tool use they can express, but in fact they can use their mouths. They can also blow water with – well, I already mentioned the archerfish – their mouths, shoot water out of their mouths and catch things. That’s a form of tool use. But they can also push water with their mouths or gills, and they can uncover mollusks that way.
So an example of tool use would be triggerfish or a wrasse or some other species of fish – tusk fish – who will deliberately blow water, either with their mouths or their gill covers to uncover the sand and uncover the mollusk and then pick the animal up with their mouths and then swim very deliberately to a rock that they will use as an anvil with a series of well-coordinated, well-timed head flicks and releases, which is not easily done, they are able to smash the unfortunate mollusk against the rock to get the soft insides. It’s a very deliberate sort of behavior – you can watch YouTube videos of this – and it’s being published. There are other examples of tool use in fish that are being published now. It seems to involve planning. I present it as such in the book, that the fish actually thinking ahead, knows exactly what he or she is doing, knows the ultimate goal, but there are several steps to get there. So it’s more than tool use, it’s planning and wherewithal and consciousness and all those other things that we often forget that fish have.
Caryn Hartglass: What I learned in your book about community or all of the cultures that are going on underwater and how the fish interact with their same species and different species; It was all wonderful to read, but at the same time I was a little frustrated to know that the same negative traits that we have in our own human communities, you can see them underwater as well. There are positive traits, and not so positive traits.
Jonathan Balcombe: Indeed. And I think that’s another part of the beauty of the lives of fish, is that they are mirrors to us and vice versa. They are fallible, they fall for the same kinds of optical illusions that we do, for instance, and I present some of those in the book. They are sometimes mean to each other, there’s certainly predation that goes on. I do like to, having written a couple of books on animal pleasure, I do also often like to see animal behavior through a pleasurable lens and there’s plenty of that. I do describe cleaning stations on reefs where client fish line up to wait their turn to be serviced by cleaners of various species who pluck over them, removing parasites and sloughing skin and algae and that sort of thing. It’s a classic mutualism; the cleaner gets some food and the client fish gets a spa treatment, and they appear to love it. They sometimes change color; they will pause while the cleaner fish takes a break from cleaning and actually just fortuitously give them some caresses with their pectoral fins, which probably feels good. They’re not doing that for nothing because they want to curry favor with the clients because they want those clients to come back. So there are clear behaviors that are built on the capacity to feel pleasure.
But as you said in your question, I mean it’s Machiavellian under there. In fact the cleaners-client relationship is complicated because you get cheaters, you get cleaners who do not such a good job. Careful studies have shown that cleaners are very well aware of who’s watching them and how many other potential clients are watching them. Just as you might expect a better job or better service from a barber who has a number of people waiting to get a haircut later than if there’s no one there watching or waiting, you get better treatment from cleaner fish when they’re being watched by clients. And why is that? Well, clients are actually forming image scores and keeping a count of the cleaners performance – I’m not making any of this up, it’s all described in published literature – because they can go somewhere else, go to a different cleaner. And so, cleaners are more likely to nip off a little mote of mucus from the client if no one’s watching them because there’s less of a cost, because they’re not going to lose potential future clients if there’s no audience. So this is the kind of Machiavellianism – that’s the term that a biologist used, another biologist in one of his papers that I thought was a very appropriate term. There are pluses and minuses, there’s awareness of others, there’s reputations at stake, and not everyone always behaves well.
Caryn Hartglass: Now a lot of this information has come from studying fish in ways that cause them harm or cause them pain. And there’s some sort of – I don’t want to use the word balance; we learn a lot, but at the same time it’s quite cruel.
Jonathan Balcombe: Yeah, and I often get asked by audience members when I speak about animals. People ask me, “You know, I noticed you cite some studies that are not very nice,” and my response to that is, “Indeed, I wouldn’t really been keen to do those studies myself. In fact I’m a co-editor of an new journal called, Animal Sentience, in which we encourage authors to be mindful of not harming animals in their studies, and using positive reinforcement and rewards rather than punishment like starvation to motivate behaviors and that sort of thing; and to release animals back in the wild if they took them captive. This sort of thing. But nevertheless, given that other people have taken pains to do studies and they’ve maybe caused some fish to suffer, or even die in some cases, I feel that it honors fish more if I bring those studies to light, not as an endorsement but to hopefully use the information gleaned from those studies to advance the cause so that in the future we’ll have more in-line view of these creatures and be less inclined to do harmful things to them. So it’s a little bit tricky, but that’s just my view. It’s kind of utilitarian view.
I think that there’s a lot of studies that I also cite that are not harmful, and the people who did the study went to lengths to make sure they didn’t harm the fish. There’s a growing number of scientists reporting now that they are returning their creatures back to the wild and I’m very impressed to see that because I can tell you that’s still a rarity in science, that they even report on whether they do it or not.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, the analogy is doing tests on nonhuman land animals and then using that information to understand human health and all issues around humans as well. There’s that question of whether to use that information or not, and many people do because it’s available, not that we necessarily – some of us – encourage that sort of thing.
Jonathan Balcombe: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so how can we study what’s going on underwater without harming the life there? Are there some more organizations that are doing that?
Jonathan Balcombe: There’s a new organization called Fish Feel.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, we just talked to Mary Finelli a few weeks ago.
Jonathan Balcombe: Good, yeah. So it’s nice to see that. There’s some organizations in Europe that are working to try to change laws about fish, particularly in reference to commercial fishing, which is something that’s going to be going on for some time yet, but it’s deeply disturbing what is done to the animals who are caught in that industry. Also the fish farming agriculture, which is the fastest growing food-production sector on the planet for the last number of years. There are changes in some practices going on. These are very much welfare-reforms. We’re not talking about someone acknowledging that fish have rights and they deserve to be left along, not exploited at all. But nevertheless, I do believe in an imperfect world that we need to work for changes on all fronts, at all times. So, welfare changes are better than no changes at all in my book. It’s important that we keep plugging ahead, and one of the things I try to do in the book is juxtapose the science of what we now know that reveals these creatures as individuals with rich lives, with not just biology but biographies. I juxtapose that with the really frankly appalling that we mete out on them, not because we’re cruel, but because we’re indifferent in the production of commercial fishing and recreational fishing, in many cases. It’s not nice, the way we treat them. It’s really nasty being hooked through the face, often through the eye, inadvertently, and then hauled up by your own body weight to the surface and then depending on what the situation is, worse things happen to you after that. It’s pretty awful. If we were doing that to mammals on land there would be quite an outcry. And of course, at our worse, we do horrible things to mammals as well. In any event, it’s my hope that people will see that these animals are aware, they’re alert, they’re individuals, they have personalities, they have lives worth living for them, and that because of that we have to start including them in our circle of moral concern. We’re a moral creature, we’re stuck to that, we have a sense of ethics, we know what right and wrong is, and right now how we treat them is wrong. We need to take that into consideration in our future behavior.
Caryn Hartglass: I not exactly sure how to describe how you do it, but with your writing you make this horrible information very real.
Jonathan Balcombe: It has to be. If people are disgusted or put off they’re going to put the book down, and they’re going to go no further. I mean, I can’t speak for everybody; we’re a very mixed bag. So just as the fish are a very mixed bag, so are we. But I want to reach as many people as I can and it’s important that there be levity, it’s important there be joy in the reading. And of course, if you’re writing about the way we treat fish in commercial fishing, it isn’t exactly joyous, but I try to keep it flowing and tell stories as well as relate the science because people have to be motivated to want to change. This world is a wonderful world and we have to make it better. This is not about, “Oh it’s so horrible. Let’s just throw our hands up and give up,” it’s about, “We can do so much better, and we shown that we can do that in the past.” That’s why it’s so important to keep a positive outlook on this stuff.
Caryn Hartglass: You mentioned the movie, Finding Nemo, a number of times in the book. You do have a lot of humor in the book, which I enjoyed very much. I love this film, Finding Nemo, and one of my favorite lines in the film is, “Fish are friends, not food.” Are there some things that are beneficial from this film? You mentioned a number of times that they took a lot of liberties, but somehow I think that just being able to see, even though it’s a cartoon, the possibility that the life under the water can work together, helps us understand that a little more.
Jonathan Balcombe: Yeah it’s a great question, and I’ve seen the film and this book is strategically timed to coincide with the release of the sequel, Finding Dory, which is coming out in about ten days time. I’d like to think that these films can improve our attitudes towards, in this case fish. Of course there are harms as well. There’s already a campaign with Humane Society at the national and tent watch, for instance to encourage people, or discourage them, from going and actually finding Dory, which is to say going to a pet shop and buying the tangs, which are featured in the film because blue tangs are very vulnerable in their natural habitats so most of them that are in the aquarium trade are taken from the wild. It’s grim. The aquarium trade, there’s a lot of mortality; the shipment conditions are often terrible, the conditions and the methods with which they catch them are really bad. So that’s the negative side, but I do like to thin that these films, because they personalize fish so much, that in juxtaposition with, hopefully my book, that people can see that actually, they are quite a bit like us in many ways. In a vacuum, they may not make that connection, but with the information that I hope people will get from the book, those who actually read the book and watch the film, that the film actually will help to advance attitudes and make people more sensitive and concerned with these creatures.
Caryn Hartglass: Other than reading your book, which I think everyone should do honestly, what can people be doing now to help underwater life, which really affects all life? Because without them, we can’t survive either.
Jonathan Balcombe: Yeah, well I think it’s important to meet people where they are and to get them moving forward. If people are say, Pescetarians – they’re vegetarians but they accept that they still eat fish, which are definitely animals – stop eating fish would be a great step. If they are fisherman, then consider stopping fishing or taking up bird watching, or if you’re going to keep fishing, replace your barbed hooks with barb-less hooks. Or take your barbed hooks and crimp them with a set of pliers so they are no longer barbed. There are steps anywhere along the spectrum that people can take to make things better for fish.
Caryn Hartglass: Well Jonathan Balcombe, thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food, and for writing this book, What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. Congratulations on your release of this book.
Jonathan Balcombe: Thanks for having me, Caryn.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, take care.
Jonathan Balcombe: Bye.
Caryn Hartglass: Bye.
Transcribed by KP, June 18, 2016
TRANSCRIPTION PART II:
Caryn Hartglass: All right, let’s move over to my next guest, because she is with us, I understand — Erin Orr, and she’s a chef, storyteller, puppeteer, and educator based in Brooklyn. She endeavors to create experiences that encourage and foster community, whether they are crafted from food, with words, or via visual spectacle. She maintains the food blog Big Sis Little Dish, where she shares original, adapted, and passed-on recipes and stories about the memories and gatherings connected to them. She is currently executive chef for Cynthia Von Buhler’s immersive theater excursion The Illuminati Ball, and she has assembled an eight-course vegan tasting menu that guests of the ongoing event series continue to concur is both delicious and satisfying. Erin, how are you today?
Erin Orr: I’m well, thank you for having me!
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to meet you live in the studio today, but I’m spending a bit of time out west in California, so we have to use cyberspace to connect. You know, I almost had a problem, because we had a power outage here earlier today, and I always like to bring up something I’m grateful for on this program, and today I’m grateful for electricity. When you have it, you have to get very creative when you don’t, because so much of our lives today are built on technology. You know, even cooking — you can cook with fire, but…
Erin Orr: You can cook without electricity, but you need to have a number of things in place that most of us don’t in our current existence.
Caryn Hartglass: Exactly. Or you could just go all raw. But even with the high-end raw foods, many raw food chefs are dependent on all those crazy tools, right?
Erin Orr: Yeah, that’s true, that’s true.
Caryn Hartglass: All right. So Nell Alk, a friend of mine, mentioned The Illuminati Ball, and it sounded very mysterious, to a point where I wasn’t even sure what it was.
Erin Orr: Yeah, it was intended to be a little bit mysterious, so I was hoping we could illuminate it a little bit, but not too much, before the conversation is out.
Caryn Hartglass: Illuminate the Illuminati Ball.
Erin Orr: Exactly. It’s an immersive theater excursion, so it’s definitely not a typical; you know, sit down in a theater and passively receive a story as an audience member sort of experience. The participants are very active within the event. And the events include a very lavish eight-course meal and very beautiful cocktails, as well as a trip to a secret estate outside of the city, so it’s not in a theater; it’s a very beautiful home on beautiful grounds. It’s an unusual setting for this kind of thing.
Caryn Hartglass: And you’ve had how many so far? Because I know they’re ongoing this summer.
Erin Orr: Yes, I think we’ve done seven or eight at this point. We’re doing them more or less twice a month, and we’ll be continuing on to the end of the summer, at least.
Caryn Hartglass: And I imagine since it’s somewhat interactive, my understanding with the participants, that not every event is the same.
Erin Orr: I do believe that they vary. I don’t know a whole lot about exactly what all happens during the show because I am in the kitchen the whole time, but I hear about it afterwards, about different groups of people have different reactions or levels of interactivity, depending on how timid or gung-ho they are, to really participate. So it’s not the sort of thing where you’re going to be forced to do anything you don’t want to do. You very much get to decide how you participate in the feast, and some audiences are extremely involved, and others hang back more, and sometimes there’s a mix. But the story of the piece, overall, remains the same — it’s just what people discover within the story, I think, varies depending on how they participate in it.
Caryn Hartglass: Now let’s step back a little bit and talk about you. You have your food blog Big Sis Little Dish, and you have your own food story.
Erin Orr: As everyone does.
Caryn Hartglass: So please share a little bit of that with us.
Erin Orr: The food blog was started actually by my sister, hence the name. She is 12 years younger than I am, and she used to come live with me fairly often for little spurts of time, and we’d get to cook together and eat together. And you know, now she’s an adult, she has her own life in Vancouver, Canada, and can’t just come and visit me for months at a time. And she had this idea that we could have a food blog where we basically just wrote about whatever we were cooking. So it really started out as a way to continue cooking together across a very long distance. It wasn’t intended necessarily for public consumption, so it started out between the two of us and our family members and friends, and has sort of grown from there. And actually, Silvi doesn’t post — Silvi’s my sister — she doesn’t post to the blog very often anymore. She was cooking professionally in a chocolate shop, a gourmet chocolatier, for a while, and I think she was not as excited about coming home and writing down recipes. And also, the way she’s eaten has changed a lot over these years. She’s become vegetarian and then vegan, and I, for health reasons, have to eat gluten-free, so there’s a kind of wild variety of recipes on the blog that spans all the ways that she and I have eaten over the last five or six years. Because it really is about how we eat, how we share food, how we make sure that even if we are needing to eat certain ways, choosing to eat certain ways, that we’re all sort of having that community together. So even if Silvi doesn’t post anymore, I still think of it the same way.
Caryn Hartglass: For my non-profit Responsible Eating and Living, we have a blog called What Vegans Eat. It’s a daily blog and we’re now into
Erin Orr: Proud sharing how people are doing their eating, yes.
Caryn Hartglass: All it is, really, is I post what my partner Gary and I eat every day.
Erin Orr: That’s fantastic.
Caryn Hartglass: And it came out of the fact that, as a vegan, people so often ask, “What do you eat?” And I just direct them to the blog now, because it’s all right there. Nothing special about it, it’s just what I eat. What’s fun, and what I felt was a little bit like what you’ve done with your sister, is occasionally when I’m apart from Gary, which isn’t too often, I do the blog and then I hand it over to him, and he does his part about what he’s been eating while he’s away or while I’m away. And I’ve just found it fun to do that, just between he and I, but it’s open to anyone who wants to read the blog as well.
Erin Orr: And I imagine it’s probably a really great resource for people who are feeling intimidated about that, transitioning into eating that way, to be able to look how people are feeding themselves over a long period of time in a satisfying and successful way. Any kind of dietary choice that you’re making, making it sustainable and really doable is a huge part of it.
Caryn Hartglass: So we do have some very fancy, sophisticated, complicated recipes on our website, but in the blog, I don’t want to say that it’s boring, but there’s a lot of food that we eat that we repeat over and over during the week, that we enjoy, that we find easy, that’s satisfying. So people can just see how doable it is.
Erin Orr: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: So you were asked to provide the tasting menu for this event, and you’re not vegan, but you made this menu. So was that a learning experience, or had you already moved into this area of vegan food?
Erin Orr: A little bit of both. It’s certainly been a learning experience, absolutely. It’s a huge menu — eight courses is a lot to provide in a way that really all works together as a complete arc, as a work of art unto itself. There are a lot of bits and pieces that go into it that have to all balance out. The vegan aspect, because my sister is vegan and because my mother doesn’t eat eggs or dairy, also for health reasons, or gluten, and probably, truthfully, eventually I will have to give up eggs and dairy as well.
Caryn Hartglass: Yay!
Erin Orr: Because I can sort of look at the people in my family and what they’re dealing with health-wise and sort of predict my future, if I’m utterly reasonable about it. So particularly in summers when I go home to visit my family, we’re pretty much eating vegan, because that’s what everybody can have together. And I enjoy making vegan food; it’s a whole other alchemical challenge, because part of my interest in cooking is the alchemy aspect of how to transform ingredients in various ways, what they can do, or what they can make that’s surprising. That’s really interesting to me. And it’s been wonderful to have an excuse to, during the year, actually play more with that kind of food alchemy with vegan food, and discover more about it. So some of the things I’ve put on the menu for The Illuminati Ball are things that I have made for my family that I know are really delicious and wonderful. And I’m plating them very beautifully and making them a little fancier than I would for home food, obviously, because the goal is to have a really luxurious and decadent experience. But I started with some things that I knew were good, that people would love, and then there have been other things that I really had to learn how to make. Most notably, there’s a very beautiful Yuba dish that plays on a traditional Chinese mock duck dish. I’ve never really been a giant fan of foods that try to emulate meat. I think there’s a lot of amazing food in the world, and if you don’t want to eat meat, there’s plenty of delicious incredible flavors to choose from. I’ve never been super interested in fake meat, myself, partially also because I have all of these health issues around gluten and other mystery ingredients, and fake meat can get very complicated, in terms of you reading the ingredient list. I’ve found that’s not what my body wants, but I have to say, this very traditional Chinese Yuba duck is wonderful. It’s such a beautiful, elegant, interesting dish; it has an incredible texture, an incredible set of flavors, and it is not easy to make. That would be in the category of complicated, very, very complicated, but well worth it if you want to make something really spectacular for guests or for special occasions.
Caryn Hartglass: You posted pictures of all of these items on your blog, and I was looking at the pictures, and that’s definitely my favorite. I love Yuba, which is also called bean curd skin, and fortunately you’re in an area where purchasing bean curd skin is an easy thing to do.
Erin Orr: Yes, it’s not easy everywhere. And also, Yuba can come in different forms. You can buy it more easily in dry sheets, but often those sheets are crumbled, which makes it kind of useless to work with as an ingredient, unfortunately. But if you can find a source for the frozen sheets, that are still, when you thaw them, they’re still damp and pliable. That’s an incredible ingredient to work with, and here in New York, we have several large Asian shopping areas where you can get huge, big, round sheets of frozen Yuba. One of the things that I love about Yuba is that it’s this incredibly thrifty ingredient. It’s a byproduct of making soymilk. So you can sort of imagine how they were making this wonderful, milky substance from soybeans, and, as with any milk, when you heat it up it makes this skin across the top, and they removed the skin and were thrifty enough and resourceful enough to decide to see what would happen if they laid it out to dry, and invented this incredible, simple, clean, wonderful…
Caryn Hartglass: When I was a little girl and I would make pudding with cow’s milk, because I did consume that when I was young, when I would get the skin on top, it would just freak me out. I thought it was disgusting.
Erin Orr: Right, it is kind of scary.
Caryn Hartglass: But the soybean skin, I think it’s a beautiful thing, I love it when it’s seasoned properly and prepared, so I was excited to see that dish. Now I’m wondering, did you use any websites or recipe books for resources? We live in a time right now where it’s easier than ever to prepare vegan foods, and there’s so much information and resources that are free, accessible online, to do just about anything, and I’m just curious what path you took.
Erin Orr: I do read a lot of food blogs. For a number of fancier, trickier vegan things that I include on a menu, the ideas came from things I had read on other people’s food blogs when I was reading around, like how to make cashew cream, how to make really delicious frozen, almost ice-cream-like desserts from cashews. I actually have a really amazing Chinese cookbook that I’ve had for years, that I used as the main source for how to do the Yuba duck, although all of the recipes, for The Illuminati Ball, at least, were sort of adjusted. But one that isn’t — my favorite blog source for vegan food is the blog My New Roots, which you’re probably familiar with, but it’s a spectacular collection of recipes. It’s written by a woman with an immense amount of knowledge about of nutrition that she shares as part of her posts, with beautiful, beautiful photographs. The seeded nut bread recipe that I make for the table is actually a recipe directly from her blog. Nuts are a really great source.
Caryn Hartglass: Some of my favorite ingredients to make incredible things come from the simple chickpea. Using chickpea flour or garbanzo bean flour — it is just crazy what it can do.
Erin Orr: It’s amazing.
Caryn Hartglass: And it’s gluten-free.
Erin Orr: It is gluten-free. And chickpea flour makes some of the most wonderful cake textures. It’s a really good flour, a good gluten-free flour for making cakes. Some people don’t like detecting the chickpea flavor in their baked goods, and that’s one of the pitfalls for using chickpea flour, for desserts at least. But I find that if you’re seasoning it with cocoa powder, or extract, lemon, any kind of strong flavoring in the dessert, you won’t detect the flavor at all. I actually just made chickpea-brine meringues for the first time last week.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, that was my next question, aquafaba! Aquafaba, aquafaba.
Erin Orr: Praise aquafaba! I need to play with it more; they turned out delicious. They were fantastic. They weren’t exactly like meringues, but they were delicious. And I guess, something I should say about The Illuminati Ball is that, obviously we were talking very openly about the fact that the menu is vegan, but it’s not actually advertised that way. For people who buy tickets for The Illuminati Ball, it doesn’t say anywhere that it’s a vegan meal. They know that they’re getting a sumptuous, delicious multi-course meal, but we don’t go into any details. We ask them what their allergies are, so that they know that they’re not going to be eating anything that will hurt them, but it’s actually not revealed. I think many of the diners won’t probably register that it’s a vegan meal until they’ve received the thank-you email after the show from Cynthia, with the links to the recipes.
Caryn Hartglass: So that leads me to two questions. The first question is, do some of the participants figure out that they’re not going to be served animals, and what is their reaction to that?
Erin Orr: Well, it’s actually part of the action of the piece. The question of consuming meat, and many other moral questions. So it comes up in a conversation in the piece intentionally. Some attention is drawn to the fact that there have been a lot of vegetables at some point in the meal — certainly some people are aware of it — but when we bring out the duck, sometimes there’s argument about whether it’s duck or not. It’s interesting. And to tie that back to the aquafaba argument, I probably wouldn’t ask for aquafaba meringues until I got a handle on how to really do them so that they could pass as meringues that somebody who’s been eating egg-white meringues recently would — you know?
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. It’s definitely doable, though.
Erin Orr: I think it is doable; I just have to play around with it a bit more. Part of the goal of this piece is that there’s a bit of subtle — not so subtle, even — activism happening, where there’s a perception that in order to have a really luxurious experience, some types of animals need to be involved. It’s a cultural perception — some people wouldn’t necessarily voice it in quite those terms, but it’s underlying their assumptions about what makes something luxurious or not. And part of what I’m trying to do dramaturgically for this meal is to really create this decadent, luxurious, beautiful meal that satisfies the needs and the palate of somebody who has eaten meat recently, so that when they do discover, or realize, that the meal is vegan, it gets them to question that underlying assumption.
Caryn Hartglass: This is a very important point. It’s a part of our culture that definitely needs to change, and unfortunately this culture is spread all around the world, globally, so that communities that have been poor, in poverty, and are suddenly realizing new affluence, they want to include more animal foods in their diet. And it’s not good for their health, it’s not good for the environment, it’s not good for the animals. We need to make this change, and it’s so easy, I think. Maybe easy is not the right word. But it’s definitely doable, and maybe more people need to experience the luxurious, delicious foods that are made from plant ingredients. I had interviewed a couple of people who ran a bed-and-breakfast in Mendocino called The Stanford Inn. They’ve had it for decades, and they were talking about how when they were moving to make it all vegan, how some of their clients were complaining. So this event that you’re doing, The Illuminati Ball, it’s expensive.
Erin Orr: It is expensive. I mean, if you think about the fact that you get an eight-course meal and several really incredibly beautifully crafted cocktails — they are serious, the bartender, our mixologist, Greg, is an artist — and then there’s a whole theatrical experience with aerial work, with opera, and burlesque, and incredible hand-crafted masks that people are wearing — the participants as well as the actors — and access to this very beautiful piece of property, and a trip out of the city… If you add all of that stuff together, it isn’t such a crazy ticket price, really. But it’s still more than I, for example, could afford to spend on an evening. I wouldn’t be able to do it myself. The people who are able to come are people who spend money on luxury experiences.
Caryn Hartglass: The reason why I brought it up, that it’s expensive, is that often, as you mention, when people are going to event that’s high-end, they’re expecting a luxurious meal, and that, in their mind, equals animal foods.
Erin Orr: Yes, it does.
Caryn Hartglass: And it’s not true.
Erin Orr: It need not, at all. It doesn’t have to. And that’s been a really fun challenge, to work on that. I also went for a tasting menu, just to get a sense for how these meals are typically formed, what the structure of the meal should be. And I went to a very reputable, famous place — I’m not going to mention by name — and it was good, but I did not feel well after the meal. And part of it was that the meal actually had a lot of dairy in it. Even if I hadn’t ended up with an upset stomach, it was just too reliant on dairy. There needed to be more variety, in my opinion. Part of it was that when you’re doing little tiny plates, there’s an urge to really sock in the flavor, because people are only getting a few a bite, and sometimes that socking in of flavor translates to a lot of salt. But at the end of the meal, once you’ve eaten all those little bites and those courses, you’ve still eaten all that salt. So I’ve tried to be also conscious of making sure that people will feel good afterward, that they’ll wake up the next day feeling like they ate real food. I think that that’s rare in a luxury experience. I think frequently, we’re so excited to have this luxury experience, and it actually makes our bodies feel horrible. It’s not food that’s good for people.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, it can go one way or another. People can feel horrible or they can feel really hungry.
Erin Orr: Really hungry — that would be awful too. That would be terrible, it would make me so sad. I hope people feel satisfied after the meal.
Caryn Hartglass: So where can people find out about The Illuminati Ball?
Erin Orr: There is a website. I want to make sure I say it the right way before I say it online… You can buy tickets at theilluminatiball.com. That is where the tickets are available. We’ve talked about the food, but the food is really just one aspect of the whole experience; it really is visually and sensually extremely beautiful and worthwhile, I feel.
Caryn Hartglass: And for people that might be more curious about it, you can just Google “Illuminati Ball”, and a number of reviews have come up. You can get teasers with photographs of what’s going on and some very brief descriptions that might give you more of a clue of what’s happening at these events. That’s what I did.
Erin Orr: For your listeners, know that although we don’t mention the vegan menu anywhere on the website or in the press, it is an entirely vegan meal.
Caryn Hartglass: And gluten-free.
Erin Orr: And gluten-free, because I have to be able to eat the food, to taste it, to make sure it tastes good.
Caryn Hartglass: I think a vegan, gluten-free meal is great because it appeals to the least common denominator. Pretty much everyone can eat that. Some people might have some nut allergies, some soy allergies, but…
Erin Orr: Yes, every show we have someone who has nut allergies. They’re fairly common. And we make changes to their plate to make sure that they’re not eating all this food that will make them sick. We accommodate that. There’s a questionnaire process involved in buying the tickets, and you have to actually let us know in advance. The food is not coming from a big catering service or a restaurant, it’s me and my assistants, in the kitchen of a house, so you have to actually answer their questionnaire and let us know what you can and can’t eat, and we’re happy to accommodate you.
Caryn Hartglass: Well that sounds pretty tasty! Sounds pretty magical. Erin, thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food today.
Erin Orr: Thank you for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: I will check out your blog, especially that Yuba duck thing. That looks so tasty. Okay, we have a minute and a half left, and I was planning on talking about a number of things, and if I’m going to do that I’m going to have to talk really fast because I don’t really have any more time. There is an organization — their website is wri.org, they are a global research organization — it’s called the World Resources Institute. They have been putting out these reports on sustainable diets, and they have one that just came out. What I like about it is that they have some really great graphs — you might check them out if you want to share them with people — about the impact of different foods on the environment. They show that meat, of course is so unsustainable, in terms of the water and the energy and the calories put into an animal to get the calories out. And then there are some amusing things that I’ve found on their blog, because people are still afraid to just come out and say, “Go Vegan Already!” They’re still being gentle and saying, “you don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian, you just have to eat more plants”. And I will have to confess that that is probably a good message. We all need to be eating more plants; if you don’t want to give up meat and dairy, you can eat a lot less. So you might check out wri.org and download their report and get some of these cool graphs that you can share if you’re into doing some advocacy and activism. You’ve been listening to It’s All About Food, everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass, thank you for joining me today, and remember — have a delicious week.
Transcribed by Alia Abiad, 8/6/2016