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Book of the month: The Sausage of the Future

The sausage of the future 2

Carolien Niebling examines the role of the sausage in the reduction of meat consumption

In January 2013, it was discovered that several British meat products – specifically beef burgers, to begin with – contained horse meat. The scandal spread, with the undeclared meat cropping up across Europe in numerous products, but the apparent disgust did little to change habits: it is by now well known that the huge distance engendered by the infrastructure of meat production is sufficient to suppress the grimmest of controversies. 

In the same year, the United States Department of Agriculture released the report Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security, which looked at the benefits, processing, promotion and regulations that could support more widespread entomophagy. Companies began looking into how they could get on this ‘culinary trend’ early, and the press was soon to follow, declaring how many societies were going to have to get over their squeamishness in order to survive. 

‘A cricket, served whole, is simply too close to the idea of a cricket to be considered attractive food’

These were effectively two sides of the same coin, both a demonstration of something psychologist Paul Rozin has called ‘the psychology of disgust’. The burger, a brown meat-paste mushed into a patty, throws up few psychological barriers until you discover it actually contains ground-up Seabiscuit (horses being inexplicably more unattractive to meat-eaters than chicken or beef, in the UK particularly). This had obvious precedents: the urban legend of Sweeney Todd, the barber who murdered his clients so that his neighbour Mrs Lovett could turn them into sausages and pies, sprung from similar Victorian fears of meat products being padded out with cheap horsemeat, sold on the street as cat food. 

Likewise, a cricket, served whole, is simply too close to the idea of a cricket to be considered attractive food. An insect on food or the proverbial fly in the soup speaks of dirtiness, it is ‘matter out of place’, as Mary Douglas would say, and there is plenty of that in the meat industry already. The bug barrier is one that will take many a long time to conquer: grind up the cricket to makes its cricket-ness less of an issue, however, and you might get somewhere.

Sausage-making, the process of squeezing ground meat and accompanying binding ingredients into a flaccid skin of intestines or collagen, is one of the meat world’s more conceptually gross offerings. There is, after all, a reason that seeing ‘how the sausage gets made’ has become a euphemism for seeing anything grizzly behind the scenes that it is then difficult to un-see. But if the psychology of disgust runs rampant at this production stage, it is long gone by the time these compact parcels are consumed. Put simply, the sausage is a master of disguise. A case in point: in 15th-century Portugal, when it was discovered that the Inquisition could spot Jewish households by the absence of pork sausages hung from their rafters, the Alheira de Mirandela was born – a bread sausage that averted suspicion.

‘The sausage is perhaps the ultimate ready-meal, capable of containing numerous necessary food groups and ingredients, in many cases shelf-stable and eminently pocketable’

Flipping this idea of the sausage as a culinary Trojan horse sits at the centre of Carolien Niebling’s research project, The Sausage of the Future. What if this food item could act as the purveyor of alternative forms of protein and help to familiarise the unfamiliar in an easy to digest, literally and otherwise, skin-wrapped package? Could this provide an answer both to cutting down on meat consumption and improving dietary diversity? 

It’s a snappy idea, unsurprisingly the work of a product designer – Niebling trained and developed the project at ECAL in Switzerland – and well-suited to a TED Talk crowd. Having researched the sausage’s history, its many various guises – fresh, fermented, dried and so on – and the processes of its making, Niebling collaborated with Dutch butcher Herman ter Weele and Swiss chef Gabriel Serero to explore how all of the industry’s existing infrastructure could be put to use incorporating different neglected ingredients. Think polenta and apple, herb and heart, liver and berry and, of course, insects. The project itself has been lauded, winning both the Hublot Design Prize and the Grand Prix at Design Parade in 2017, but the new magazine-like offering, originally a Kickstarter project and now picked up by Lars Müller publishers, is a curious thing; rather beautiful, but confused, flawed and at times frustrating. Niebling suggests that the sausage is the oldest ‘designed’ food item, and the history for this is convincing. The sausage has been known to exist since as far back as 3300BCE, thanks to the discovery of an Akkadian cuneiform tablet that described a form of intestine casting filled with meat. Niebling also credits the sausage as part of the reason why we could travel and explore the world: it is perhaps the ultimate ready-meal, capable of containing numerous necessary food groups and ingredients, in many cases shelf-stable and eminently pocketable. Many types of sausage were born out of scarcity, and a need to use every single available part of an animal to create food. Often based on the availability of local ingredients, types of sausage sprung up all over, taking their place of birth as their name: Lincolnshire, Frankfurter, Bologna. 

It is an incredibly rich history, but here it is confined to one page, followed by a similarly cursory discussion of ‘the future of food’. Each of these sections – Theory, Method, Material and Result – has a promising introduction, be it a potted history of the sausage or a manifesto-like piece on how the omnivore has been replaced by the ‘eximius folivore’, that is, the supermarket eater, but then gives way to pages and pages of lists. The book has essentially been designed as a handbook for those who wish to create these future sausages, and what this leads to is an inordinate amount of taxonomy. Muscle types, types of sausage casing, types of insects, seeds, flowers and plants are all listed with a small paragraph of information.

The sausage of the future 10 web

The sausage of the future 10 web

Favouring large, simplistic diagrams, whole pages are devoted to showing a section through a mincer, or a cartoon grasshopper. Cross-sections through future sausages are more revealing, but don’t quite live up to the beautiful ‘anatomical’ models that Niebling has previously exhibited. These sections are crying out for grittier, behind-the-scenes material from Niebling’s work with Ter Weele and Serero. Among this, actual discussions about the environmental effects of meat eating and the science of diets come across as flabby. Questions like ‘should we all become vegetarians?’, are consigned to little more than a paragraph, in this case merely discarding the idea with the flippant argument, ‘… if the land now used for meat rearing were used for plant crops instead, all the nutrients from the soil would be used up to the point where it became too poor for crops to grow on’. 

This more analytical content sits against a series of collages, beautiful depictions of the ingredients Niebling has used in some of her future sausage designs. There’s a blown-up image of a beef heart with fennel seeds and salt crystals floating across it like asteroids, or a giant grasshopper wing overlaid with ewe’s milk foam and mealworms. Pictures of the finished sausages themselves are worthy of The Gourmand, minimal and highly curated layouts of sausage slices, sauces and cutlery. This devotion to the aesthetics of food is welcome, but is oddly placed alongside the lists of ingredients and less effective diagrams. Far more successful, and coming at the end of the book, are the results of Niebling’s project – the sausages themselves. Plotted on a ‘sausage matrix’ from the ‘familiar old’ – Bratwurst and Chorizo – to the ‘exciting new’ – insect pâté and an apricot and carrot wiener – this breakdown makes far clearer the marriage between ingredient, process and aesthetics.

So rather like its subject matter, this mashing together of science, food, theory, graphic design and recipe book contains some less palatable elements, disguised by an impressive visual sheen. But at its core, the idea is an exciting one, and the future of the project, with Niebling keen to establish workshops with butchers to disseminate these recipes and methods, looks promising.

The Sausage of the Future

by Carolien Niebling

Lars Müller Publishers, €28.00

ISBN: 978-3037785485

Images courtesy of the publisher

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today