Instructions for Eating: Naming Nature – Eric May

“Instructions for Eating” is a new monthly column from Tracy Candido about food as a medium and eating as a social practice.  Invited artists present recipes, preparation instructions, directions for hunting and gathering, lists of ingredients, etc. for public consumption.  These experimental essays function as a site of learning and action: readers are encouraged to perform the instructions laid out before them. Each invited artist is asked to propose/suggest two other artists who would be well suited for the column.  This creates a participant/artist driven effort. The following entry is from Eric May.

I’m all for “going green.” I have to wonder, though, what exactly is this ideal of “green?” Is it a utopian state where mankind reverses the impact that we’ve had on the planet, finding a perfect stasis of man and the original design of nature? It seems like an impossible feat. In terms of our consumptive relationships and habits in an ecosystem, I wholeheartedly support ideas of seasonal, local, heirloom, and genetically pure food. However it seems to me that by focusing so much on an ideal, we may be overlooking the way nature actually looks in the 21st century.

Man is nature, so I’m not here to say we have irreversibly corrupted the planet. We ought to take a close look at how we’ve changed the environment and take more responsibility for the altered ecology of now. Its time to unpack our value judgments towards species that are considered impure or nuisances, for typically we are the reason they are here. In my practice I examine these relations. I am interested in the language we have created around other beings.

Genesis 2:20: Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field. I’m looking at language beyond just taxonomy here. In animistic belief systems, animals are given the status of spiritual figureheads. The medicine man or shaman of these cultures would induce visionary states to commune with the animal spirits. They put themselves in the place of the animal. In Western civilizations there is an inversion of this type of relationship with nature, in fables and other such tales, animals are put in the place of humans to allegorize our own virtues and misgivings. On one level, we look for a commonality between our own behavior with that of the animals, we look into them for emotion and expression, we find an empathy in their “cuteness.” We name animals, in this case, to reflect our perceived innocence of nature. The teddy bear, a surrogate human child. On the other hand though, when the same such creatures are tipping over our garbage cans or eating our tomatoes we name them pests.

In my “Dinner Party” and “Picnic” projects, in which I play host to anthropomorphized fantasies of animals, I invert the relationships we have with pest animals and recast them as guests to our privileged, typically off-limits dinner tables. However, these aren’t the cute animals of You Tube video follies or the gentle, cultured creatures of “The Wind in the Willows.”” The beasts at my parties typically don’t have such dainty table manners. We despise these animals because they reflect our nasty brutish side. It happens to be animals such as raccoons, opossums, and bears that play the roles of our despised backyard invaders. Yet they are simply just clever, omnivorous scavengers with attuned motor skills, just like us, and in this case it’s physiological rather than allegorical.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t empathize – by all means, Rousseau and Betham have taught us that the beasts indeed feel. Perhaps we just ought to join the animals in their place as the shaman may have on a vision quest. Meet nature head on. It’s with this on-the-ground, face-to-face attitude that we must approach the contemporary state of nature. The animals are invading our preened suburban lawns because their woods are shrinking. And they love to eat our delicious scraps.

Some of our interventions in the landscape have yielded much more sinister results. Species end up where they aren’t supposed to be due to any number of reasons – sloppy agricultural practices, unchecked hitchhiking on vessels of trade, shrinking natural habitat, fucked up shifts in weather, mismanagement of environmental policies, etc. Yes, thorough, long term, pragmatic solutions to manage invasive species are tantamount. However, adopting a more hands on, aware perception of these species would help us better live with them, as they are (accidental) citizens of our localities and we are typically responsible for their residencies. We give them a name – invasive – a slightly more threatening term than immigrant.


Our attitudes should not be xenophobic towards these travelers. As we further manipulate the planet, a mongrel, reshuffled version of “nature” is our reality. A popular way to react against this is to preserve and try to reinstate the old ways, looking back to a “pure” state of nature. But when I look around my neighborhood there is a lot of weeding to be done before planting a new garden. I see garlic mustard, zebra mussels, kudzu, nutria, silverfin carp, house sparrows, pigeons. Do we push all this biological material to the side? Eradicate it, waste its carbon? I propose that if we prefer to begin to unravel the changes we have brought upon the earth, then at the very least we owe these species the respect to utilize them as resource. My friends Mike Wolf and Andrea Peterson made garlic mustard paper. Could this fibrous weed braid good rope? That kudzu stuff seems pretty hardy too. We all hate the fur industry, right? But what about the nutria fur movement, perhaps a good alternative. You can stew the shit out of any meat and make it taste good. After all, resourceful Americans have been cooking raccoon, opossum, bear, and squirrel since way back. In my “Edible Invasives” project, I have found that Asian carp is quite nice smoked over hardwood. Its bone structure might not jive with our expectation for a nice piece of fish, but many other cultures have no problem picking off the tender meat from the bones of fish. Pigeon, leaner than chicken, fries up real nice. I am an advocate for doing away with names such as nuisance, pest, invasive, etc. to describe other beings. Lets name them, for what they are, nature.

Smoked Invasive Fish

Here in the Midwest, one 10-15 lb. Invasive Silverfin, Bighead, or Grass Carp. An Invasive Salmon from the great Lakes would also be a nice choice, a Coho or Chinook. Any oily fleshed, invasive fish will do the trick.

You will need to cure the fish 24 hours in advance. Rub the fish in

1 cup kosher salt

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

Wrap the fish tight in plastic wrap and place on a tray in your fridge with a weight on top, perhaps another tray with a phone book or brick on top.

On to the smoker:

Note: you can make a smoker out of just about anything. It should be nonflammable- though I’ve heard of cardboard box smokers with an external smoke box. All you need is a spacious vessel and a contained smoldering of wood.

Here’s instructions for the type I made with a trash can. Two variations:

The electric model- this is good for urban setups when you want to minimize unwieldy fires, however you might argue the carbon footprint of electricity vs. coal burning.

One metal trash can, not galvanized, with lid.

Using a can opener pop a hole toward the bottom, not on the bottom, but on the vertical side of the can.

One electric hot plate.

Set this inside the can on the bottom. Snake the power cord through the hole in the can. Plug in the burner and turn it at a very low heat.

One non-galvanized steel tray that will fit inside the can.

Place this on the burner.

About five lbs. of hard wood, cut into small chunks.

This wood will smoke the fish, place about two handfuls on the metal tray.

Four ‘S’ hooks.

To hold in place your grill. Space them out evenly, hooking one side of each to the inside side of the can.

A grill grate that will fit inside the can.

Let the four hooks hold the grill in place.

A meat thermometer.

It should be sharp enough to puncture a hole in the can lid. Do this or use a drill to make a small hole just big enough to insert the thermometer into. The alternative is to not use the hot plate, but use a coal fire. You won’t have to puncture the can in this case. You will need a 25 bag of charcoal, preferably lump hardwood. Use about one third of the bag at first. Light a fire using kindling in the bottom of the can, add the charcoal. Let the coal burn down to embers and add the hardwood chunks. You will have to monitor the coal method more regularly adding small quantities of both charcoal and wood. Watch your temps!

In either case, as the wood begins to smolder, put the lid on the smoker. Watch the thermometer. It should read between 150 to 160 Fahrenheit. If it reads too hot remove the lid and let it cool down for 15-20 minutes. 170-180 is okay, but not too much hotter. When you’ve reached temp, place your fish on the grill. With the lid on, the smoker will surprisingly hold its heat for awhile (unless it’s the dead of winter). You will have to re-up on wood chunks every hour or so, adding a handful or two. The trick is to really keep watch on the thermometer. This will take some time, perhaps up to eight hours, depending on the size of the fish. And while you can leave it alone for stretches of time, you will need to babysit that thermometer. You will need a second meat thermometer to check internal temps. You should pull it at 140-150 degrees. Check at about three hours in, then again every hour.

Serve hot, at room temperature, or cold. It’s great with fresh baked bread (rye, whole grain, or sourdough) with butter or cream cheese. I always whip and add garlic and herbs such as dill, parsley, or basil to both butter and cream cheese.

Leftover fish is great in scrambled eggs, omelets, and quiches. The fish will keep for up to a week, maybe longer. My rule of thumb: if it smells normal and isn’t slimy, then its fine to eat.

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Eric May is a Chicago-based artist, gallerist, and chef.  He runs Roots and Culture.  He cooks for Ox-Bow.

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