In 2013, artist-researcher extraordinaire Christina Agipakis made “human body cheeses” as part of a project titled Selfmade. Body parts like hands, feet, nostrils, belly buttons, and armpits were swabbed for bacteria, which were inoculated into milk and subsequently made into various fresh cheeses.
On somewhat of a whim, I decided to replicate Christina’s experiment and made a body- cheese using the bacteria that lives on my hands. Responses varied but, more importantly, I wanted to continue the conversation beyond “cool” or “eww.”
This ‘handmade’ cheese (pun intended) tugs at the ethical fabric of what we consider to be a legitimate food. What’s too ‘out there’ to be considered edible? Then again, what’s ‘too close’ for comfort?
Historically, cheesemaking was done 'by hand' without the hyper-sterilization and pasteurization that marks the food safety protocols of today. Bacteria naturally live on our skin and, likely, the bacteria living on cheesemakers’ hands would add to the cheese’s final flavour.
Handmade cheeses, then, would have a bit of the cheesemaker in it quite literally.
Fermented foods have been a staple throughout food cultures because microbes help preserve foods that would otherwise spoil. Inoculating cheeses with bacteria and moulds, for example, would prolong the shelf life of milk.
While ‘cooking’ with microbes has been largely normalized, cooking with human microbes seems to raise eyebrows. Notably, a feminist blogger made bread using yeast from her vagina and food nerd Harold McGee made bread with flesh-eating bacteria. At best, both tout the sentiment, it’s not as bad as you think.
This yuck-factor highlights our ideas about what and how we consider certain foods to be more edible than others. I’m thinking of examples like dog, whale, otter, insects, milt, and countless others that straddle the divide between food delicacy and disgust.
The latest research shows that we are made up of just as many microbial cells as we are human cells. If we’re equal parts human and microbe, where do we draw the line between self/other and is such a line even warranted?
When I eat a probiotic yogurt, for example, at what point do the bacteria in the yogurt become a part of me in my intestinal lining? At what point—exactly—does that line between self and other blur?
When I serve the ‘handmade’ cheese to others, I take pleasure in messing with people’s ideas about how we think certain bodies to be more pure than others. As researcher Tarsh Bates points out, candidiasis (and yeast infections in general) are highly feminized conditions. Even ‘feminine hygiene products’ and ‘sanitary pads’ are marketed under the premise that bodies are neatly bound when they can be quite leaky on a frequent basis.
Yet, I admit to feeling weird when I am eating my own body-cheese. Aside from the occasional hangnail, when else do I consume parts of myself? Ingesting body parts also reminds me that the two instances we regularly put foreign things into our bodies lie with the primal needs of food and sex. So, to what extent is consuming body-cheese an act of cannibalism; or, is it an act of self-love?
More importantly, how is it that microbes are not-human when it comes to cleanliness, hygiene, and safety protocols but they’re too-human when it comes to body-cheese?
Rather than categorically dismissing all microbes as teeming with malice, how can we live with that which we cannot understand (let alone see with the naked eye)? If our reactions to microbial others is one of sterilization and eradication, what does our heavy-handed modes of control say about how we interact with others in general?
Maya is an interdisciplinary researcher, foodmaker, and artist, combining her backgrounds in gastronomy, nutrition, and movement to investigate ways that engage the everyday eater. She is currently a doctoral student at Concordia University where she studies fermented foods as a medium to investigate the relationship between humans and microbes. Follow her @heymayahey!
Charlotte Spafford is an abstract mixed-media artist based in Vancouver. Her work evokes a collection of precious thing, embodying whimsy, lightness, and the spirit of assembly. Using her unique visual language, Charlotte creates and organizes art objects - inviting the viewer to participate in her collection. Find more of Charlotte’s work on her website, or on Instagram @char_spaff.