- Pronunciation: see-boh-path-ik (si:bəʊ:paθɪk)
- Part of Speech: Adjective, noun (cibopath)
- Provenance: Speculative comic book series (John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew)
- Example: An individual with cibopathic abilities “can take a bite out of an apple and get a feeling in [her] head about what tree it grew from, what pesticides were used on the crop, and when it was harvested.”—John Layman, 2017
The labels in upscale supermarkets today—“natural,” “organic,” “grass fed,” “free range,” “GMO free,” and “locally sourced”—are meant to tell us how a piece of food was grown, harvested, processed, or transported. Yet as anyone concerned with food production and food culture today knows, these categories are often misleading in their connotations, implying a local origin to corporate foodstuffs, or making the products of small local farms seem less sustainable because those farms cannot raise the capital to pay for expensive organic certification. That these slogans are common both to greenwashed industrial food products and to local farmer’s markets makes it clear that contemporary food movements are related to, yet not always synonymous with, contemporary environmentalism. The ability of the cibopath offers a way to speculate about how these food categories, and the struggles they refer to might be figured as both personal and political. What would it mean if we had no choice but to taste history? Would sustainable food taste differently than unsustainable food? Can gastronomic pleasure serve as a conduit for environmentalist thinking, feeling, and action? Cibopathic abilities are both fictional projections that imagine answers to these questions and exaggerations of real-world phenomena, like supertasting and the nose-to-tail cooking philosophy, that are reorienting our relation to food.
Food has long been a site of struggle. That struggle has taken on new valences in an era of industrial farming, processed foods, and global logistics that deliver produce from around the world to our supermarkets, displacing seasonal patterns of eating. From fine-dining pioneers like Alice Waters and Dan Barber to Walmart and Target’s increased attention to organic foods in a bid to compete with the Whole Foods supermarket chain, the documentation and labeling of where food comes from and how it is produced has become a way to imagine more sustainable and also more delicious food, as well as a way to market expensive alternatives to processed foods as better for the consumer’s health and the environment. Stemming from both nutritional and culinary interests, the push toward more organic and local foods reflects a larger cultural shift, one that Wendell Berry recorded in his influential 1977 book The Unsettling of America, in which Berry critiqued industrialized agriculture and the consumer culture it grew out of. As Americans became more suburban, and therefore more removed from sites of food production, Berry argues that the ties between agriculture and culture were remade. The result of this transformation is the full subsumption of farming into market logic—or, as in Berry’s account, an increasing distance between the farmer and the consumer, as agriculture becomes more industrialized and the population becomes more urban and suburban. As a result, “the consumer eats worse, and the farmer farms worse.” This market logic and its concomitant industrialization of agriculture has reduced the kinds of food shortages and price spikes that previously determined food struggles such as famines and riots in the Global North. Yet as many studies have pointed out, the industrialization of agriculture and the full commodification of foodstuffs has led to a steady depletion of soil quality and nutritional content, along with natural flavors, as what we might think of as farming practices have been replaced with industrialized and chemical processes.
Today one of the major problems that those of us privileged with access to food face is how to make food available to everyone, something that industrial agriculture was designed to do with its massive crop yields and monocultures. Ensuring that food is produced in ways that sustain the soil as well as the bodies of those who consume it seems to be something that industrial agriculture is unsuited to accomplish for the very reasons that have led to its dominance. As legal scholar and environmentalist thinker Jedediah Purdy has noted, there is a diverse “food movement” today that “has no organized center. It shows up as an interest in where food comes from, who grows food and how, and the way food travels from farm to plate. It is evident in consumer fads and high-end restaurants, local economies that have been rebuilt around community-supported agriculture and farmers’ markets, and people’s renewed eagerness to put their own hands in the dirt. Altogether, it hints at a new picture of people and nature.” Key texts in this contemporary food movement include Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001), documentary films like Food Inc. (2008) and Super Size Me (2004), and a number of cookbooks that encourage simple and seasonal cooking, such as Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors (2002), Ian Knauer’s The Farm (2012), and Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food (2007). The promise of the food movement is that it makes visceral the sometimes abstract ecological ideas attached to the discourses of sustainability, climate change, and environmentalism, such as shifting consumer habits from global food distributors to local farms, returning to seasonal eating patterns rather than expecting all kinds of produce to be available year round, and reducing food waste by consuming parts of plants and animals that are typically discarded, like carrot tops or chicken hearts. When it comes to food, one hopes, you can taste the difference between sustenance and depletion, so that eating more sustainably coincides with eating more deliciously.
Advocates for local and organic food cultures often make a dual argument: local, sustainable agriculture is better for both public health and the environment; and food produced locally and sustainably simply tastes better. Sustainable and local farming practices are far more varied than the massive monoculture methods common in large industrial fields. The taste of fresh, local vegetables and free-range meat is more varied and subtle than the now familiar salty, fatty, and sugary flavors manufactured in industrially processed foods. Yet producing more local, more sustainable, and better food has become difficult in the United States because of the power of what food advocate Michael Pollan has described as Big Food—the cluster of food corporations that control vast amounts of food production in the United States, from seed stocks to restaurant supplies. As Pollan notes, Big Food is shockingly consolidated, controlling well over 50 percent of the American food supply and up to 80 percent of foods like beef: “Simply put, [Big Food] is the $1.5 trillion industry that grows, rears, slaughters, processes, imports, packages and retails most of the food Americans eat.” As Pollan and other food advocates have documented over the past twenty years, Big Food engages in practices that lead to environmental harm through soil depletion, unnecessary use of pesticides, genetic modification of crops, and privatization of seed stocks. It also encourages food waste through profligate restaurant and supermarket practices, which result in health problems such as diabetes and obesity, caused by the use of corn syrup and other additives in readily available processed foods. These practices and their harmful effects are widely acknowledged, yet they have not resulted in public policy changes because of the lobbying power of the food and agriculture industries. The pressing question today remains how we can turn our food system upside down, so that our consumption of food does not contribute to the steady decline of life on the planet.
The concept of the cibopath is a useful way of framing an individualized yet also scalable solution to this impasse. What if we could taste the history of our food? What if its production process was sensible to us? What if biting into something produced a visceral epiphany about the way our food was grown, how it was harvested and processed, and how it was cooked? If we tasted history instead of bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and umami, what would be delicious? What food wouldn’t taste like oil, owing to the petroleum by-products used in fertilizer and pesticide, the fuel burned transporting it from farm to factory to table, and the fuel expended in refrigeration and cooking? Could an industrially farmed apple ever just taste like “apple”?
The term cibopath comes from the comics series Chew, written by John Layman and drawn by Rob Guillory. Chew takes place in a near-future world where a bird flu pandemic has killed millions. Chickens and other poultry products have been outlawed, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has become a major policing force. The series’ main character, Tony Chu, is a cibopath; when he eats anything, he experiences the history of that thing. As an FDA agent, Tony Chu solves food-related crimes by eating. While Chew’s often humorous content (starting with the literalness of its main character’s ability to “take a bite out of crime”) has been expanded into a complicated serial world since the comic series began in 2009 (it concluded with issue 60 in November 2016), Chew also explores some of the ways in which the food supply in North America is policed, governed through institutions, and manufactured on a level that has reshaped agriculture. Comics might seem to be a strange place to find a framework for thinking about the politics and possibilities of sustainability. Yet in recent years comics have sought to represent the food movement and its effects in mainstream media in sophisticated ways. Chew is not alone, then, as a comics commentary on the food movement, though its central conceit of cibopathy makes it a more experimental take on the possibilities of the food movement.
In the first issue of Chew, detective Tony Chu’s powers are made visible in a way that is uniquely suited to the comics medium. When he takes a bite of something, a vast grid of objects, actions, and materials cascades behind him on the page. Guillory’s representation of Chu’s cibopathy emphasizes its immediacy, as he experiences a cognitive surge of information. As the story develops, Chu learns to refine his powers, so that by the end of the sixty-issue series, he not only is able to experience the history of whatever he eats but also has taken on other superpowers from those he has eaten (such as contortionism and the ability to tie any knot). Cibopathy makes an object’s history into memory through ingestion, and that new memory changes the way Chu acts, thinks, and eats. History carries with it embodied practice, and our sensorial connections to food are saturated with habitual practices, cultural histories, and memories. In her study of matsutake mushrooms and their roles in global food networks, for example, anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing finds in the smell of the matsutake a series of questions about history, food production, and economic networks. A key element of flavor, the mushroom’s scent, launches her intellectual engagement with food, economics, labor, and culture: “At my first whiff, I was just . . . astonished. . . . My surprise was not just for the smell. What were Mien tribesmen, Japanese gourmet mushrooms, and I doing in a ruined Oregon industrial forest?” This revelry leads her to view the matsutake and its unique history as both existing within and resonating with possibilities outside of capitalist modes of production. Similarly, Chew’s cibopath holds out the promise of being able to taste political economy, soil health, animal welfare, and pollution.
In Chew, food-related abilities proliferate. These include the Cibolocutor, who can communicate discrete messages and works of literature through food; the Saboscrivner, who can write about food so eloquently that readers experience tasting her words; and the Cibovoyant, who can see the future of anything she eats. All in all, Chew makes literal the ways in which food is as much a cultural force as a natural resource. This is made most emblematic in the series as the narrative shifts from a police procedural, with Chu joining the FDA and tracking down illegal chicken operations, to a science fiction story about an apocalypse brought on by the overconsumption of poultry. Chew makes a logical step from food history to the long-term viability of human life on the planet Earth.
Indeed, as many members of the sustainable food movement emphasize, changing our food culture is necessary in light of climate change, expected population growth, and the environmental effects of industrialized agriculture. Like the fossil fuels that underwrite its circulation, fertilization and preparation of food is artificially inexpensive to many in North America and elsewhere, and it has given rise to a consumption-heavy lifestyle that simply cannot be sustained for many more generations. As the U.S.-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group has argued, changing consumption and waste habits would help to distribute food more evenly across the globe and help to prepare agricultural systems for the population growth that is expected in decades to come. Yet the U.S. food system today is markedly wasteful in its focus on meat production and consumption, as well as its reliance on monocultures. Perversely, our food system’s reliance on fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified crops to resist the diseases that can devastate monocultures might be more effectively countered with more diverse crops and an expanded consumer palate for a range of vegetables and grains.
In The Third Plate (2014), chef Dan Barber argues that our consumption habits must change and that fine dining can and should provide a kind of avant-garde for newly responsible and sustainable food. An early icon of the farm-to-table movement in fine dining, Barber uses ingredients from his family farm and has worked with agricultural scientists to breed vegetables for flavor and not for yield. These experiments, in Barber’s account, result in flavors that are unparalleled in typical supermarket produce. In Barber’s book, descriptions of tasting real food, prepared with real ingredients, often spark recollections and comparisons across time and ingredients. For example, Barber describes tasting brioche made with fresh-ground wheat:
The brioche was delicious, comforting in the way bread should be, but also a little exciting, with a flavor of toasted nuts and wet grass. Just as the Eight Row polenta tasted of corn—reminded me (because I needed to be reminded) that dried corn should actually taste of corn—the whole wheat brioche tasted distinctly of wheat. . . . The experience reminded me of my first taste of raw milk. . . . I couldn’t believe what I was tasting. It was creamy and sweet, but also tangy, with a scent that reminded me of morning pasture. . . . It hardly resembled the version I knew before.
Barber’s descriptions of flavor—as being surprisingly rooted in the places where plants are grown and cattle graze—imagines the sensation of taste as having a cibopathic quality. Chew makes this refined palette into a superpower, yet for Barber it is, importantly, something that we all have access to, something that we can all refine and sharpen. Indeed, psychologist Linda Bartoshuk estimates that about 25 percent of the human population are supertasters; their tongues have more fungiform papillae, and they therefore have heightened responses to bitter tastes. Supertasters seem to have an aversion to fatty and salty foods; meanwhile, they also are averse to bitter-tasting vegetables (so it’s not all roses). Bartoshuk’s research and other work on early childhood taste sensitivity has demonstrated that a heightened sensitivity to taste and exposure to varied foods at any early age might explain some eating habits and taste preferences. Infants exposed to more foods at an early age might be able “to trust new foods later in life” and thus be more equipped to eat seasonally rather than rely on favorite foods available year round only if they are shipped across the globe.
A supertaster extraordinaire, the cibopath tastes the way Dan Barber wants us all to taste. And while in Chew cibopathy is often unpleasant—the history of a murder victim or a fast-food hamburger patty are equally traumatic—it raises the question of what an enjoyable experience of cibopathy would be like. What if a delicious plate of organic vegetables simply tasted like leaves, stalks, roots, sunlight, soil, and water? What if bread tasted distinctly of hull, bran, and endosperm? What if meat tasted like grass, acorns, and blood? For those able to afford to shop at farmer’s markets, these tastes are more attainable. The political problem, though, is making these taste experiences and these histories available. As Chew’s bracing conclusion emphasizes, when human-size chickens arrive on Earth, ready to destroy the planet if poultry is still being eaten, our eating habits might prove intractable and ruinous. Everything tastes like exploitation. Could it be otherwise?
The concept of the cibopathic offers us the ability to think of food production as a sensory history. We perhaps too readily think of taste as a product of individual exertion (a master chef at work in the kitchen), global capitalism (a Big Mac tastes the same in Baltimore as it does in Bangkok), or mere nature (apples to apples). What if these three things tasted like the processes they are, the histories they drag behind them, and the networks required to sustain them? If we could all be cibopathic, we might be able to taste the difference between exploitation and sustenance. Cibopathy is one way of describing what the food movement has aspired to activate in all of us: the hope that in reflecting on our tastes and habits, we connect gastronomic pleasure to modes of producing food that replenish the Earth.
Another Path: Godhuli
1. Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berkeley, Calif.: Counterpoint, 2015), 42.
2. For recent accounts of soil depletion due to industrial agriculture and the consequences of shifting to processed foods that are flavored with additives, see Lindsey Haynes-Maslow and Jeffrey K. O’Hara, Lessons from the Lunchroom: Childhood Obesity, School Lunch, and the Way to a Healthier Future (Berkeley, Calif.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015); and Rotating Crops, Turning Profits: How Diversified Farming Systems Can Help Farmers while Protecting Soil and Preventing Pollution (Berkeley, Calif.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2017), https://www.ucsusa.org/.
3. Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015), 232.
4. Michael Pollan, “Big Food Strikes Back,” New York Times Magazine, October 9, 2016, 44.
5. John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew was a sixty-issue comics series published by Image Comics from 2009 to 2016. It has been collected into twelve trade paperback volumes as well as larger hardback collections.
6. Series like Get Jiro!, a near-future story about a rebellious sushi chef written by celebrity food writer and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, and Starve, about an extreme reality TV cooking competition, both focus on celebrity chefs and their association with foodie culture, and they both take as their protagonists chefs who prize traditional methods and ingredients over fussy, fancy fine dining. More recent comics series that focus on chefs and sustainability in speculative worlds include The Dregs, Flavor, Umami, and Chew artist Rob Guillory’s Farmhand. See Anthony Bourdain, Joel Rose, Langdon Foss, and José Villarubia, Get Jiro! (New York: DC/Vertigo, 2013); Rob Guillory, Farmhand (Berkeley, Calif.: Image, 2018); Joseph Keatinge, Wook Jin Clark, Tamra Bonvillain, Ariana Maher, and Ali Bouzari, Flavor (Berkeley, Calif.: Image, 2018); Ken Niimura, Umami (Panel Syndicate, 2018), http://panelsyndicate.com/comics/umami; Zac Thompson, Lonnie Nadler, Eric Zawadzki, and Dee Cunniffe, The Dregs (Los Angeles: Black Mask, 2017); Brian Wood, Danijel Zezelj, and Dave Stewart, Starve, 2 vols. (Berkeley, Calif.: Image, 2016).
7. For an account of how taste functions as cognition, see John S. Allen, The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012).
8. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015), 14.
10. Dan Barber, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (New York: Penguin, 2015), 335–36.
12. Beckman, “Matter of Taste.”