‘Would you like the cat consommé?’ The waiter passes me a spoon. I swallow the broth in one go, deciding that – when it comes to eating feline – fast is best.
I am sitting on the world’s largest glockenspiel deep underground at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, taking part in the very first of American artist Kirsha Kaechele’s Eat the Problem feasts. Around me are 72 other invited guests, most friends of Kaechele and her husband David Walsh, MONA’s founder.
I’ve been ordered to wear head-to-toe green; another guest – in delicate peaches and pinks – has a real dead frog on her shoulder. Brian Ritchie, of the alt-rock band the Violent Femmes fame, is all in orange. ‘It’s a positive colour,’ he tells me, before lapsing into silence.
Each course is colour-coded (red the most challenging; brown the most repug – nant), as is each seat that we sit on, and each giant-sized key of the glockenspiel. Waiters, dressed in beige overalls, deliver food with the precision of a communist army. Kaechele – reigning over the chaos like Cleopatra – wears a resplendent gold dress with a huge taxidermy snake coiled around her head. The snake, a voluptuous, shiny helix with jewels for eyes, has been coated in 24-carat gold. Money is not a problem when David Walsh, the multi-millionaire professional gambler and de facto king of Hobart, is your husband.
In the feasts, which will run until September at the eye-watering cost of $666.66 per person (there’s also a cheaper tasting version), Kaechele addresses the problem of invasive species. She wants us to turn pests into something useful, a flaw into a feature, or, as gospel singer Maria Lurighi warbles as we arrive, ‘shit into gold’.
In the process, it’s hard not to consider how arbitrary, and at times silly, our emotional and cultural attachment is to certain foods. In the West, why is cat repulsive but cow is not? Why are oysters a delicacy and toad deplorable? And instead of culling invasive species, in Australia the number one cause for native animal extinctions, and chucking away the carcasses, why don’t we consume them?
Consumption, in this case, means goods too. The rainbow glockenspiel, which also serves as our dining table, is covered in thick, waxy layers of deer and camel fat; prickly weeds such as tapioca and wakame – also invasive species – add texture. Outside, in the gift shop, stately camel tallow candles are sold alongside phone holders made from cane toad skins (heads intact), painted a lurid yellow gold. But it is cat that raises the most hackles. The broth, gamey in taste, is sourced from Tasmania’s feral (and devastating) cat population, some of which have been shot and boiled down by MONA chef Vince Trim. Cat, however, will not be on the menu when the feasts open to the public. (Legally, one can eat cat meat here but not sell it). Plenty of other things will be.
During the nine-course meal – which spans some six hours and is interspersed with musical interludes, naked prancing ladies, a tabletop guest catwalk, and a parade of small children dressed in saris – everything from cane toad garum to an ebony-black margarita is served. Staring out from the margarita ice cube is a boar’s eyeball. Then there’s tofu smoked in dung. It’s a dish so repellent – reminiscent of the warm, fetid smell of faeces at a festival toilet – that I physically recoil. This is disgustation, not degustation. As I scrawl in my notes: ‘It’s all horrible.’ Yet in terms of a multi-sensory experience that asks the hard questions, it’s brilliant art.
Kaechele, 42, grew up on Guam. The island became infamous for its brown snake invasion, which decimated local species, including the ko’ko bird. ‘Guam became this silent island,’ she says. In 2010, authorities air-dropped mice laced with poison in a bid to contain the crisis. All the while, Kaechele was thinking about how the snakes could become a resource.
Alongside the feasts, Kaechele has released a limited edition Eat the Problem cookbook (price: $277.77), featuring recipes from chefs and artists, including such heavy hitters as Heston Blumenthal and Marina Abramovic. One is whole roasted camel – a novel way to try and contain Australia’s feral camel population, which, at 1.2 million, is the largest in the world.
‘Instead of raising a cow, which takes an enormous amount of energy and has such a negative impact on the environment, you may as well eat the meat that ecologists and the government have already decided [to] cull,’ insists Kaechele.
Kaechele terms herself a ‘killatarian’. In other words, she only eats meat that she would kill herself or, she admits sheepishly, ‘things that look dumb like clams, oysters and scallops.’ Declarations such as these haven’t stopped the controversy.
Most problematic in the cookbook is an artful photograph of a dismembered rabbit, fur still on, said by some to be akin to ‘animal torture’. Kaechele and Walsh have declared dismay that the barbecues served at MONA do not inspire so much as a murmur. But when meat is taken out of context – and shown for what it is: slaughtered animals – there are protests.
Kaechele is, of course, delighted by the fuss. Witty and glamorous, with shoulder-length red hair, sparkling eyes, and a naughty smile, she is positively on fire at a media call before the feast, flirting with the cameras in a slinky yellow hotpants jumpsuit. She hasn’t yet tried the magic mushroom recipe in the book but ‘I’m not saying I wouldn’t,’ she says with a wink. She believes the old cannibalism recipe she has included – a comment on how human beings are the most invasive, and destructive, species of all – is fitting. ‘In the account, the people being cooked are missionaries who were trying to impose their system on the locals. And I think they deserved it!’ As for the hemlock cocktail? ‘It’s poisonous, it will kill you… do not use that recipe, because it’s a terrible death… Gut wrenching, rolling on the floor, green pain. That’s bad.’
During the feast, human meat, hemlock and magic mushrooms are notably missing. But diners are warned that the mythical ‘brown note’, a subsonic musical vibration, may result in us involuntarily losing control of our bowels.
In the end, I just get a rash. I’m not sure if it’s the cane toad or the tequila shot with crunchy ants. Or perhaps the cloaca dust. Or even the cat. But one thing is certain. Offer me a spoon of broth and I’d do it all again.
For full event details about ‘Eat the Problem’ visit mona.net.au