A Path of Tongues

A grainy sepia photograph of rolling hills, foregrounded by a large upright rock.

Listen to this article

Editor’s note: The following text contains a partial transcript of letters exchanged by master cook Muyesser Ablesh of the Palestine Agricultural Council (MA), and food and land healer Atipaq Paillama of the Community Health Council (PA) in Naska, Western Antian Territory. The letters discuss the preparation of a lunch offered by the Transnational Autonomous Society for Atlantic Imperialism Studies during the year 2188. Unfortunately, only part of these missives has been preserved, as most documentation of the Caracoles was lost to the floods that affected the Western Andean Territories the following year.

Ahuzat Bayit, Palestine
November 30, 2188

Dear Atipaq,

I want to start our dialogue by inviting you to think about the nature of the recipe.

A recipe is a text of meandering paths. You see, the recipe can never be complete in itself; after all, it is an attempt at distilling into words what is sensed, felt. The recipe forms through a path of tongues, tasted by countless others before it makes its way to you. It is the proposal for a performance that extrapolates the word itself, written or spoken: its preparation inevitably entails processes and events that cannot be anticipated. As text, it is an unfinished outline of a network of relations among the living and the dead, human and otherwise.

Yet, it is precisely its incompleteness that lends to its longevity. A recipe needs to be composed of fungible elements; as landscapes change, so do the potentialities of the recipe. It is a chronological anomaly, an amalgamate of past and future variations, an ontological mirror; it can never exclusively exist in the present.

The recipe is not a strictly human endeavor; it is shaped by the agencies of those who cook it, those who eat it, the land from which it emerges, and the ingredients from which it is made. It is a container, a carrier bag that not only makes space for human and other-than-human whims, but also allows for their circulation and reformulation. I see the recipe as both a technology of information dissemination that forces us to recognize the ontological relationality of the self to the world, and as a contingent network capable of surviving in the ruins of time.

With gratitude,


Naska, Western Antian Territories
December 5, 2188

Dear Muyesser,

To continue the exchange that you so brilliantly opened up, I would like to propose my own considerations on the recipe. You seem to approach it as a textual-performative information network that is defined by its own incompleteness and contingency—an approach that aligns with your experience as a cook. Here, I would like to explore more of the relational nature of the recipe, which speaks to my practice as a land healer.

I understand the recipe as a negotiation of four elements: ingredients, time, method, and desire. Those elements are managed by the cook or cooks — the entity or entities performing the recipe. Every performance of a recipe must respond to the contingent needs and desires of those who cook and those who eat.

In the case of soil, the ingredients list is concise: minerals, dead organic matter, living organisms, gas, and water. Five ingredients capable of creating fundamental sustenance and pleasure for many lifeforms. In that sense, soil is the first recipe—a recipe we all participate in as ingredients and as cooks, as subjects and objects. It is a recipe with shifting methods, no beginning and no ending. Its results can be as variable as the ancient landscapes of Abya Yala: the loamy riverbanks of the great Orinoco, pulsating with life; the ancient peat bogs of Kárwkènká; the soft, airy, moist humus top layer in the Urihi, touched by the tendrils of tree roots and mycelial networks; the dry, light sands of the Atacama Desert, rich minerals baked in sunlight.

From this first recipe, many others can be made. This first recipe nourishes primordial desires and shapes our experiences of many worlds, feeding ourselves and others. The first recipe is in perpetual motion; transformation is its fundamental substance. All that it touches, it changes. The first recipe is a communal recipe. As the soil under our feet changes, all other recipes change.

Taking these considerations into account, I think we should begin our lunch with an exercise that encourages attendants to explore the idea of commensality, and the ways in which we — humans and other siblings — are all implicated in the perpetual making and unmaking of the first recipe.

To the Tongues
The first taste comes from the act of encounter. Allow your skin to touch that of another. Sink your feet into the moist soil around you. Offer your lover as many kisses as there are grains of sand. Bathe in the waters of tropical affinities. Follow the path of tongues.

With warmth and kindness,


al-Quds, Palestine
December 11, 2188

Dear Atipaq,

Thank you for your further theorizations on the format of the recipe; it feels, in many ways, as if we are tracing together the next steps into this perpetually expanding path of tongues perhaps, even, a network of tongues. Your proposed exercise reminds me of a poem by Catullus, directed at his married lover Lesbia:

You ask how many kisses
Of yours, Lesbia, would be enough and more for me.
As great as the number of Libyan sands
That lie at Cyrene producing silphium […]

This poem might offer us an interesting entry point into our inquiry into the recipe as both a technology of information distribution and as an anachronic, contingent network. The story starts with the plant Catullus mentions in this poem: silphium.

Most likely a type of giant fennel, silphium once grew in the dry Mediterranean landscapes surrounding the ancient city of Cyrene, founded by Greco-Roman settlers occupying the Eastern coast of the Lybian lands. In Ancient Greece and Rome, silphium was valued for its medicinal and aromatic properties; historical accounts by Theophrastus, Hippocrates, Apicius, Soranus, Dioscorides, and Pliny the Elder extensively document the use of its sap as a spice in Greco-Roman cuisine, as well as the use of its juice in aphrodisiac, contraceptive, abortifacient, and other medicinal preparations.

Silphium’s intense aroma offered character to sauces with truffles and gourds and provided the flavor foundation to Parthian chicken—a dish that traveled through the Silk Road from the Arsacid Empire into the tongues of Rome. Dioscorides offers a contraceptive recipe consisting of a decoction of silphium, pepper, and myrrh; as Catullus writes, pleasure could be had as long as silphium grew in the sands of Cyrene.

The greed of the empire, however, could not be sated. Soon, silphium became the prime commodity of Cyrene. Its image was minted in tetradrachm coins; it was stored in the financial reserves of the empire along with gold and silver; it was consumed by the most fashionable elites of Athens. By the end of the first century AD, the plant was apparently extinguished by over-harvesting, land disputes between original peoples and settlers, and a significant climate shift. The soil changed, as you pointed out, and with it all other recipes.

This is the recipe for Parthian chicken, as documented by Apicius. After the disappearance of silphium, asafoetida—a spice most often imported from Parthia—became an accepted substitute.

Parthian Chicken
Dress the chicken carefully and quarter it. Crush pepper, lovage, and a little caraway moistened with broth, and add wine to taste. After frying, place the chicken in an earthen dish, pour the seasoning over it, add silphium and wine. Let it assimilate with the seasoning and braise the chicken to a point. When done, sprinkle with pepper and serve.

Thinking of it, this could be an appropriate recipe for our lunch; after all, it is the fungibility of its elements that has allowed this dish to survive amongst the ruins of time.

With gratitude,


Qusqu suyu, Western Antian Territories
December 17, 2188

Dear Muyesser,

Curiously, whilst reading your letter, I slowly came to the realization that this plant that you talk about is well known in the Western Andean Territories; we call it sílfio. Its story, as I recall, is one of finding atomized versions of home among a history of migration and displacement: a story of extinction, and one of return.

For two thousand years, sílfio was believed to have been extinct; some authors, as I remember, claim that Emperor Nero ate the last stalk. In the 2020s, however, it was once again found growing wild — this time around the slopes of Mount Hasan in Central Anatolia. For two thousand years, silphium had followed a secret path traced by the tongues of those who had known, loved, tasted her.

An expedition to the Haua Fteah cave in 2057 found an altar-like construction in a previously unknown grotto, uncovered during the great floods of the previous year. The altar featured a series of paintings depicting the story of a goddess, Sylphis — a midwife between worlds who held power over fundamental processes of change and transformation. Her realm was that of nourishment, fertility, lust, and the transitions between life and death. Sílfio was her material manifestation; a sacred plant kept alive through covert networks that maintained and exchanged seeds and cooking practices, in so doing allowing us a glimpse of the ontological mirror.

With warmth and kindness,


an-Nāṣira, Palestine
December 25, 2188

Dear Atipaq,

I am pleased to hear that you are, indeed, familiar with the history of silphium.

The preparation and sharing of food were fundamental to the Cult of Sylphis. Altars to the goddess were often built inside caves and tunnels — initially out of necessity, as this spiritual practice was the target of intense repression by Roman settlers. Worship of the goddess Sylphis spread, though in secret. Altars to her have been found in caves in May Hib’o in the Tigray Region; in Geneina, dar Masalit, and Darfur; in Ürümqi and Xinjiang; in Rafah and Palestine. This is an indication that the Cult of Sylphis might have been practiced in moments of crisis under genocidal regimes and settler colonial violence. In each cave, in each grotto, recipes appeared as poems and prayers, echoing through the darkness of time. In the face of extinction, silphium returned over and over again, abundance emerging from the depths of the Earth.

In 2102, the Great Andean Earthquake revealed a cave with painted walls and an altar in the vicinity of the sacred city of Cahuachi, Western Antian Territories. Although the earthquake led to the partial collapse of some of the deeper sections of the cave, pottery fragments containing maize and mayocoba beans were found inside the first chamber. A smaller metal vessel, found closer to one of the painted walls of the grotto, contained seeds of silphium — a plant that is not native to Abya Yala, and could only have traveled there through human interference.

Was there some form of syncretization of this ancient cult with local belief systems? How did localized knowledge of plant medicine — particularly related to reproduction — carry through to new landscapes? How did this belief system, which seemed to have survived an early form of colonial occupation, relate to this new context of colonial occupation in another land?

Editor’s note: The transcript ends here.