It is impossible to make gagh.
Gagh, a delicacy for the Star Trek universe’s martial Klingon race, is a glob of worms, usually served live and wriggling, because even Klingons supposedly hate their taste, but love the feeling of convulsing death sliding down their gullets. Like most Klingon food, it was designed to look utterly alien to Star Trek’s audience, even compared to what the space-age humans were eating, amplifying the differences between the Klingons and us. (Prop master Alan Sims describes their cuisine in 1999’s Star Trek Cookbook as “monster food” that makes you want to wretch.)
In that universe, most humans would find gagh unfathomable to consume, and chefs outside of Klingon space would have trouble securing the right worms to prepare it. But in this universe, where the ingredients (the worms, for instance) simply don’t exist, doing so would be flat-out impossible.
That hasn’t stopped devoted fans of the show from trying, though, over and over. Nor has it stopped them from attempting a host of other impossible Klingon foods, like pipius claw, heart of targh, or bok-rat liver—all whole body parts of fictional alien beasts. Entire sites have been devoted, since the early days of the internet, to devising recipes to realize these unrealizable dishes.
Looking in on the fandom from outside, you might wonder why Trekkies spend so much time trying to make an impossible food, and how they can even go about doing so in the first place. Fans are especially attracted to recreating Klingon dishes because, as “Geeky Chef” Cassandra Reeder told me, they’re the most memorable. They’re mentioned more often than Ferengi or Gorn food, and they’re more visually captivating than bland, logically vegetarian Vulcan fare or fittingly familiar Bajoran dishes. Gagh often takes pride of place among Klingon dishes as it’s one of the more frequently mentioned foods in the canon. And in the series, Reeder notes, it’s like a litmus test for one’s ability to overcome human weaknesses and embrace an alien culture.
That’s why Reeder made it a point to put gagh in her inter-fandom cookbook; the short-lived digital show Sci Fi Dining featured it in its first episode; and two Ottawa restaurants, when asked to prepare dinner for a party of Klingons last year, both tried to emulate serpent worms.
How do you even go about conjuring gagh into this mundane reality? Food comes up frequently in Star Trek, so there’s a huge and tantalizing corpus to attempt, but, Reeder says, it’s often not described well. Dishes are just, “plot devices, or there to illustrate something about the alien races.” The show makers had a nasty habit of changing gagh’s color and form from appearance to appearance. That’s how we wind up with 51 canonical types of gagh, each with a distinct feel and taste, and varied preparation styles for those gaghs. By contrast, there’s far more stable detail, and far less alien motion and sensation, involved in the Babylon 5 worms-as-food dish spoo.
Sure, fans have an official Star Trek Cookbook, authored by actor Ethan Phillips in the voice of the Talaxian chef of the USS Voyager, Neelix, to draw on for supposedly definitive recipes, like “Cardassian Style Gagh with Yamok Sauce.” But fans seem to agree the Cookbook is a big pile of targh shit. Its version of gagh? Just chilled udon or soba noodles on a bed of romaine lettuce.
“It doesn’t fit with what we know about gagh at all!” said Kristen Wright, who until three years ago devised trekkie recipes on the Food Replicator Tumblr. (Tagline: “Set phasers to yum!”) “Lots of other recipes in the cookbook are like that, too. Food helps to flesh out the fictional universe, and the official Star Trek Cookbook is inconsistent with the rest of the universe.”
The Cookbook contains some useful trivia from prop master Sims about how he created gagh. But some Trekkies feel uncomfortable drawing from these insights, because Sims brazenly indulges in Orientalism. He writes that he just slapped together “exotic” Asian foods his Western audience wouldn’t know and called it alien “monster food.” Hence, the soba noodles.
The obvious solution would be to just serve raw worms and call it gagh, just as chicken’s feet or any large animal’s heart, when lightly doctored with coloring and garnish, can be passed off as an Earth equivalent for pipius claws or heart of targh. Yet while there are a few worm-eating cultures in the world, even adventurous entomophages outside of those cultures often draw the line at eating straight earthworms, especially living ones. So unless your gagh is decorative, that probably won’t fly. But Trekkies aren’t daunted by the lack of guidance or parallels for making gagh. They seem to embrace them.
“Recreating Klingon food, and other foods from the shows, seemed like a great culinary research project,” said Adam Zolkover, a folklorist, amateur cook, and Star Trek fan who took an elaborate stab at gagh in 2014. He used mushroom broth and kelp solidified with agar inside bendy straws to create slimy, floppy, savory gummy gagh worms. “I’ve had to find and watch the most relevant episodes, take note of what foods there were and what they looked like, and then find techniques I could use to produce palatable versions.”
This lack of guidance and flexibility leaves room for fans to insert their own values and desires into the dish. For instance, vegetarians make vegetarian gagh, surprisingly often. But no matter the tastes of its makers, there is a constant tension between adhering to the ways gagh looks and is described in the franchise and creating something palatable enough to actually eat . “I try to keep a balance between authenticity, taste, and difficulty,” says Reeder of her approach to inventing any fandom recipe. “The ranking of those three things differs depending on the food I’m emulating.”
Fans who just care about the look, and don’t mind a little casual Orientalism or lackluster flavor, may embrace the Cookbook’s gagh recipe, or others involving Chinese long beans, seaweed noodles, or mung bean sprouts. Fans who care more about the spirit of the food, the challenge of eating gagh, might go in for mealworms, or something harsh like peeled whole ginger root in coca powder and water, which the linguist Mark Mandel brought to a Klingon language convection to see who could stomach it with true warrior race endurance. Fans who want to nod to the dish, but present eaters with something palatable above all else might might sacrifice aesthetics and concept in favor of more appetizing: unconvincing noodle dishes, or just a handful of gummy worms.
Trekkies at different poles of the look-taste-feel matrix push on each other, and rather than despair at the impossibility of conjuring a definitive gagh into existence, Trekkies seem to revel in this diversity of form. Part of the fun of fandom is building it collaboratively with others, seeing their takes on the universe you want to be a part of, and deepening your connection to that reality through debate.
“I love that there are a lot of approaches to gagh,” said Zolkover. “Every cook has a different visual and culinary aesthetic; it’s great to see them reflected in the creativity with which they approach foods from Star Trek.”
It’s not hard to figure out why Trekkies sink so much time into boldly going where no chef ever could: It’s enjoyment through active engagement rather than just passive viewing.
“The appeal is the same for as those, myself included, who cosplay,” said Paul Carreau, an early member of Klingon fandom who stumbled into creating this reality’s version of warnog, a Klingon beer, at a Star Trek convention in Toronto in 1998.
“The fans are including themselves in Star Trek.”