Saturday, April 9, 2011

Modernist Cuisine

Just finished reading The New Yorker's review (in the March 21st issue) of a cooking text called Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Reviewer John Lanchester notes that the text is comprised, in fact, five thick 11 x 13 volumes plus a ring-bond volume of recipes (2,438 pages). The price alone ($625) should clue us to the fact that this is not for the ordinary home cook.

The book apparently describes the science behind cooking, which itself sounds fascinating. After all, cooking depends upon manipulating, for example, temperature and provoking chemical responses to desired effects. Not only does this approach to cooking contribute to, say, smarter stewing, but it also makes possible the presentation of natural foods in forms that seem utterly unnatural to us, like "foams," "gels," "airs", "soils," not to mention magic tricks like "foods that change temperature when you eat them, a cup of tea that is cold on one side and hot on the other," and so on. The approach (and the resulting gimmicks) in Europe has been called "molecular gastronomy" and in this text is called "modernist cuisine."

I think it is interesting to note that even with science shaping this new approach to cooking, it is called "modernist cuisine," which seems to signal a break from "craft" to "art." As a cultural anthropologist, I thought we were living in post-post-modern times? Politically, what does it mean to claim a "modernist" cuisine? For sake of comparison, see this post on The Futurist Cookbook, published in Italy in 1929, which was notably anti-pasta, which artist F.T. Marinetti rejected as reactionary.

What I consider more important to ask: What does it mean - and what will it mean - that this new science / art of cooking emerges at a time when there is growing awareness and acceptance of farmers markets and local foods and "provenance" associated with food (e.g., chocolates labeled with their national and regional origins)?

Last time, I had posted on what I perceived as the elitism of "simple" eating. However, I also appreciated this reminder from Lanchester's review: "There was a time when that emphasis on ingredients seemed quaint; now it is at the center of what chefs do, and it also has had a big impact on the way ordinary cooks thin, shop, cultivate, and prepare food, from the elementary-school kitchen to the White House garden. Perhaps the best thing about this movement is that we can put it into daily practice for ourselves." At least the farm-to-table "movement" - if that is what to call it - makes possible a conversation about what is not fair about food and eating.

I worry that with "modernist cuisine," we are looking at a false sense that science will save us. Like, Green Revolution, anyone? I worry that "modernist cuisine" is the taste of things to come. Notably the further intensification of inequalities.

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