I’ll confess to being a molecular gastronomy skeptic—well, maybe skeptic‘s not the right word. I’ve just been priced out of it; until recently I couldn’t afford a trip to Alinea, not in the sense that I couldn’t justify it, but that I literally couldn’t afford it, not without ceasing retirement savings for a few months. My borderline economic situation didn’t cause resentment, but it did lead to a practical ambivalence.
But I’m coming around. Not because I’ve been to Alinea or Moto and been converted, or because the idea of going is no longer completely irresponsible. Instead, I’ve been thinking about it in the context of my other interests, as an English major turned writer (yes, that does have a lot to do with my personal finances). And it’s encapsulated in a engaging review of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine by John Lanchester. As the author of the wonderful and hilarious novel The Debt to Pleasure, he’s well-suited to examining the joys, and the terrors, of food.
First you have to know a little bit about Modernist Cuisine. It’s a 2,438-page, 46-pound cookbook and scientific treatise on cooking that took Myhrvold (former chief technology officer at Microsoft), Fat Duck chefs Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, and "the combined efforts of several dozen people over three years… the norm for a major reference work or college textbook." It costs $625 (update: or a mere $462 on Amazon), which sounds like a lot until you think of how much professional-school textbooks can cost. Last month, Wired ran a profile of Myhrvold and his epic project.
And second, you should probably know there’s been some blowback coming to molecular gastronomy, or modernist cuisine, or whatever you want to call it. The first shot came from professional Korea expert and semi-pro anhedonic B.R. Myers: "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies." It has less of a thesis than the rant that made Myers famous/infamous, "The Reader’s Manifesto," but its acidity got it some attention (Michael Gebert has a thoughtful take at Sky Full of Bacon). It’s mostly sound and fury, or at least muttering and sneering, but this jumped out at me:
Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts—the real arts.
Hold that thought for a moment. Another critique making the rounds comes from controversial Esquire food writer John Mariani, who has beef with Grant Achatz, and not the delicious kind. He takes on Achatz, Myhrvold, Homaro Cantu, and other avant-garde chefs; dyspepsia aside, there’s something to this point, though it’s not what Mariani seems to think:
The praise heaped on such cuisiniers by media hype, with the word "genius" bandied about as if speaking of Picasso or Mozart, obscures the fact that such culinary experiments have long been part of gastronomy, not least by American food companies like Kellogg’s, Birds Eye, and General Mills — all with test facilities easily costing millions more than Myhrvold’s 4,000-square-foot kitchen. Has anyone considered the years of hard work that went into creating cereals like cornflakes, shredded wheat, and Lucky Charms, which were invented in 1962? With their colored marshmallows and shamrock-shaped wheat bits made with modified corn starch, corn syrup, dextrose, gelatin, calcium carbonate, trisodium phosphate, and artificial color — the kinds of chemical additives molecular cuisiniers have in their pantries?
"Has anyone considered the years of hard work"? Actually, I have; after college, my mom started out in food science. Among the reasons she quit was the experience of spending several months working on a team that was trying to create a frozen omelet (mmm, frozen omelet). They failed. Spending a substantial part of your life on one thing as conceptually and culinarily questionable as a frozen omelet—and coming out with nothing other than the lessons learned from failure—was not how she wanted to spend her life, so she became an English teacher.
It’s not a life for everyone, but the science of mass-market food is remarkable. Even reading a critique like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, it’s hard not to be impressed with the fruits of its ingenuity, such as the guns that fire potatoes into a wire mesh in order to create french fries. Here’s Schlosser on flavorists:
The small and elite group of scientists who create most of the flavor in most of the food now consumed in the United States are called "flavorists." They draw upon a number of disciplines in their work: biology, psychology, physiology, and organic chemistry. A flavorist is a chemist with a trained nose and a poetic sensibility. Flavors are created by blending scores of different chemicals in tiny amounts, a process governed by scientific principles but demanding a fair amount of art….
One of the food scientists sits Schlosser down for a "taste" test:
I smelled fresh cherries, black olives, sauteed onions, and shrimp. Grainger’s most remarkable creation took me by surprise. After closing my eyes, I suddenly smelled a grilled hamburger. The aroma was uncanny, almost miraculous. It smelled like someone in the room was flipping burgers on a hot grill. But when I opened my eyes, there was just a narrow strip of white paper and a smiling flavorist.
Sorry, I got lost in the miracles of modern technology. Back to Lanchester’s review of Modernist Cuisine. This is an important passage in relationship to Myers’s whimper about the "real arts" and Mariani’s legitimate, if tone-deaf, point about food science:
Modernist cooking is different from that: instead of inviting us to think about what we can do at home to copy the model offered by the best restaurants, it enacts a break between the high end of cooking and the levels below. In return, it proposes all kinds of new possibilities for food that takes us beyond familiar sensation and familiar language; food that is, to some deliberate extent, uncomforting. In the dance of cook and eater, some cooks have some new moves. Thanks to modernism, we can look toward tasting things we didn’t know before, even things whose existence we didn’t begin to suspect.
Mariani’s right that the technological innovations of the food industry are remarkable. But more often than not, they’ve been used in the service of imitating nature and tradition: it’s like alchemy, except at the end all you get is a burger. While the economics of it make sense, there’s still something conceptually perverse about creating a massive culinary-industrial complex for the purpose of making real beef with fake flavor. (Ladies and gentlemen: the McRib!) If you don’t have time for literary theory…
Besides, representational art is from one viewpoint the least realist of all, since it is strictly speaking impossible. Nobody can tell it like it is without editing and angling as they go along. Otherwise the book or painting would simply merge into the world. No sooner had the English novel embarked on its celebrated rise in the 18th century than Laurence Sterne reminded his literary colleagues of the crazed hubris of the realist project. Determined not to cheat the reader by leaving anything out, Tristram Shandy represents so much material so painstakingly that its narrative collapses. [Ed. note: That’s Terry Eagleton, in the relevantly named essay "Pork Chops and Pineapples," about Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.]
…just go to McDonald’s. Say what you will about their food, it goes down easier than Tristram Shandy.
Which brings me back to my training as an English major (I’m still paying for it, might as well use it). My thesis was on Moby-Dick, a flop when it came out, and despite its later canonization, still a book that throws readers; I chose to write about it just so I’d finish it. What seems to bore its readers are the encylopedic chapters, the digressions from the ripping adventure narrative into linguistics, history, and physiology. They’re as dissonant and structurally odd as anything you’ll find in postmodern literature.
But they actually mirror the story of Ahab. The book was written between the time Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution and the publication of On the Origin of Species, during an explosion of popular interest in the biological sciences, and Melville’s scientific asides reflect the fascination and bewilderment of the time: the tremors portending Darwin’s earthquake. Ahab and the amateur and professional scientists were seeking, in their own ways, to master the elemental forces of nature, and the terror and wonder of that impulse is captured in the dual nature of Moby-Dick. Literary descendants like Thomas Pynchon, who started as a technical writer in the aerospace industry, embraced the encylopedic narrative, and the jargon of our deepest fears.
Our proud history of turning science inside-out and into art extends beyond literature. Perhaps our most original cultural export of the past few decades has been hip-hop, which evolved from DJing: the turntable, a device meant to ensure the faithful replication of music, was turned into an instrument in its own right (and when the mp3 took over, we got Girl Talk). Masters like Terminator X of Public Enemy did for popular music what Charles Ives did for American vernacular music, or Varèse did for the sounds of the city:
“To understand Varèse, you have to understand New York,” Lewin-Richter says. “This city’s background noise is what Varèse uses. He transfers that landscape to the orchestra.”
More chillingly, critic Igor Toronyi-Lalic points out that Varèse "literally provided the soundtrack to the creation of the atom bomb — scientists on the Manhattan Project had the first recording of Ionisation on loop while they worked." It’s no surprise that the composer’s sound was echoed in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, because it sure sounds like technological madness.
As Mariani suggests, we’re in sort of an atomic age of food, in which we’ve stripped the fundamentals of life down to their elements and are figuring out how to tame, synthesize, and imitate them. To an extent, food has been abstracted from its origins, and writers like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman have made their careers on the cultural, culinary, and economic tensions that process has created. Or, perhaps more accurately, the terrors.
Take, for instance, the history of our own city. We were the hog butcher to the world, and grand tourists came from all over to hear the hog-squeal of the universe. And not just the butcher, but the grain elevator of the world as well. As William Cronon describes in his epic economic history of Chicago and the Midwest, Nature’s Metropolis, the technology of the 19th century meant that Chicago was the most convenient place for America to store its raw ingredients, and therefore to determine its value. The Board of Trade originated as a means of organizing and standardizing the products of the heartland:
Its system of regulations, proposed for the first time in 1856, restructured Chicago’s market in a way that would forever transform the grain trade of the world. In that year, the Board made the momentous decision to designate three categories of wheat in the city—white winter wheat, red winter wheat, and spring wheat—and to set standards of quality for each.
A person who owned grain could conveniently sell it to a buyer simply by selling the elevator receipt, and as long as both agreed that they were exchanging equivalent quantities of like grain—rather than the physical grain that the seller had originally deposited in the elevator—both left happy at the end of the transaction…. The grading system allowed elevators to sever the link between ownership rights and physical grain, with a host of unanticipated consequences.
Among the unanticipated consequences: the relationship between ownership and physical product would continue to grow more abstract. Chicago ceased to be the place where pigs went to slaughter, but it continued to be the place they were bought and sold. Inspired by Cronon’s book, artist Sarah Kavage bought wheat on the Mercantile Exchange (which merged with the Board of Trade in 2007), and, in an anachronistic gesture, actually took delivery of it. Even in 2008, the links were more severed than she expected:
Kavage hatched a vague plan to buy a unit of some commodity on the Mercantile Exchange and then, somehow, get into the pits to trade it herself. She was looking forward to the last part, drawn by the "gay disco quality" of that subculture of cryptic hand signals and garish blazers. That, however, quickly proved impossible, as you have to actually own a seat on the exchange to get onto the floor. And anyway, open-outcry trading had by then largely fallen by the wayside, a casualty of digital technology and the 2007 merger of the Merc with the Chicago Board of Trade.
Even in this abstracted state, the trade of raw ingredients continues to shape the city. As the physical product vanished—followed by the men who physically sold it—Chicago has clung to the last remnants of the physical market itself, pouring money into the financial district, where an otherwise shrinking city has shown population and per capita-income gains in recent years. As Chrystia Freeland writes in "The Rise of the New Global Elite": "Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves." There’s not much left for a city to hold on to. The widening gap between the rich and everyone else is another link being severed.
Modernist cuisine brings all this together on a plate: the purity of slow food and small farms, the technological abstraction and alchemical magic of the food industry, the artist’s impulse to expose the means of production with aesthetic expression, and the elitist’s desire to render the fat of the land into rarefied stock.
Is one of the "real arts"? From Achatz’s perspective, which is to say the creator’s, it seems to come from the same place. And from mine—from the audience’s—it seems to reflect and provoke the same tensions of class, history, and culture. It’s discomfort food, for a discomfiting time.
Photograph: xmatt (CC by 2.0)