Palate or Palette?


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1811: a French confectioner named Nicolas Appert publishes The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years. He discovers that if you boil your mutton and eggs in sealed glass jars, you can eat them much later. Napoleon, in person, gives him a prize and canned food is born.

Early 1970s: American schoolchildren are introduced to thermostabilization, rehydration, and freeze-drying via space food. Tang becomes an American staple and likewise, the Tang moustache.

1974: The National Food Processors Association examines a 40-year-old can of corn found in the basement of a California home. Far from being just a rancid memory of food, the corn was, in fact, safe to eat, full of nutrients, and moreover, tasted just like freshly canned corn.

1986: The compact microwave is introduced into the family kitchen. Mothers around the nation proceed to make the driest roasts in world history with sides of flaccid broccoli.

Such are the trials and tribulations of food in the industrial age. They illustrate the obvious — industry and technology have had a massive impact on what we eat and how we eat it. The focus, however, has generally been convenience and cost rather than taste and gastronomic pleasure. Mass populations need mass-produced food as well as cheap and efficient means to package and transport them. The cuisine of classical fine dining, by contrast, tends to ignore all such developments. At most of your finer restaurants, canned foods and microwaves are not to be found, much less liquid nitrogen or a dehydrator. For 500 years, Western fine dining has been primarily dominated by a focus on fresh ingredients and authoritative (generally French) skills.

During the ’60s and ’70s, however, people started to play around a little. You may remember 1980s sitcoms in which a regular Joe is served an enormous platter with a tiny ephemeral piece of designer food in the center. Hilarity ensues, as usually does a trip to a steakhouse a few minutes later. These Joes were usually the victims of Nouvelle Cuisine, which aimed to break free from the bondage of heavy French sauces and classic dishes. Nouvelle Cuisine embraced unique ingredient pairings, inventive presentation, and modern equipment, including the unthinkable: the microwave.

Nouvelle petered out, mostly because it was half-assed in its commitments. It took chances in using the microwave, but it gave us essentially the same dishes and flavors as traditional cuisine, if in smaller and more pretentious portions. Yet in the wake of Nouvelle’s ignominious demise, Molecular Gastronomy crept onto the scene. Molecular Gastronomists dive wholesale into the “experimental” part of experimental cuisine. They are perfectly delighted to use science-based methods and equipment to blur the distinction between cooking and science. At first, Molecular Gastronomy was little more than a sideshow, a small group of physicists, chemists, curious chefs, and extreme food enthusiasts literally playing with their food. A Reverse Baked Alaska — frozen on the outside, hot on the inside — was concocted by Hungarian physicist and Molecular Gastronomy co-founder Nicholas Kurti. Its other founder, Hervé This, a French chemist, devised a chocolate Chantilly cream made sans cream. To the world of cuisine classique, Molecular Gastronomy dishes were clever science experiments at best and all but unknown to the general public. This was not real food and no one cared much about eating it.

In recent years, however, the molecular crowd has developed a greater sense of confidence. They’ve realized that cooking, in its essence, has always been about the relationship between ingredients, chemistry, and physics. In the beginning, when Hervé This and Kurti developed “Molecular and Physical Gastronomy,” they were primarily seeking ways to explore and improve the science of traditional cooking. Simple stuff, like how best to cook an egg, and an answer to that eternal question: what makes a soufflé rise and fall? As they experimented, the possibilities expanded and they started producing dishes radically distinct from any of the foods humans have been eating hitherto. As Molecular Gastronomy gained more attention — championed by food writers such as Harold McGee (of the seminal On Food and Cooking) — a new symbiosis of chefs, scientists, and the commercial food industry began to take shape. Young chefs, already armed with the tenets of Nouvelle, began taking advantage of the weird devices available to them in the lab and the technology available to them in the commercial kitchen. Ingredients like gums and hydrocolloids and sodium alginate — previously reserved for Pop Tarts and Peeps — were now fair game for haute cuisine. So too were equipment like ultrasonic baths, which can make mayonnaise in a matter of seconds, and rotary evaporators, which are able to retain the aromas that are often lost when liquids are subject to heat. The physical properties of food that we hold so dear were turned upside down.

Solids became foams. Liquids became solids. Both liquids and solids were turned into scents. Nothing was safe from becoming a gel. Bartender Eben Freeman brought us jellied gin and tonic with frozen lime chips. Homaro Cantu of Moto created a wide array of edible papers, including the menu. On the Proustian side, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck regularly invites diners to write down their childhood food memories to be used as inspiration for future dishes. Blumenthal also developed a dish of lotus root and abalone accompanied by an iPod playing the sound of lapping waves to enhance the aroma of the sea. Grant Achatz of Alinea squirted liquefied hay into one of his soup dishes to evoke the memory of fall hayrides. This was food distilled into its most concentrated essence, composed to unleash the maximum sensory experience in the diner.

Not only did people start to talk about Molecular Gastronomy as the highest of cuisines, but they also began to call it art. Just last year, Ferran Adrià of the almost mythical El Bulli was a participant in Documenta, one of the most prestigious exhibits of international contemporary art. And just as people argued whether Molecular Gastronomy was more technological trickery than food, they now argue whether food can be art. The question, though, of whether a chef can be an artist is rather like the question of whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound even if no one is there to hear it. Both questions can be debated infinitely for the simple reason that they have no answer.


More interesting is the fact that modern cooking and modern art are dealing with many of the same problems. It is a question of form and tradition. Have the immense changes of the last 150 years re-written the rules altogether? Do new technologies lead to completely new forms?

Contemporary art has an uneasy relationship to form. Sure, art is all about form. But what materials are we forming, and what are the models and traditions by which we are forming them? The sculptor Richard Serra, for instance, is fascinated by the properties of iron and steel. He recognizes that industrial materials are as much a part of our “natural” world as anything else. Serra loves to experiment with such materials, to find out what they can do and how they make us feel. He accepts the fact that we do not live primarily among plants and earth. We live in a world that has been manufactured, and Serra wants to manipulate the formal properties of that manufactured world. He hurled balls of molten lead at gallery walls and, more recently, twisted sheets of steel into elegant spirals. He was using the matter and the technologies available to persons of our time. He is not trying to represent the natural world — he is trying to create new forms in a post-natural environment in which artifice and nature are inextricably intertwined.

Likewise, Molecular Gastronomy has opened up an immense realm of formal experimentation. These experiments are not limited by the traditional boundaries as to what constitutes food and what you can do to it. Here is Hervé This:

In 2002, I introduced a formalism to describe, in a non-periodical manner, the organization of food space or different foodstuffs. All foods are complex disperse systems, also called “soft matter.” The simplest of these systems — formerly called colloidal — are well known: emulsions, foams, gels and so forth…But food needs more than interfaces to describe it; even a simple sauce such as a béarnaise consists of three phases: solid matter (microscopic egg-yolk aggregate) and a hydrophobic liquid (oil droplets) dispersed in a hydrophilic liquid (water).

Moleculars see this new formalism as an opportunity not as a limitation. In this sense, a chef like Ferran Adrià is not unlike Andy Warhol. Warhol saw popular culture as fecund subject matter for aesthetic experimentation, not as something to be shunned in the name of “real art.” He mashed traditional art forms like portraiture and painting with household commodities and industrial production techniques. Adrià sees the tools of modern food production — the same tools that give us freeze-dried vegetables and Top Ramen — in roughly the same way. Take his Kellogg’s paella, which combines shrimp heads and vanilla-flavored mashed potatoes with Rice Krispies; or (one of his most influential creations) turning simple foods like carrots and popcorn into foam using a soda siphon. These days, everyone who’s anyone will make anything into foam.

“It’s indecent that we cook as people did in the Middle Ages,” Hervé This once said. “They had whisks. They had pans. They had stoves. The microwave is the only really new kitchen tool we’ve had in the past five hundred years. But in the science laboratory ooh-la-la…we have many tools that could do wonderful things in the kitchen.”

In some ways, asking contemporary chefs to cook simply with pots and pans is like asking contemporary musicians to compose only on the piano. Or a viola de gamba. Its not that one can’t still make beautiful music with 88 keys, its just that an 88-key keyboard that can create thousands of sounds including piano sound is pretty damn neat too. And not just neat. It can create aural experiences that positively elude the simple piano.

Grant Achatz has said he enjoys a hot dog as much as the next guy. He’s also generated food properties that no human, up until very recently, could have dreamed of. Harold McGee has called Molecular Gastronomy the “scientific study of deliciousness.” There is something poetic and ephemeral about deliciousness. We don’t want that property to be reduced completely to synapses and chemical reactions. Yet through a better understanding of synapses and chemical reactions, Molecular Gastronomists are creating poetry. • 26 November 2008