The Gastronomer: What if one futurist had made his ideas more delicious?

March 29, 2011

Imagine this dining experience: The guests are dressed in pajamas made of various materials, “such as sponge, cork, sandpaper, felt, aluminum sheeting, bristles, steel wool, cardboard, silk, velvet, etc.” They are led into a dark room, where they have to choose dinner partners according to their tactile preferences. Then food is served. Some of it must be eaten without using hands, but with faces buried in plates of vegetables; other parts of the meal consist of identical-looking balls containing wildly different ingredients: raw meat, banana, peppers. There is music, dancing, spraying of cologne, and then more unusual food. All the while, “the guests must let their fingertips feast uninterruptedly on their neighbor’s pajamas.”

Is this theater? Performance art? A prank? All of the above. Its creator, the Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, imagined and described it as “A Tactile Dinner Party” in his 1932 “Futurist Cookbook.”

Why was there never a revolution in cooking as there was in art, architecture, music and literature? Picasso, Le Corbusier, Joyce, Beckett and Schoenberg attacked every temple, challenged the authorities, mocked the bourgeoisie, questioned the value of history and called for a new aesthetic world order in which the boundaries between art and life would no longer exist.

Yet they never thought to include food — or its finer cousin, gastronomy — in the movement. In fact, according to tech visionary and cookbook author Nathan Myhrvold, the inventive playfulness of such 21st-century chefs as Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz marks the first time the creative force of modernism has entered the kitchen and dining room. That’s one of the reasons Myhrvold says he named his newly published tome “Modernist Cuisine.”

I beg to differ. There has been at least one serious — and nearly fatal — attempt to introduce what we might term “modernism” to cooking. The problem is, it wasn’t very successful. But had the world listened to the lone, mad voice of Marinetti, the way we eat might have changed dramatically, and today’s avant-garde cooks would be considered derriere-garde traditionalists at best.

Marinetti was the leader of the Italian futurists, a poet and demagogue closely associated with the ruling fascists but often in conflict with them. (He criticized them for being too traditional and for their anti-Semitism.) He is best remembered for his many manifestos calling for a break with the past. One of his most memorable and controversial was the “Manifesto Against Past-Loving Venice,” wherein he suggested that the “small, stinking canals” of Venice be “filled with the rubble of the past” and paved over and that it be rebuilt as a modern militarized and industrialized city.

His venture into gastronomy started in 1926, when in another manifesto he called for a ban on pasta, describing it as “an absurd Italian gastronomic religion.” The favorite food of Italians, Marinetti claimed, made them lazy, tradition-bound and pacifist. He was met with massive protests. Petitions were signed. Housewives took to the streets. An enraged nationalistic journalist even challenged Marinetti to a duel. Marinetti accepted and — as happened so often in his colorful career — lost. He was gravely injured.

Marinetti’s many stunts made him famous, but they are also why he was seldom taken seriously. Today he is an obscure figure, even in Italy. But when I read “Futurist Cookbook,” I have little doubt he was on to something. Many of his ideas have since become commonplace. His proposal to make a cuisine that consisted of lighter sauces, bite-size dishes and “a consistent lightening of weight and reduction of volume of food-stuffs” is pretty uncontroversial, even though it sounded strange at the time.

Other ideas have an uncanny similarity to what is happening at the frontline of creative cuisine today. A recurring theme in Marinetti’s work, for instance, is the participation of all senses while dining, as illustrated by “A Tactile Dinner Party.” In another futurist meal idea, a house is built on a tongue of land between ocean and lake, and the smells from the sea, the lake and a nearby barn all contribute to the experience. Several other meals involve scent or music. When Blumenthal at the Fat Duck asks a diner to don headphones and listen to the sound of the sea while eating an oyster, he clearly has entered some of the same territory.

Similarly, Marinetti’s chapter “Invitation to Chemistry” has been answered by today’s modernist cooks, who are both lauded and criticized for being technology-focused and for using texture- and flavor-altering chemical compounds in their food. Playing with the shape and the appearance of the food is pretty commonplace today. At El Bulli, I was once served a dish consisting of two perfectly simple raw razor clams, one real and one faux. Playing with the diner’s expectations is also one of the ideas behind my futurist-inspired recipe for an orange-colored, orange-smelling dish that doesn’t actually contain orange (see recipe, Page E6).

When I talked with Myhrvold, the ideologue of the 21st-century modernists, in connection with the launch of “Modernist Cuisine,” he expressed many of the same grievances with the conservatism of Italian cuisine that Marinetti did more than 80 years ago. “I have never quite understood why Italians keep talking about their grandmothers all the time,” he said. “When someone says that they cook just like their grandmother did, does that mean that no one had a creative thought in two generations?”

But Myhrvold denied that Marinetti was truly an early modernist, describing his project as a prank above all else. “To me, what is going on in cooking today is art at a very high level,” Myhrvold said. “What Marinetti and his gang were doing is more like college kids who have a wild party and eat all the goldfish. They do it to shock. That’s it.“

Indeed, I came across Marinetti in my university days, and I was fascinated by the wildness of his ideas and the fun he had. Nothing was as it should be. We arranged futurist dinners where we cooked impossible dishes and broke many rules — and some furniture, too. Had there been goldfish around, I am sure they would have become a part of the setup.

But reading him today, I am just as intrigued. His ideas seem to be more than mere pranks, and I find it interesting to see how many of them have been adopted.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Marinetti was that he was so alone in his quest for a new cuisine. In his group there were other eccentric poets and artists, but the movement did not have any real cooks. And while I remain amused by him, I wish that his — and his companions’ — recipes were a little more accomplished, that the food tasted better. The futurists had no lack of ideas, but there was no Picasso or Blumenthal to translate them into something that was not just interesting but also wonderful.

The difference between the great modernists and Marinetti is that he saw the future but couldn’t manage to make it happen. His inability to render his ideas appetizing makes him a minor modernist at best, and who knows? It might even have postponed culinary modernism for nearly 80 years.

Recipes

Scallops Under an Orange Sky

Fried Rice Balls

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