Monday, November 12, 2012

Food Porn - Molecular Gastronomy

The whole Molecular Gastronomy movement has always made me a bit uneasy, and I wasn't exactly sure why.

For a while I thought it might be the reliance on technology that it encourages.  After all, having spent the last decade or so with my head stuck in the techniques of pre-16th century cooking must have conditioned me towards a more low-tech approach.  But then again, aside from being a medieval food geek, I'm also a science-fiction geek.  I love futuristic stuff, and that includes the depictions of food in movies and novels about possible (or impossible) futures.

More recently I began to suspect it had something to do with the chefs.  They tend to be flamboyant and egotistical, with an attitude that seems to be screaming "THIS IS MY ART, AND AS SUCH IT IS BEYOND CONTESTATION!"  However I have spent an awful lot of time around the highbrow artsy crowd, and I'm pretty comfortable with the fact that art can be quirky, controversial, impractical, and sometimes even downright incomprehensible, and as the art goes so does the artist.

Then a friend (Hi Broom!) posted a link to this video, and another possibility occurred to me.  Go ahead and watch it - it's a bit long (over 8 minutes) but it's fascinating and the music is soothing and pretty.

What I realized is that in this particular ... food product, and pretty much in all of the Molecular Gastronomy movement, it's all about the art.  The cook's cleverness, the use of unusual tools and technology, and unconventional form are all so important that the fact that it's food is almost irrelevant.  There seems to be no concern about whether it will taste nice or be pleasant to eat, or if it has any nutritional value whatsoever.

Compare this to another cooking tradition from the same country: sushi.

Here the presentation is very important, but the food aspects (flavor, nutrition, etc.) are still at the center.  Novelty is desirable, but it's not the only thing that is being supplied.

Really, it's the old argument of form and function.  Function without form is utilitarian, ugly, and dull.  Form without function is just fluff, pointless and useless.

To tie this back to medieval cooking, I feel it's worth remembering that artful food can be produced with surprisingly little in the way of technology.  Throughout most of history, cooks used very simple tools to produce surprisingly complicated and elegant works of art.

In the 17th century painting above, there are two pies that are beautiful examples of the cook's art.  The smaller one, just to the lower left of center, is a traditional straight-walled pie, carefully prepared and filled with all sorts of good things to eat.  In the background on the left is a huge turkey pie, it's sides covered with intricate fine detail, and topped with the stuffed skin of the turkey.

Perhaps I'd feel better about Molecular Gastronomy if I stopped thinking about it as food entirely and reframed it in my mind as only being art - edible art, but art nonetheless.  After all, they did have non-edible food art in medieval Europe.  Medieval cooks would often sculpt plates and goblets out of sugar paste, and then decorate them with limner's paints that were known at the time to be toxic.

The more things change ...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

La Maison Rustique - November

From: L'agriculture et maison rustique, Charles Estienne (Rouen, 1658).

The works that the laborer should do for each month of the year.

(Chapter 10)



In November put your wine in the cellar, gather the acorns to feed the pigs.

Collect the chestnuts, and the fruits of the gardins which are ready to keep.

Pull up the turnips from the earth, despoil them of their leaves, and put them under the sand to protect them from the frost.

Warm up the artichokes, and cover them well, so that the frost does not assail them.

Make the oils, make hives for the bees, panniers [bread baskets], frails [baskets made from rushes], and wicker baskets for birds.

Cut willow branches for the trellis, and bind the vines, draw the poles of the vines.