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Taking culinary pretension to new heights. March 30, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I’ve been meaning to write about this since I first read about it in the March 5-6 weekend Wall Street Journal, but have been putting it off because, frankly, I didn’t know what to say. But yesterday’s post by our friend and fellow blogger Richard Saunders (“Good news for history-loving gardeners”) finally got me off my duff. If Richard could write about a dozen or so books, surely I could write about one. Even one as outrageous as this.

(Our friend Ben, reading over my shoulder about how I didn’t know what to say, says that this may be the first time I’ve ever lived up to my name. Shut up, Ben.)

The book, or rather books, in question are collectively called Modernist Cuisine, and for only $625 (or $461.62 on Amazon, what a steal!) you can add it/them to your collection. Sound steep? That’s only the beginning. If you have to ask how much it will cost to equip your kitchen like a laboratory so you can make the dishes in Modernist Cuisine or buy the innumerable exotic ingredients, you can’t afford them.

The title is the first hint that this book/set is putting its pretentious face first. Note the use of Modernist versus Modern Cuisine. This brings to mind the Cubists, the avant-garde artists of the early 1900s through 1920s, who reduced portraiture, still lifes, and landscapes to a series of two-dimensional geometric interfaces. What geometry was to the Cubists, chemistry is to Modernist Cuisine. The Cubists finished the work the Impressionists had started, freeing art from its long connection to literal depiction. But though many artists of the time, including Picasso and Braque, dabbled in Cubism, they ultimately moved on. Nonetheless, it was worshipped by the edgy collectors of the day, defining them as fast and trendy, not stodgy like their rival collectors who just weren’t “with it,” and still provides subject matter to students of art history.

I have no problem with Cubism. I’d rather own a Leonardo, Vermeer, or Durer, or a Fra Angelico or Giotto, or a Van Dyke or Holbein, or a Modigliani, Klee, or Magritte, or an El Malek or Demuth. But should someone choose to bestow a Cubist painting (or, for that matter, a copy of Modernist Cuisine) on me, it’s not like I’d scream and run. Far better Cubism than the ultra-realism that transforms paintings into what looks like revolting copies of photographs, not unlike those dingy, horrendous photographs of food displayed over the counter at low-end Chinese restaurants. But I can’t help but hope that “modernist” cuisine, like Cubism, ultimately proves to be a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Getting back to the book(s) themselves, let me quote from the product description on Amazon: “In Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet… have created a six-volume, 2400-page set that reveals science-inspired techniques for preparing food… [and] have achieved astounding new flavors and textures by using new tools such as water baths, homogenizers, centrifuges, and ingredients such as hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, and enzymes… Imagine being able to encase a mussel in a gelled sphere of its own sweet and briny juice… including hundreds of parametric recipes… Extensive chapters on how to achieve amazing results by using modern thickeners, gels, emulsions, and foams…”

One Amazon reviewer, who loved the book/set, summed up my feelings best by saying “Probably the most relevant criticism I have encountered is the notion that the recipes it presents are unapproachable.” Noooo. How could you say that?

Well, let’s try the recipe selected by the reviewer in the Wall Street Journal just for starters: a cheeseburger. Now, cheeseburgers don’t strike most burger aficionados as especially expensive or challenging, whether you’re buying yours at Mickey D’s or making them at home. Little did you know! Here’s what lead Modernist Cuisine author and former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myrhvold and his team can do to your basic burger:

“Prepping the lettuce and tomato requires a vacuum sealer. The cheese is restructured—heated with ingredients like carrageenan and cooled in a mold—for a gooier texture. And making the burger itself requires hand-grinding the beef and using half-cylinder molds to catch the strands and gently form the patties. Total time for the recipe: 30 hours, including time for the bun dough to rise…”

This description literally just scratches the surface. Check out the article, “Making a 21st-Century Hamburger,” at www.wsj.com to see the extraordinary photo of the deconstructed cheeseburger and the callouts of all the steps involved for each ingredient. Just as an example: “Tomato: Specifically, a large beefsteak tomato, quickly blanched, peeled, cut into slices and briefly vacuum sealed.” The lettuce is also vacuum-sealed in plastic, the Holy Grail of modernist cuisine, a technique called sous vide. (“Sous” means “under” in French, “vide” means “empty,” but the phrase has come to mean “under vacuum” when applied to cooking.)

As the WSJ article says, “Many of the recipes involve sous vide cooking (in which ingredients are sealed in airtight plastic bags and slowly cooked, often in water), and the book’s list of ‘must-have’ tools includes liquid nitrogen, a centrifuge and a tabletop homogenizer.”

Now, as someone concerned about the proliferation of carcinogens, I’ve noted with alarm the trend in today’s grocery freezer cases towards boil-in-bag and microwave-in-bag products. I’d rather just boil the veggies in a pot and avoid consuming molecules of plastic that have migrated into my supper (or consuming microwaved food, for that matter), thank you. The sous vide technique sounds suspiciously similar to these so-called “convenience products,” except for the price: It costs $469 on sale (down from list price of $548.97) for a sous vide setup, including the special “water oven,” vacuum sealer, plastic vacuum pouches, and stainless steel pouch rack.

Okay, I’m a self-proclaimed Luddite. Though I hate the preciousness of the phrase “slow food” (coined in opposition to “fast food”), I entirely agree with its principles: Good food takes as much time as it takes, and rushing it with chemical, plastic, mass-produced, adulterated, tasteless shortcuts destroys not just the flavor, texture, appearance, and nutritional value of the food, but the pleasure one gets from preparing it. Apparently—given that 30-hour cheeseburger—the proponents of modernist cuisine and the slow foodists have at least one common ground. Those from-scratch hamburger buns point to other areas of commonality, as well.

Modernist cuisine (formerly called molecular gastronomy, making the connection of chemistry and cooking in its approach more apparent) has been pioneered and/or embraced by some of the foremost chefs of our day, including the man many regard as the foremost chef of our time, Ferran Adria of elBulli fame. I have not sampled the fabled fare at elBulli, or consumed one sous vide-prepared product (or boil/microwave-in-bag product either, for that matter). Perhaps chemically adulterated, vacuum-cooked food really is the greatest thing since, well, vacuum cleaners.

But frankly, I hate vacuum cleaners. I hate anything that requires noise to do what you could do in silence (such as, say, sweep). No doubt science enthusiasts will embrace modernist cuisine with the same enthusiasm with which they adapted the scientific approach to breadmaking detailed in books such as The Bread Builders. Modernist Cuisine, the book set (which is universally described as having six books but very prominently shows five cased volumes plus a spiral-bound booklet in every depiction), with its lab-rat approach and astonishing deconstructionist photographs, will have chemistry and art majors drooling. For my part, please keep your pretensions and your gloved, sterile, lab-friendly, elitist approach out of my kitchen. I have better things to do with $625. And what, exactly, are “parametric recipes,” anyway?!

            ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

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