Modernism in Cooking: New Directions

High science has established its place in contemporary cooking.  John Lanchester has written an excellent piece about it in the March 21, 2011, New Yorker, (pp. 64-68.)  He calls it “Incredible Edibles:  The Mad Genius of ‘Modernist Cuisine.’”

Lanchester starts with “sous vide” cooking.  Sous vide is when you put the food in a plastic bag, withdraw all the air, put it in a warm temperature controlled bath, and cook it for many hours to the exact temperature you wish.  He claims the results are extraordinary, and he reviews some of the leading proponents of it, such as David Chang (Momofuku) and Nathan Myhrvold (Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.)   The latter book is a huge compendium of sous vide and other high science based approaches to cooking, both for the public and, for those fortunate to have the money and equipment, for the home.

Lanchester then traces the work of other chefs like Ferran Adria in Catalonia and Heston Blumenthal.  What we see is the effort to understand the chemistry and physics of diverse approaches and their extrapolation to exoticness, such as desserts which are cool on one side and warm on the other.  Modernist cooking is differentiated from “traditional” cooking, the New International a la Thomas Keller and Alice Waters.

In the course of his discussion, Lanchester shares nuggets of cooking strategies he has gained from his discussion. One important trick is to keep flipping a steak every fifteen seconds and it will cook faster.  He also shares factoid tidbits that have significant taste and cultural implications. “Water boils at a cooler temperature in Mexico City—twelve degrees Fahrenheit cooler—owing to higher altitude and lower air pressure….the New York oven is seven degrees hotter, and after three hours is ahead by eleven degrees.  That is a complicated matrix of differences for cooks to manage.”

In addition, Lanchester tells us about his own home experiments with modernist cooking and says that it is quite possible to do, provided you have the equipment, time and patience.  He sees a great future for modernist cooking: “…it proposes all kinds of new possibilities beyond familiar sensation and familiar language; food that is, to some deliberate extent, uncomforting.”  I think his review is worth reading for the directions it suggests and the possibilities it offers.  I would like to be able to try some of the recipes from the books he mentions—he has whet my appetite!

Comments by Richard Zimmer

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Filed under anthropology, publications, reviews

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