For an assignment in college, I wrote a review of Rowan Jacobsen’s American Terroir, a readable and informative, if stylistically flawed, argument for the application of the eponymous French notion to American soil. Borrowing from the format of Pollan’s Botany of Desire, Jacobsen walks us through a selection of American foods and agricultural products (Avocados from Michoacan, Yakima Valley apples, Puget sound oysters…Puget Sound?! Get the fuck out of here with that polluted backwater, Willapa bay or die!) and explains the geological, meteorological, hydrological, ecological, and whatever other logical contributes to the product’s individual distinction. It really is a good piece of pop-scientific nonfiction, kind of my favorite genre.
Anyway, this professor, a fancy nonfiction writer of numerous books on somewhat sciencey subjects took exception to this passage in my piece:
The facts, concepts and philosophies woven throughout the book defend Jacobsen’s baldly staked positions on various contemporary culinary controversies. Jacobsen states his distaste for “molecular gastronomy,” the branch of contemporary culinary culture that employs the methods of the laboratory in the kitchen, early in the book: “I have no interest in this food” (15). It’s a popular position to take, but Jacobsen illuminates his position with a visit to Les Jardins Sauvages outside of Montreal where the focus is on Cuisine Sauvage: cooking with the produce of forest and fallow. The proprietor, Francois Brouillard would, “when he was five dehydrate grasshoppers on the woodstove, steal his mother’s rolling pin, and crush them to make a crust for the fish he’d caught in the river” (119). The techniques are inventive, creative, totally original, but low-tech and therefore, accessible. Jacobsen takes a swipe at Hervé This, the “father of molecular gastronomy” for “taking paint sprayers to innocent pieces of goat cheese” (124). Perhaps Jacobsen would find more to love about This if he’d read chapter 59 of Molecular Gastonomy in which he explains the empirical truths behind le terroir in cheese-making (203).
Regardless, Jacobsen’s culinary worldview is more aligned with that of Nancy Hinton, Brouillard’s wife and chef de cuisine, who has been creating a new type of cuisine completely outside of the conventional paradigm using not high-tech gadgetry or food-as-theatre pyrotechnics, but an artist’s intuition. Specifically, she and Brouillard forage their own ingredients to create such oddities as Cattail stock, desert courses seasoned with dried mushrooms, and pureés enriched with pigweed.
This is not to say that Jacobsen sees no place for manipulation or scientific inquiry in the realm of culinary arts, indeed his introductory explanation of the chemistry of taste makes clear that he appreciates an empirical approach, but that the “molecular gastronomic” approach to cooking follows in a certain tradition. Jacobsen traces that tradition to Antoine Carême “France’s ‘King of Chefs and Chef of Kings’” (14). The problem with this type of cooking, not to suggest that the world would be richer or more equal without it, is that it relies on a heavy battery of specialized equipment to produce highly manipulated and deconstructed food whose object is not necessarily to be satisfying or even delicious, but rarified. It takes power away from the ingredients themselves, and the common people who might be inspired by them, and invests it wholly in the engineer, or chef, or technician.
Now aside from noting how much better of a writer I was in college, you can see where I take Jacobsen’s side in the molecular gastronomy vs. traditional technique “debate,” while still granting that these molecular gastronomists might have something to teach us about the raw ingredient. Actually, I added that little sentence defending Hervé This after I got back the first draft from my professor on which he had scrawled “anti-intellectual” (in the context of a sentence) in regards to this passage. Yes, my professor suggested that criticism of techno-cuisine is tantamount to a thoughtless, knuckle-dragging, celebration of ignorance.
Obviously, this sticks in my craw (and a craw is not a claw, or a paw, or the space between your cat’s paw and claw like it sounds— it’s a bird’s esophageal digestive organ, the crop, the throat) and informs a lot of what I write and think about today. From my piece on letterpress, to my interviews with woodworkers using traditional techniques and materials to build restaurant wood surfaces, to my crazed ranting about Soylent, I’m fascinated with the tension between the traditional and the technological, the hand-crafted vs. the computer engineered, the analog and the binary. This isn’t to suggest that there’s a clear “choice” to be made between these “poles”, or even that there is a polar dichotomy to choose between. But I’m sure you can intuit what I’m getting at here, if you really want to, that is.
My professor, like a lot of modern people, conflates what I see as a slew of independent concepts into a monolith called Intellect, or Science, or Progress, or something like that, and it pisses me the fuck off. First, if we can’t decouple science from technology, then to criticize a technology is to criticize not just the science that makes the technology possible, but science itself. Case in point: Genetically modified crops. Scientific American and other scientific publications have been on a hot tear in defense of GMO’s. And I understand their concern since a lot of people who are critical of GMO’s see the entire technology as not just fundamentally flawed, but actually evil. These opponents throw the technology and the science together into the same large bag and set it ideologically aflame, while the science and technology establishment stand at the top of the mount and thunder down: “You Fools! I give you fire, and you drown it as thoughtlessly as you would a kitten!” This is unproductive since, in my opinion, the technology has primarily been deployed as a wealth generation machine for agribusiness, but holds promise for medicine and agriculture on a warming planet (disease resistance, drought resistance, etc….) However, we can’t really control what the technology is used for once it’s deployed; the market (and to a lesser extent the unelected bureaucracy) makes those decisions for us. So I say, label it. If the genetics are sufficiently novel to get market protection in the form of a patent, then they are sufficiently novel to handle market scrutiny. These are big kid genetics. Not because I think BT soybeans are poisonous or something, but because that’s the only control any of us can hope to have over the deployment of new technologies which purportedly exist to serve us, but which are actually deployed to make us serve their real masters: the people with the capital to build and own them. (And yes, I realize that these technologies are older than cell phones at this point, but agribusiness has been fighting these efforts tooth and nail for decades now.)
See what I did there? I used principals derived from a wide body of human study and interest to make a decision regarding the regulation of a technology, without attacking the science behind the technology. Nifty huh?
But what about that molecular gastronomy? That stuff, by definition, exists to serve people tasty food, right? Sure, it’s just harmless experimentation, “playing with food” as it were. But what much of it really does is to trade skills for equipment. For example: Water circulators (and this is not a knock on you guys who have them. I love you guys! Thanks for reading!) pretty much cook the food for you. Seal the food in an airtight pouch with a vacuum-sealing machine, set the circulator for the temperature of optimal doneness, drop it in, and forgettaboutit. Sure beats spending years sweating over the stove learning to cook the product at the exact right temperature (as determined by how quickly it burns your hand), how long to rest after cooking and in what medium, and how to determine doneness by sight and touch. All that skill, all that accumulated intuition, gets reduced to a button. I feel the same way about Traegers. Still, your Traeger brisket generally looks like a pasty white-boy approximation of what a Kansas City pitmaster moving meat around on pikes in a room-size brick oven turns out. It tastes good, sure. But, (and this is where I digress into all sorts of squishy, subjective feelings and stuff) it lacks soul. And soul, as far as I’m concerned, resides entirely in the burnt ends.
As for the rest of it, it confounds criticism. It stands so far apart from what we recognize as food that it becomes impossible to place value judgements on it. I cannot say whether this lichen-smoke puff or nitro-frozen olive oil slick is well executed because, what the fuck am I going to judge it against? And that’s fine, because if these foods stick around long enough to become established parts of mainstream cuisine, we’ll eventually establish benchmarks to judge them by. (“Oh, this seaweed and uni foam has way too much…mass. It coats the palate almost like… sustenance.”) And when these foams and nitro-freezes and vapors and ethers become as common as french fries, were all gonna need some new cooking equipment. And bigger kitchens. Because nearly every new technology plays the same game: comes on as a harmless little amusement or a productivity-enhancing tool, quickly progresses to indispensable for the responsible worker-citizen, and eventually slays everyone who doesn’t adopt it. Technology is an insinuating little bully like that, so stop treating it like a sacrosanct institution: Technology will smite all it’s enemies in due time. Technology can take care of itself.