Futurist cooking: was molecular gastronomy invented in the 1930s?

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th April 2014
He dreamt up dishes like ‘Candied Atmospheric Electricities’, brilliantly-coloured bars of marbled soup, filled with sweet cream; or ‘Diablolical Roses’, red roses battered and deep fried. He had guests eat with one hand while feeling different textures of sandpaper, violet and silk with the other. He would have waiters spray diners with scents between courses and used an arsenal of scientific devices in his kitchen like ozonisers, electrolysers and centrifugal autoclaves. But who was this eccentric, risqué and thoroughly modern chef? Heston Blumenthal? Ferran Adria? One of the Roca brothers perhaps? None of the above. In fact he was born in 1876 and developed his ‘Futurist cooking’ in 1930’s Italy. The man responsible was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti an artist and poet and the founder of a movement called Futurism. Futurism was an artistic, philosophical and political movement which looked to the future and embraced science, technology and mechanisation in all areas of life including food and dining. In 1932 Marinetti published ‘The Futurist Cookbook’ and went on to open his Futurist restaurant, ‘La Taverna del Santopalato’ or ‘Tavern of the Holy Palette’. In terms of playful humour and downright weirdness, Marinetti’s cuisine utterly outdid anything that Heston or the molecular gastronomists have dreamt up.  His dish of two half spheres of almond paste topped with strawberries and sprinkled with black pepper was titled ‘Italian Breasts in the Sunshine’. Another dish, ‘Chicken Fiat’, consisted of a chicken roasted with a handful of ball bearings and served with whipped cream (try getting that one past the restaurant inspectors). The ‘Aerofood’ meal where diners stroked different textures with one hand while eating was also accompanied by guests being blasted by a giant aeroplane propeller to the strains of a Wagner opera. And at the Tavern of the Holy Palette he would hold special ‘tactile dinners’ where guests wore pyjamas of varying materials such as cork, sponge, felt or sandpaper. They were taken to an unlit room where they chose a dining partner according to tactile impression; they then entered the dining room where they ate a ‘Polyrhythmic Salad’ by turning the crank on a box of mixed salad items with one hand as waiters danced to accompanying music. Weirdness aside however, a lot of Futurist cuisine was way ahead of its time and prefigures modern gastronomic ideas with eerie precision. First there was the use of scents and aromas to accentuate the dining experience – in the ‘Aerofood’ meal, for example, waiters would spray guests with the scent of carnations. Then there was the engagement of other senses, most notably those of touch and sight. Indeed the visual impact of Futurist meals was regarded as being equally important as the dining experience and many of the dishes were treated as ‘sculptures’. There was also the huge influence of science and technology, creating a molecular gastronomy more than half a century ahead of its time. Ultra violet lamps were used to activate vitamins in the food; electrolysers to decompose juices and extracts; and ozonisers to instil the smell of ozone. There was even a prefiguring of the modern anti-carb health fad; Marinetti hated pasta and banned the Italian staple from Futurist cuisine declaring it made people “heavy” and “brutish”. More than anything it was the use of all these different techniques and ideas to constantly refresh the mind and palette of the diner that made Marinetti’s cuisine so thoroughly ahead of its time, possibly even our own. Marinetti understood that taste and smell were chemical senses that became dulled quickly and he used all kinds of tricks to refresh them or maintain ‘gustatory virginity’ as he put it. Thus a suction fan would draw the aroma of the previous course out of the room before the next arrived; lighting and room temperature would be periodically changed to keep people’s senses sharp; diners would be suddenly asked to change places with each other and everyday items were presented in new and surprising ways like blue wine, orange milk and red mineral water. Indeed the introduction to The Futurist Cookbook could have been written by Heston himself calling for a new form of cooking revolutionised with “brand-new food combinations in which experiment, intelligence and imagination will economically take the place of quantity, banality, repetition and expense.” The Cookbook went on to present the requirements for an ideal Futurist meal including originality and harmony in table settings; absolute originality in the food; the abolition of knives and forks and the use of scents, senses and science. Unfortunately this is where the similarities with Heston end. Marinetti was a confirmed fascist and an active supporter of Mussolini. Apart from its many progressive aspects Futurism also espoused violence and inequality, declaring: “Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.” And: “We will glorify war—the world's only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman." He even fought a sword duel with a journalist who he considered too critical, receiving a wound in the process. He died in 1944 of a heart attack taking the Futurist movement with him. Perhaps he should have stuck to cooking. His legacy in that field proved to be far more perceptive and far-reaching. Marinetti can still teach us things today, particularly young chefs seeking to go their own way and do something ‘new’ and ‘original’ or maybe not so original. Indeed Marinetti is living proof that everything, even molecular gastronomy, has been done before. So don’t worry about the past, just go ahead and do it, even if it does seem whacky and outrageous. You can take consolation in the fact that whatever you do with spheres, powders, gels or foams, it just doesn’t come close to having your diners bury their heads in a bowl of raw and cooked vegetables with waiters spraying perfume in their faces every time they raise their heads to chew…   Photographs courtesy of Brain Pickings

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th April 2014

Futurist cooking: was molecular gastronomy invented in the 1930s?