by Richard Kaminski
The Futurist artistic movement founded by F.T. Marinetti in the early 1900s was surprisingly controversial and influential, despite its existence almost as a footnote in modern art history. Futurism began as a literary movement, but expanded outward into painting and sculpture, architecture, fashion, and performance, laying bare its hatred of and frustration with a culture clinging to the dregs of the past. Perhaps one of its most quixotic features was its views on and treatment of the culinary arts. Within The Futurist Cookbook (originally published circa 1930-1932), Marinetti and other Futurists launched both a critique and practical joke on chefs’ and diners’ understandings of food. Unfortunately, this endeavor was not as monumentally successful as hoped. However, revisiting the work is illuminating. This manifesto works as a guidebook of sorts for the modernist cuisine of today and, as such, provides an interesting way to understand the often difficult and divisive works of such chefs as Ferrán Adrià, Grant Achatz, and René Redzepi and the shifting culinary landscape.
For Marinetti, cuisine is artwork and should be treated as such. Therefore, constant innovation and experimentation are integral parts of making good food, regardless of the success of every individual meal. Futurist cuisine called for the paring down or building up (as needed for effect) of ingredients beyond the conventions of the time. Unconventional flavors were paired to delight the tongue with unexpected contradictions. Meat and pastry were piled onto and within one another as tall as possible, then baked and covered with honey and brought out in magnificent manner (Marinetti 2014: 37-38; 193). To fully appreciate the artwork, forks and knives were removed from the table and food was grasped and pulled apart by hand (Marinetti 2014: 38). Every sense was involved in the meal. The texture of the food was integral for whetting one’s appetite, while the selected music or the noise of trumpets and engines were invigorations between bites, jarring diners between the internal process of smell and taste and the intrusion of trumpet blasts meant to disrupt the reverie before we retreated too far inside ourselves (Marinetti 2014: 38-39; 137-138; 166-169). . Beyond the scent of the food itself, Marinetti required perfumes to be sprayed into the air between and during some courses, meant as counterpoints and enhancements to the consumption (ibid.). Doing away with the perfumers, chefs like Grant Achatz at Alinea have devised their own ways of slowly releasing very specific scents through a course in order to enhance appetite and call forth very specific experiences and sensations (Spinning Plates 2012).
Reading through the cookbook, it’s not uncommon to read recipes that take one aback because of their bizarre flavors and downright unappetizing descriptions. And nowadays, going through any hip menu pairing kim chi and truffles with mango and melon can have the same effect. But then as now, that was the point. Flavor is often sacrificed for inventiveness and the courage to push the envelope beyond what one would think to eat, if only to puzzle the diner and evoke feelings and questions that would have otherwise been lain dormant.
Similarly, Futurist cuisine places great focus on the design and atmosphere of the restaurant or banquet hall, believing that where one eats is just as important to a full appreciation on a meal as what the diners are eating. Some of these specifications are relatively simple, such as requiring Futurist artwork to be present for the meal (although the emphasis given to this artwork varied—Prampolini was commissioned to paint panels to decorate the Il Padiglione in Paris while contemplating Boccioni’s masterful The Football Player [more popularly known as Dynamism of a Soccer Player] was integral for Summer Luncheon for Painters and Sculptors). Restaurants were crafted down to the millimeter. Every building material and facet of lighting were considered, with some meals requiring constantly shifting lighting and windows opened at specific times in order to enhance the individual immersion (see “The Great Futurist Banquets” in Marinetti 2014: 75-131; specifically discussions of the HOLY PALATE restaurant). Modern restaurants reflect this concern. Alinea in Chicago is designed so that diners pass the kitchen on their way to the restaurant (Spinning Plates 2012). Wood is used to help evoke a warm and inviting atmosphere while other restaurants are disarmingly sparse and minimal so in order not to distract from the meal at hand. This continual concern that the area outside the food could impact the depth of experience within the meal was of utmost concern to the Futurists and is a philosophy that modern chefs owe to the group, whether they realize it or not.
Other locations are rather constraining. Ideally, several aerodinners would take place in an airplane, some 3,000 feet above in the atmosphere, where the engines were believed to invigorate the appetite and tantalize the palate. Warm meat was a luxury for these meals, with Marinetti believing the rapid loss of heat was to be expected and a willing sacrifice for such a unique locale (Marinetti 2014: 166-169).
This prophecy of extravagant meals is coming true to some degree. Top-tier airlines are hiring Michelin starred private chefs to design menus for their business and first class passengers, crafting meals that may be better than what some people eat on the ground. However, this is still not far enough. With the emerging importance of gourmet food on planes for those willing to pay for it, it should be possible to do a true Futurist aerodinner. Ideally, this experience will be coordinated with an Italian airline, but unfortunately, it appears that Marinetti’s hopes for a new Italian focus on the present and disregard for ancient history have yet to take hold. The relics of dead masters are still revered and a general unwillingness to forge a strong contemporary identity holds strong, so an Italian curated aerodinner will probably not happen and we may have to look outward to satisfy one of the Futurist dreams.
Perhaps the strongest, and at the time, most controversial section of Marinetti’s manifesto of a new Italian cuisine was his disdain for the “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” (2014: 34) of pastasciutta. Pasta required more energy to digest and break down. It bloated its eaters, breeding “lassitude, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism” (ibid.) instead of vigor, life, and courage, the ideals of Marinetti’s new Italy. Undoubtedly, the Futurist disdain for macaroni and spaghetti had some of its roots in their distaste for all things traditional and established, but Marinetti also cited more health- and nutrition-based reasons for this antipathy. Pastasciutta was significantly less nutritious and efficient than other foods (at least according to Futurist doctors). However, regardless of the veracity of these claims, similar ideas can be seen echoed in more contemporary diet crazes and views. Carbs, with pasta and breads as the main culprits, were declared the enemy in the wildly popular Atkins Diet, a tendency that exists in the guise of other high-proten/low-carb diets. There are moral panics over “wheat belly” and “gluten free” has become an empty proxy for “healthy” and “good for you,” regardless of what science may say. These diet crazes are jumping on the belief that what you put inside your body is directly relatable to your actions and moral character, an ideology that did not begin with Marinetti, but one that he spread with particular gusto and with the belief that his thoughts could drastically change and improve the well-being of Italy and help facilitate a new culture unrivaled in its inventiveness.
A thorny area is the marked difference between “local” and “traditional” influences in this branch of cuisine. A favorite meal of Ferrán Adrià’s is fresh Catalan prawns ate at a small eatery in Roses, Spain. He claims that his work is an attempt to reach, through different means, the perfection he finds in this simple meal (Bourdain 2007: 210). Chef José Adrés cites that the products of elBulli are directly related to traditional Spanish and Catalan culinary traditions (Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations 2011). ElBulli was inventive, but firmly rooted in traditional Spanish cuisine, flavors, and ingredients. Even at the Adrià’s other restaurants, it is not uncommon for familiar or traditional flavors to be reached by more oblique means (although some of Ferran’s most well known preparations, such as his “spherified olive” do succeed in producing a completely unique culinary experience). Marinetti wants all foods to break out of the bounds of “tradition” and how thing are done. For him, local ingredients (local being loosely defined as he allowed Futurists to source ingredients from Italian posts in Africa) should be the starting point for completely new meals and food, specifically designed to not just complicate but eschew expectations of what Italian cooking means. In this regard, Denmark’s noma may be closer to Marinetti’s ideal. Here, the focus on foraging and small farms for ingredients exists with a slightly more stark departure from Nordic cuisine as a tradition (see also Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown 2013). Futurist cuisine felt the local should supersede traditional whenever possible and should emphasize pushing culinary expectations and experience into completely unfamiliar territories (for his discussion on “xenomania” and cuisine, see Marinetti 2014: 67-74).
The recent creation of the hyper-nutritious Soylent was an odd touch point for culinary history, causing journalists to question how we perceive food and nutrition. Designed by a computer engineer, Soylent is a powder designed to deliver all of a person’s required calories and nutrients in a few smoothies, potentially eliminating the need to eat food as we currently understand it. In a Vice documentary on the product, Soylent’s creator Rob Rhinehart shared that the intention of Soylent is not to completely replace organic food, but instead to divorce it from its nutrient requirements. Sharing how much he loves a ripe tomato, he discusses how the wide adoption of Soylent will allow more traditional meals to be greater appreciated as events without the need for concern about whether we are also receiving complete and proper nutrition from what we eat.
This idea was first discussed about a century earlier. Marinetti prophesized that in an ideal world, Futurist cuisine would exist alongside a pill or powder designed specifically for nutrition. This supplement would be distributed to all people by the Italian state, ensuring their continued health and survival (Marinetti 2014: 93). For the Futurists, then, Futurist cuisine would be the first concerted effort to create a theory of food separate from nutritional value. They would paint meals as an artistic and aesthetic experience first and foremost. As such, ideas of balance and restraint would be done away with and food could more readily join in to the general Futurist plan of embedding art more readily into everyday experience where its excess and inventiveness will propel society into the unknown future where even more avant-garde artwork and culture can be created and used to decimate life as we know it.
What does this all mean, though? While I have convincingly traced the roots of modern boundary-pushing cuisine to an early Italian avant-garde movement, why should we care? What does this tell us about how we live now? It is common knowledge that one of the best ways to learn about people is to look at the rites and rituals around their food and meals. But that method is more reflective. It tells us about their history and how there were as a people. Very rarely does it tells us how they are at present and almost never how they may one day be. That is what Futurist cuisine hoped to achieve and what the very best of modernist cuisine successfully does. It illustrates the potential of human innovation and traces the possibilities of cultural growth and advancement. This is what the art in all fields is supposed to do. In comparison to literature, painting, sculpture, and music, the culinary arts are lagging behind in this ideal. And have been for a long time.
Speaking of the works of Ferrán Adrià and elBulli, Anthony Bourdain states that “a high-risk, high-wire act like El Bulli demands questions of its diners as well. Big questions. Is it food? Or is it novelty? And is it ‘good’—in the traditional sense of that word (whatever that might be)?” (2007: 206). The Futurist culinary work provides the foundation for this type of work answers this question. These meals are artistic experiences, ideally novel and unexpected. Their existence as food is merely incidental and they are “good” only to the degree that they provoke an aesthetic experience in their diners. What Marinetti wished was for people to stop resorting to tradition as an excuse to push themselves and others in all areas of life, a desire that was ignored in his own time. Luckily, the current trends in cooking might be fulfilling his wish and helping to elevate food to its proper place of regard in the aesthetic pantheon.
Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Episode no. 7-12 “El Bulli,” first broadcast 1 August 2011 by The Travel Channel.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. “Copenhagen,” first broadcast 6 October 2013 by CNN.
Bourdain, Anthony. 2007. The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones. New York: Bloomsbury: 203-210.
Marinetti, F.T. 2014. The Futurist Cookbook. Suzanne Brill (Trans). Lesley Chamberlain (Ed.). London: Penguin Books.
Spinning Plates. 2012. Dir. Joseph Levy. Chaos Theory Entertainment.