So much has been written by now about Nathan Myhrvold’s Nebuchadnezzar Opus, Modernist Cuisine, the sensible thing to do, in the spirit of the book, is to add to it.
Before we even open the cover, the title intrigues. It seems apt, and yet, wasn’t Modernist architecture about paring down essential lines and forms of structure? Modernist painting disdained Victorian ornament, replacing narrative with pure form. Music could become a long stretch of silence. How does a 30-hour hamburger recipe, with over forty ingredients and as many complex operations, fit in to this?
This is Post-Modernist cooking. That is, after a period of Modernist reduction we’ve entered a period like that in Architecture of the 1970′s to 90′s, where complication, style, for its own sake, is celebrated. Nouvelle Cuisine, dating back to 1975 or so, was that modernist movement, with actual, lean reductions taking the place of roux in sauces, and foods ‘plated’ like abstract paintings. That era reached its pinnacle with Barry Wine’s Quilted Giraffe. But rather than mourn that movement, we can now look forward to mourning this new one.
Otherwise, the criticism is mostly that the cuisine is impractical and elitist, and that’s a shame, because Myhrvold’s project has a fitting place in the culture. Balloons today serve in meteorology, espionage, photography, etc. Only rarely are they used for actual transportation, and then never for their efficiency, but for their novelty, charm. Whatever the intentions of the Montgolfier Brothers were when they created their equally impractical Balloon, the results have been spectacular, despite the rather obvious fact that no one uses them to go shopping.
This is Baron Munchhausen cuisine. It is to cooking what the Hot Air Balloon is to flying. It’s a big, beautiful, colorful experiment in both the sublime and the ridiculous. That’s no insult. Like the balloon, it’s sublime because it’s ridiculous. And if no one uses a balloon to go work, few will use Modernist Cuisine to make lunch. But those who do use it, those with the time and the money, the interest and the talent, will find in these volumes a series of Over the Top adventures which can be mined forever in ways not even imagined by its creator, just like the Montgolfier Balloon.
Where does that leave Post-Modernist Cooking? That’s a much more complicated question. These books are already paid for, and their sponsor isn’t short of money, but for restaurants, the foams, gasses, gels and jellies, and the sheer exuberance of this extravagant style will have to mutate rapidly as its creators and the public get bored with it, or go broke. Then, as with Nouvelle Cuisine and so many others, we’ll be on to the next one, though richer for the experience.
For home cooks, one really has to ask, what would I rather do, spend 30 hours making a hamburger, or stitch a Great Big Balloon out of ladies underwear? Because you probably won’t have time to do both.