The Futurist Cook Book
Fashion in cookery changes almost as drastically and regularly as it does in couture. The current vogue for intricate scientific methods and elaborate multisensory presentation, popularised by celebrity chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià, formerly of the Spanish restaurant El Bulli, proves that like all fashion, gastronomic trends are cyclical. The modern approach has intriguing similarities to the work of the Italian Futurists, an extraordinary pre-war artistic movement. Along with some pretty unsavoury connections to Mussolini, among other things, the movement tried to ban pasta from Italy. It is now 80 years since the legendary Futurist restaurant, The Holy Palate, was opened in Turin - and the first-ever Futurist banquet was held there.
The Futurists were products of their age - they were modernists, obsessed with the glorification of speed, electricity and new technology, and also adopted some of the Nietzschean intolerance of weakness that fed so neatly, and dangerously, into Fascism; indeed the founder of the Futurists, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, was a supporter of Mussolini and a founding member of the Fascist party, even though he objected to parts of their programme. Their ethos comes through in this excerpt of the 1908 Futurist Manifesto: "We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist… Standing on the world's summit we launch once again our insolent challenge to the stars!"
There aren't many artistic or political movements that could claim to be so holistic that they applied their philosophies even to cooking, but the Futurists did so, writing numerous culinary manifestos, recipes, and even specific recommendations about how food should be served. Marinetti wrote upon the historic opening of The Holy Palate: "While recognising that great deeds have been performed in the past by men badly or crudely nourished, we affirm this truth: that we think, dream and act according to what we eat and drink." In order to imagine and create a new world, they argued, they had to be appropriately fed for the purpose.
The Holy Palate was designed to accentuate the modern dining experience with a minimalist layout and pure aluminium from floor to ceiling; no aspect was to be left unconsidered, or unchallenged - and these ideas have permeated much of 21st-century restaurant culture, where decor and ambience are of integral importance. "Eating futuristically, one uses all the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing," Marinetti wrote in the 1930s. "Every dish will thus be preceded by a perfume attuned to it", accompanied by "the use in measured doses of poetry and music, as unexpected ingredients to accentuate with their sensual intensity the flavours of a given dish".
Their most notorious belief was the provocative declaration that pasta must be banned from Italy - a move that prompted petitions in its defence and even a street protest in Naples. The Futurists argued that pasta induced lassitude, tiredness, and self-indulgence: far from a patriotic pride in the nation's most famous foodstuff, they believed pasta was suppressing Italians' innate warrior-like mentality. "Everything in modern civilisation tends towards elimination of weight, and increased speed," Marinetti wrote - and the natural consequence of this was the banning of pasta, and a cuisine based on a rapid succession of small dishes focused on vegetables, fruit and protein.
Preparing my own Futurist banquet for a few friends, in the style of the one served in The Holy Palate 80 years earlier, presented a few challenges. Of the 100 or so recipes in the Futurist Cook Book, circa 1932, many of the most intriguing proved to be the most ludicrous ("this is a new way of thinking, which everyone considers crazy" conceded Marinetti), or even impossible. You just can't buy camel meat in my local supermarket - and I don't have the right equipment in my kitchen to pass an electric current through a cube of beef before serving it. I was also dubious about the effects of filling candied citrons with chopped cuttlefish, or stewing meat in a mixture of coffee and eau de cologne.
In the Futurist spirit of audacious creativity, I had to make some canny ingredient replacements. One recipe described a watermelon ship sailing on a sea of endive, but they didn't have endive in my local shops in north London, so I replaced it with a sea of pak choi: after all, are the prevailing currents of 21st-century futurism not Chinese? Meanwhile, red currants replaced kumquats, and - I'm pleased to say - in the absence of calves' brains in my local butcher's shop, I used simple minced beef, which still provoked some rather un-futuristic nausea when it was boiled in milk, as directed.
The same principle was carried through into the presentation of the food. The Futurists would surely have loved the time-collapsing efficiency of the microwave - and they would also have loved the possibilities for electronic audio-visual stimulation while eating. So I borrowed a friend's film projector and plugged it into my laptop, broadcasting YouTube videos of Shanghai skyscrapers and Japanese bullet trains on to the wall while we ate. The multisensory aspect of this so-called "aerofood" is that while olives and fruit are fed directly from hand to mouth with the right-hand, the eater caresses a series of tactile materials such as silk and sandpaper with the left hand. It was certainly an intriguing, different way of eating. I also tried the Futurists' "captive perfume" idea, filling a series of different multicoloured balloons, each with a few drops of a different eau de cologne - they are then heated on the inside, to disperse the perfume, and burst in the vicinity of the immersed diner. This had a dual effect: first, providing a stimulating extra smell from the escaped perfume, and secondly, stimulating some creative language from the poor soul who's just had a balloon popped right next to their ear.
Following the spirit - if not the exact instructions - of Futurist gastronomy was a genuinely thought-provoking and entertaining experience. And yet, having gamely eaten mince boiled in milk with watermelon and raw pak choi, and weathered the multisensorial onslaught of aerofood, something was still missing. So we went out to get chips, and ate them on our laps in front of the TV. The future's a scary place.
Updated: December 5, 2011 04:00 AM