From the blog January 21, 2011 Nathan

Food Religion

It’s amazing to me how political the food world can be. I don’t mean political in the sense of political parties and elected officials. By “political,” I mean the process by which strong opinion is driven by deeply entrenched ideology. An even more apt term is “religion”—a set of core beliefs that are based on faith rather than reproducible evidence.

In discussing Modernist Cuisine with others, I often run into those who have ideological views about a certain style of cuisine. Here is a verbatim exchange of this sort I recently had:

Me: “Chefs following what I call the Modernist Revolution are breaking the rules and conventions of cooking. This lets them create food you couldn’t make any other way. It also helps expose some of our ingrained assumptions about food and challenges them.”

Person: “But isn’t that all about highly processed foods? Why can’t a chef just be content to expose the natural goodness of great ingredients? Why can’t food look like what it is rather than these elaborate preparations?”

Me: “Give me an example of a meal you’d prefer.”

Person: “You know, simple food, like a plate of pasta with a great sauce, a glass of red wine, some bread and cheese.”

Me: “You’ve just named some of the most processed and artificial foods in all of cooking!”

At this point, I burst out laughing. This is not very polite, especially if you are trying to win someone over to your cause, but unfortunately, I just couldn’t help it. With great sincerity and without a trace of irony, this very well-meaning person had said something that from a factual perspective was totally ridiculous. In fact, their statement perfectly illustrated the point about how food conventions become implicit. The person wasn’t even aware of the assumptions that pasta, bread, wine, and cheese are simple and natural.

After regaining my composure, I continued with an explanation. Pasta is about as different from raw wheat kernels as you can possibly get. You must select the right wheat and grind it to a fine flour. Then you mix it with exactly the right ratio of water, plus possibly egg or another binder, and then either extrude the dough through a pasta die at very high pressure, or roll it extremely thin.

If the person had said bulgur rather than pasta, they might have had a point—but pasta is an utterly artificial food in the sense that it is made via a complicated process that transforms the original raw material into something that looks completely different. Pasta was invented; it is an entirely human creation. It doesn’t grow out of the ground and it isn’t harvested in the wild. Don’t get me wrong—pasta is a wonderful and delicious food. But it is hardly an example of serving a natural product in its original form.

Bread is, if anything, even less natural than pasta. In addition to milling the flour and being careful to knead it to develop the gluten proteins into a cohesive gel, one must also introduce a microorganism that ferments the dough and produces carbon dioxide, which causes the dough to rise and bubble into a foam. Bread is not a “natural” product that grows on trees. (Although, amusingly, there is something called breadfruit that does in fact grow on a tree. Try some, and it will only reinforce the fact that it isn’t bread.)

Bread is one of the most artificial foods human cooks have ever invented. It is also one of the most successful foods. So while I totally endorse bread-making and eating, let’s dispense with the notion that it is an example of a simple, unprocessed food that resembles its ingredients.

The story of wine is much the same. Making wine involves an incredibly complicated process that involves a tremendous amount of science. If you don’t believe me, read up a bit on malolactic fermentation—or any of a dozen other steps in the complex microbial and chemical processing that winemakers obsess over. The result of all of that transformation is utterly different from raw grape juice—thank God!

Finally, cheese, like wine, is the result of tremendously involved processes that generate myriad products that are nothing like the original milk—and that aren’t even much like each other, for that matter.

Historically speaking, the initial innovations that drove these foods happened many years ago. Pasta, interestingly, was the last of these to be developed. The ancient Romans had bread, cheese (of a sort) and wine, but no pasta. The most pasta-like foods in Roman larders were panfried fritters or pancakes made with a starch or bean batter. The panisse, a dish made in Provence from a panfried chickpea batter, is probably a surviving remnant of Roman protopastas.

True pasta was introduced to Italy from the East, most likely by Arabs who brought it first to Sicily, long after the Roman civilization was gone. Medieval Italian cooking included no pasta. In that era, Italian cuisine was virtually indistinguishable from cooking in England, France, or Germany. The earliest recipe for lasagna comes, ironically, from a British cookbook. The origin of pasta may well be China, but that is still a bit murky—and in any case, besides the point of this post.

I have no quarrel with someone who says that they like eating pasta with red wine, bread, and cheese. Good for them! I think it’s arrogant for anyone to tell people what they “should” prefer to eat. Preferences and taste are, by their nature, very personal. Plus, it so happens that I like all of those foods myself.

When one discusses how food is prepared, however, it seems reasonable to insist that English words mean more or less what the dictionary says. In the conversation I quoted above, what the person I was talking to really meant to say is that, in their personal food religion, “natural”, “simple,” and “unprocessed” are all synonyms for “good.” So a familiar food that they like must, by that equation, be “natural,” “simple,” and “unprocessed.” Never mind that the actual processes for making these foods makes them more unlike their raw materials than the wildest creations prepared by a Modernist chef. Conversely, in the same food religion, “artificial” and “processed” are bad words—things you say about food you don’t like or approve of.

This particular food religion is quite widespread. People who adhere to it have a deep-rooted bias against anything new, because the ill-meaning words “artificial” or “processed” can be easily applied to any new technique. So they tend to attack Modernist cuisine because it offends the sensibilities of their food religion. Yet the same people love food that, under any unbiased definition, is completely artificial and processed. Their religion isn’t based on the real meaning of the words “artificial” or “processed” (or their opposites). Those words are used as code or slogans rather than for their literal definitions.

When people dislike artificial or processed food, what they usually mean to say is that they don’t like cheap, low-quality, industrially produced packaged foods—the kind of crap that fills the aisles of most American supermarkets. The fact that many of these foods don’t taste very good (e.g. cheap artificial vanilla), are stale by the time they are bought (because much of the processing is done to increase shelf life), or are filled with lots of salt and sugar (because most people prefer them that way!)—those are the real complaints.

These complaints have merit. There is really something bad about that sort of food. The trouble is that at some point, people started turning complaints about industrially produced crap into broader, abstract principles that any “processing” at all by human means is the evil part.

Modernist food isn’t the same thing as the ready-to-eat stuff that clutters supermarkets. Skilled chefs are not factories. They are guided by acutely sensitive palates and highly trained aesthetics, not the mission of shaving pennies off the cost of each package. The process by which Modernist chefs create their refined and sophisticated dishes must, by its nature, transform the food from its original form into something new. Once upon a time, those culinary innovations included pasta, bread, wine, and cheese. These days, it means all sorts of novel dishes and approaches. The fact that it takes great skill, technique, and inventiveness to come up with new techniques isn’t a reason to hate culinary innovation.

Discussion

  1. Julia, the Thanksgiving Girl January 21, 2011 Reply

    This is a great article, I enjoyed reading it so much! And the best proof of it would probably be the following: I knew I wanted to read it but considering it was almost 2am here, I thougth I’d take a wuick a look and just save the link to read later, BUT, once I started redaing I couldn’t stop. So thank you 🙂

  2. Jack Claire January 22, 2011 Reply

    I am a Brit expat living in France and love cooking and using gadgets, new techiques etc. Unfortunately there is a lot of bad processed food over here too as the French are forgetting their inheritance. New techniques take off with difficulty, unless you are a professional chef with all the relevant diplomas. It also is considered a tad elitist and hence expensive, or very expensive. The use of top quality products, simply cooked and presented is more what they go for in general.
    I really enjoy the inventiveness of modern american cooking which seems to emphasise the P in pleasure and passion, which for me is what cooking is all about, whether for myself or others.
    I’m not sure whether I can afford your books when they come out, but I avidly follow the website.
    Thanks for your passion and pleasure.

  3. Joseph Bayot January 22, 2011 Reply

    I had the exact same experience as Julia, The Thanksgiving girl. This was a wonderful article to read. “Food religion” is such an appropriate term.

  4. Scott January 24, 2011 Reply

    Thank you for writing this. It is a logical argument that many people overlook when reacting to modernist cooking, and the pasta, bread cheese and wine anaolgies will come in handy as I seem to constantly find myself defending this topic.

  5. Matt January 26, 2011 Reply

    The full 26-minute Freakonomics Radio interview with Nathan, titled “Waiter, There’s a Physicist in My Soup! (Pt. 1)” is now available for download from iTunes. http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/waiter-theres-physicist-in/id354668519?i=90736427. As in this post, Nathan does a great job of deconstructing the boundary between the modernist and organic food movements. Check it out!

  6. canoer February 14, 2011 Reply

    I’m trying to avoid supermarket foods containing high fructose corn syrup. Is it a “bad” food?

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