Its amazing to me how political the food world can be. I dont 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 religiona 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 couldnt make any other way. It also helps expose some of our ingrained assumptions about food and challenges them.
Person: But isnt that all about highly processed foods? Why cant a chef just be content to expose the natural goodness of great ingredients? Why cant food look like what it is rather than these elaborate preparations?
Me: Give me an example of a meal youd 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: Youve 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 couldnt 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 wasnt 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 pointbut 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 doesnt grow out of the ground and it isnt harvested in the wild. Dont get me wrongpasta 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 isnt 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, lets 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 dont believe me, read up a bit on malolactic fermentationor 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 juicethank God!
Finally, cheese, like wine, is the result of tremendously involved processes that generate myriad products that are nothing like the original milkand that arent 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 murkyand 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 its 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 wordsthings you say about food you dont 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 isnt 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 dont like cheap, low-quality, industrially produced packaged foodsthe kind of crap that fills the aisles of most American supermarkets. The fact that many of these foods dont 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 isnt 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 isnt a reason to hate culinary innovation.