A Preview of Our Chapter on Culinary History

First page of the article in GastronomicaThe Winter 2011 edition of Gastronomica, a journal of food and culture, contains an article I wrote titled, “The Art in Gastronomy: A Modernist Perspective.” The 6,000 word, 10-page article is a much-expanded version of a section of Chapter 1 in Modernist Cuisine, in which I explain why the current revolution in cooking is appropriately called “Modernist,” as it is in many ways broadly similar to Modernist revolutions in painting, architecture, literature, and other arts.

The argument is rather involved (that’s why it takes 6,000 words), but the gist of it can be explained relatively simply. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most aspects of culture and art were rocked by revolutions in which small groups of young artists joined avant-garde movements that were creating new aesthetics by breaking the old rules. The French Impressionists were perhaps the most famous example. These painters rebelled against the realistic style of painting that was in vogue in their day. Their paintings were initially ridiculed and mocked, but the works ultimately became some of the most widely loved art in the world. Similar revolutions occurred in almost every field of human cultural achievement—with the notable exception of cooking.

The revolution in cooking that began in the mid-1980s is just such a movement. Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, and a number of other chefs formed an avant-garde that refused to follow many of the old rules and in doing so, created food that challenges us as profoundly as any other kind of art does. They have embraced new cooking technologies, such as sous vide, and new ingredients, like xanthan gum, and their creative use of these tools has expanded the realm of what is possible in the kitchen. At the same time, Harold McGee and others started a trend in popular books of telling both restaurant and home chefs about the science of cooking. These threads collectively created a revolution that has clear links to Modernism and its ideals.

I mention this for two reasons. First, the article featured in Gastronomica is a bit longer and thus more complete than the treatment of the topic in Modernist Cuisine. So if you like Chapter 1 on Culinary History but want more detail, this article is one place to look.

Second, if you don’t yet have a copy of Modernist Cuisine (and at this stage nobody does!), this article is a quick way to get at least this part of the book. That said, it is a rather abstract topic—don’t expect to see any recipes or techniques in the article.

Gastronomica is available by subscription and also by the copy at larger newsstands and bookstores.