Modernist Cuisine and Nonna’s Cucina

At the AAAS meeting last week, Nathan Myhrvold gave one of the plenary talks.  He is a physicist but is also the author of the magnum opus (really magnum, 6 volumes and 2400 pages) Modernist Cuisine, and more recently the somewhat more user-friendly Modernist Cuisine at Home, which introduces the home cook to the world of foams and sous vide cooking and the Pacojet, a super-powerful (and powerfully expensive) blender.

Myhrvold’s talk, accompanied by lots of video, was great fun, smart and witty.  But I remain of two minds about modernist cuisine.  It is certainly fun and original and imaginative.  Yet reducing cooking to physics and chemistry to me robs it of its spontaneity.  It takes away, to a large extent, that element of chance that could lead to failure but could also lead to serendipitous moments of pure rapture.  And the centrifuges and liquid nitrogen and airs and foams strike me at times as simply gimmicky.

To be sure, modernist cooking has deconstructed and turned upside down and inside out our ideas about food, and that had led to some amazing experiences; I think of Grant Achatz’s Alinea and Aviary in Chicago, or my friend Jonathan Kaplan’s spectacular dinner parties here in Corvallis.  Their aim of engaging all of the senses is a worthy one, and the range of new tastes is astonishing.  That a gastropub in Portland recently offered a sandwich with Douglas fir mayonnaise shows, I think, how broadly these new flavors have reached.

But I persist in think that something is missing, and that at the end of twenty tiny courses one might be physically full and sensually sated but spiritually hungry.  Myhrvold discussed the physics behind decanting red wine, and to gasps from the audience demonstrated that the blender is a far better tool to aerate wine than a decanter.  But I would miss the ritual of slowly pouring the wine into the decanter and watching it sheet down the sides, of gently swirling it and smelling it.  I suppose I could pour it from the bender into the decanter.  I am happy to eat food from a centrifuge.  But I would rather eat my grandmother’s cannoli than anything else in the world.