Monday, March 16, 2009

Molecular Gastronomy: Intention & Meaning

I have the good fortune of having a neighbor and friend who 1) is the ultimate intellectual, and 2) is a fan of my cooking. After my recent MG presentation, he posed a question from which we have been engaged in a running discussion. I'll share it here.

His original question:
What is the role of joke or pun in MG cooking?

My immediate reaction was that I don't create food and joke or pun, but rather, use all of the tools at my side to activate the diner's experience. I wasn't satisfied with that answer, nor was the questioner.

He then responded:

I respect your answer that you do not intend to make a culinary pun as you shape or create a dish. Rather, you say, your and others' aim is that of any artist--to fashion the elements of the world (in your case, food) to engage the senses. Any appeal to humor or to the mind is adventitious.

It's impossible to argue against intention, but I can quibble about the result. While a reaction of surprise or a laugh may or may not be welcomed by the molecular gastronomist; when such reactions occur, they become part of the art. Praxiteles to now, artists are stuck with it.

I misspoke when I used the terms pun, joke, and humor interchangeably. Humor (and the jokes within that category) depend on elements of cruelty or limitations. Puns and wit come from confusions of meaning. I suppose Jeff Foxworthy, Rita Radner, and Jack Benny would be the joke tellers and George Carlin, Calvin Trillin and Woodie Allen would be musing over meanings or the lack of them.

Take an example from your Tastings. There are dozens, but the icy beet balls will do nicely. (You did have one real pun in the menu: the tuna that was prickly pear and not Charlie.) If you had made the beet ice into brown boxes so that the diner would not have expected anything but mystery, there would have been no wit. Instead, you made
shiny, red, beet-sized balls look mysteriously like and unlike beets (another fruit, perhaps?). And the taste was beet but the texture was sorbet and the ball was icy, not fibrous, most unbeetlike but very beety. Had you had diners from Africa, the beet balls might have worked because fruits often are red and round or may have proved as unpunny as brown boxes. The effects of your art depends, like all art, on what's in our heads or experience.

Where would Michel Guerard have been without Auguste Escoffier? Not very far, because the half of an arugala leaf touching a squiggle of vinaigrette and a dot of organic horseradish would have been nonsense without memories of boats of Holladaise and reductions with double butterfat cream. Nobody would dare giggle at Guerard's productions, silly as they were, because it was all a serious business, sinking the 3,000 calorie-gourmand juggernaut. While the actuality may have been missing, memory of those heavy Escoffier courses and the diners' expectation linger and give substance, importance, clarity to la cuisine minceur.

So we know beets and caviar and apple juice, and discover, happily, that we were mistaken. Tricked, not by the cook magician, now you see it and now you don't, the David Copperfield among the pans. No, tricked by the George Carlin of the burners. You're so smart, name what you've known since you were sensing and you name wrong. Here's something new.

While the trick is incidental to the creator of the taste, it is crucial to the interpreter of the taste. The puns and irony of technoemocional may not be the motor that drives the scientists in the kitchen but they are the lure that keeps the diner at the table.

I then responded:
I can accept the use of pun, but I don't think it is quite as honed of a term as whimsy. Pun assumes a level of intention or concreteness that isn't present in my cooking. Whimsy, on the other hand, connotes a temporality and fluttering of interpretation. I think of a dandelion bloom floating through the air. The white billow seems to move effortlessly, and when you go to grab it, it swirls around your hand only to head off in a different direction. An inability to predict pattern or course is by design in my cooking (with some exceptions where I'm being much more direct - and not coincidentally, these are the dishes typically created near the end of my process when I am fatigued).

And so, whimsy is my word of choice, and that unpredictability and potential for uncertainty, is what, I believe, lures the diner back to the table. Trickery creates a power dynamic that I do not wish for in the dining experience - and trickery comes from the use of pun - "Ha! I fooled ya!"

And his response:
Each point in the creation and consumption of a dish may deserve its own motivation.

I could accept whimsy as the motivating characteristic for you as you think about and then make a confection, just as I could accept whimsy for Lewis Carroll as he begins to tell of a little girl and a rabbit. But whimsy is the most evanescent of reasons. Almost whimsical, I should say. Like a liqueur its punch is soon evaporated, leaving only a trace or two of its inspiration.

You title your whimsy. Do you call it, Mole Feathers, like some perverse entry in a Chinese menu, having no connection to the diner's experience? Nope. Here whimsy takes flight and like Carroll you move into the realm of metaphor, paradox and pun. To return to my original example, the beet that looks vaguely beetish but doesn't feel like a beet while somehow being the heightened, concentrated essence of beet. The pun is the shape and color: you could have made a tiny, brown box for the beet, but as the fellows with the pillowed place mats would say, "It's the whole experience." The chef wants me to anticipate something. The chef wants me to contribute to the experience. It's participatory gastronomy. If it were pure whimsy, a sort of extemporaneous randomness, I could have no such anticipation and would refuse to participate.

At the titling and plating, whimsy becomes comic play--George Carlin or Woodie Allen. When I see, smell, feel, and taste, my mind is responding not to the whimsy but to the altered meanings, because the pun was based on my anticipations. Laughter, surprise. Even shock. At the end, as the taste melts from my tongue, the pun becomes whimsy
perhaps. A pun explained, after all, is an unsuccessful pun. I would never read Through the Looking Glass to a kid and laboriously explain the ins and outs of Red Queens and late Hares. So we would want the experience to be recorded as something other and, as you suggest, whimsy does nicely for the diner, too, as an aide memoire.

And my response:
Ah, but we are two prisoners tapping messages through a concrete wall, never to have direct contact and thus never to fully come together. I cook for you (and for the sake of creation). You eat for you (and for the sake of consumption).

You suggest a dismissiveness in "whimsy," where I give it intentionality. Would the argument change if I eliminated titles to my dishes? I think not. Would you not be enticed if there were no titles? Again, I think not. So let me jump to a recent dish that I saw.

A chef created a liquid nitrogen "cooked" sherbet sphere. What the diner saw was a 4" sphere resting in a bowl with no utensils in site. Not a joke. Not a pun (to my understanding). But it had whimsy. The only way to eat it was through exploration - ultimately the diner realized they had to smoosh the sphere with their hand causing it to shatter, and then they were able to eat the sherbet shards by hand (liquid nitrogen caused them to become essentially astronaut ice cream). Is it a pun because it isn't what it appears? - I think you would say yes. Whimsy is a "fanciful or fantastic device." The ball is still sherbet. It may not take the form that you understand it to be, but the ingredients are the same, simply the freezing process has changed. However, the definition of whimsy seems more appropriate here. And so when I look at the beet dish, I see the same thing. While I am presenting the dish in a slightly askew manner, it is ultimately beets.

Okay, enough intellectual-esque spewing :) I agree, pun is certainly appropriate to define much of the experience. An air of whimsy certainly permeates the same experience, and so maybe (sorry the post modernist is oozing out right now) our definition is as fleeting as each dish and diner.


jsmeister said...

1. Sic semper post-modernism. Let's eat and enjoy the thing. If it be whimsy, fine; if it be punning, fine; if it be neither, fine. Just bring it on.(Life is too short for post-modernism.)

2. Rob, If you are tired, it may not be the kitchen that's causing it.

Gfron1 said...

Its definitely a combo of constant running and poor diet. I'm addressing both fronts.