Issue 5 Evil Winter 2001/02
Ingestion / The Pleasures and Ideology of Fusion
Allen S. Weiss
“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.
One of the central and lasting tenets of the postmodern controversy has been the critique of instrumental and universal forms of reason. As Kenneth Frampton so succinctly put it, “The fundamental strategy of Critical Regionalism is to mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place.”1 While writing specifically in terms of architecture, his remarks are pertinent to the entire aesthetic and cultural field, especially since he proposes neither a simple reversal of values nor a blind denunciation of “universal” civilization. Rather, such “universality” becomes a new sort of instrumentality, tempered and enriched by all those regional accents necessitated by the increasingly complex and hybrid interconnections of a rapidly globalized society. The local as a form of resistance may serve as a singular line of defense against domination by the global. These remarks have a direct bearing, mutatis mutandis, on the aesthetics of gastronomy and the practice of cuisine, in which the operative metaphor for the most recent transformation of haute cuisine is “fusion.” If the simple valorization of “exotic” or “ethnic” cuisines to the detriment of “haute cuisine” could be considered the ideological equivalent of an overthrowing of Frampton’s “universal civilization,” to the contrary, the mediation of such culinary “universality” or hierarchy (represented for so long by French haute cuisine, whether ancienne or nouvelle) by an untold multitude of regions, would be indicated by the terms “fusion,” “hybrid,” or “world” cuisine. Consider the genealogy of this transformation, plus a couple of examples.
In a sense, every French cuisine throughout history has been “fusion” cuisine: Court cuisine and aristocratic haute cuisine have always assimilated products and techniques from both the French provinces (especially Provence) and other countries (notably Italy). Yet it is a relatively recent phenomenon that such exotic products, presentations, and techniques have been valorized, symbolized, and showcased. Fusion can be experienced either as a mode of innovation or a threat of corruption, reviving age-old gastronomic debates (and prejudices and fears.) The centrifugal cosmopolitanism of Auguste Escoffier—who codified French haute cuisine in Le guide culinaire (1903), long considered the bible of French cooking, and disseminated it as the new standard through César Ritz’s chain of hotels—was finally, by the 1970s, replaced by a centripetal polyculturalism with the advent of nouvelle cuisine chefs. This last great paradigm shift, contemporaneous with the aftermath of the events of May 1968, was established by about a dozen of the most innovative chefs in France, and championed by Henri Gault and Christian Millau, editors of the gastronomic guide bearing their names. In 1973 Gault and Millau published the ten commandments of the nouvelle cuisine:Thou shalt not overcook.
Thou shalt utilize fresh products of high quality.
Thou shalt lighten thy menu.
Thou shalt not be systematically modernist.
Thou shalt nevertheless seek what can be gained through new techniques.
Thou shalt avoid marinades, hanging of game, fermentations, etc.
Thou shalt eliminate brown and white sauces.
Thou shalt not be oblivious to dietetics.
Thou shalt not cheat on thy presentations.
Thou shalt be inventive.2
Much as such cuisine has been caricatured and mocked, it has become the contemporary standard, as its styles and techniques have been absorbed into European and American haute cuisine. Yet schism begets schism. The most recent variation on this theme is exemplified by the clash between two highly mediatized groups of French chefs, instigated in 1996 by the gastronomic journalist, Marc Champérard (author of the eponymous food guide), who called for the safeguard of France’s culinary “national identity,” fustigating the “unbridled creativism” [sic] and “cosmopolitanism” of certain contemporary tendencies. The reaction was swift: Marc Veyrat organized the “Groupe des Huit” (a group of eight of the most accomplished contemporary chefs), linked by a manifesto:Claim our identity in a locale or a region, all the while respecting tradition.
Valorize a modern cuisine of sensitivity and of new emotions.
Be open to the world, and to professional and cultural exchange.
Place ourselves at the service of popular cuisine, which must again become the ambassador of our heritage.
Revalorize the training of youth.3
It should be noted that while the dictates of the first manifesto of the nouvelle cuisine were purely formal, those of the Groupe des Huit are psychological and sociological. In fact, both groups agree about the technical fundamentals of cooking, and the chefs of the nouvelle cuisine had always incorporated non-French products and techniques in order to create radically innovative (and thus non-traditional) dishes. The scission seems, rather, to be a generational one, between that oxymoron of a nouvelle cuisine “classicism”—the inventions of first-generation nouvelle cuisine chefs who, though open to the exotic, tended to dissimulate their foreign discoveries under a Gallic veil—and a second generation that openly celebrates, foregrounds, and accentuates these non-French influences. For the latter, the search for a local or regional identity is in no way contradictory with openness to the world beyond. The apparent rhetorical contradictions (or all-inclusiveness, depending upon how one reads it) of the Goupe des Huit manifesto, in fact, indicates its particularly contemporary sensibility: regionalism / globalism; tradition / creativity; popular / haute; technical / emotional. What were previously mutually exclusive disjunctions at the origin of stylistic controversies have become all-inclusive conjunctions at the source of a renewed creativity. This is precisely that mix of qualities previously considered incompatible, but now united in much of the most exciting contemporary French cuisine. But perhaps, the attempt to parse out the sundry regional, global, haute, peasant, etc., inspirations of a dish is slowly beginning to appear as a mere scholastic exercise. Or so it would seem, when “fusion” is taken for granted, and when regionalism is no longer experienced as an essentialism, but as a new instrumentality.
It should be noted that Champérard’s unfortunate choice of the term “cosmopolitanism” was a usage already evident in turn-of-the-century debates about the “decadent” nature of haute cuisine, with many of the attendant innuendos of anti-Semitism, anti-internationalism, nationalism, etc.—it is a term that easily strikes a very raw nerve for many readers. From the late 19th century through the Second World War, such “decadent,” “international” haute cuisine was viciously caricatured and criticized by the French right wing, which, in contrast, valorized regional, peasant, and family cuisine as incarnating those reactionary values that would be at the core of Vichy ideology. I am not at all suggesting that the current debate is in any way related to such earlier ideological rifts, nor that any sort of cuisine has essential ethical characteristics; however, one must always be attuned to the ethical and political use-values of cuisine—and, indeed, of language!—at any historical moment. Ironically, in turn, the specificities of regionalism have, as we have seen over the last few decades in all of the arts, been appropriated as a defense against both globalization and nationalism, and have consequently become a guiding ethico-culinary principle at the core of the Slow Food movement, for example: an interesting mix of ecologism, regionalism, horticulture, and gastronomy, intended precisely to maintain gastronomic value, all the while combating globalization and its “evils” (such as fast food, chemical pollution, and the genetic modification of animals and plants.) Culinary regionalism has shifted, in half a century, from being an integral part of right-wing ideology to playing a central role in a sort of “rainbow coalition” of international, ecologically oriented gourmets.
Every discursive dialectic demands a genealogy, that of the “nouvelle cuisine” included. Consider the following menu, a true curiosity, reported in one of the foundational works of European modernism, Guillaume Apollinaire’s Le Poète assassiné:
“Dîner gastro-astronomiste,” Lons-le-Saunier, September 19124
Violettes fraîches privées de leur tige et assaisonnées de jus de citron
[Fresh violets without their stems seasoned with lemon juice; monkfish cooked in eucalyptus leaves; rare sirloin steak seasoned with tobacco; barded quail with licorice sauce; salad seasoned with walnut oil and marc (brandy); Reblochon cheese seasoned with walnuts and nutmeg; fresh fruit.]
The ostentatiously avant-garde nature of this menu—which Apollinaire himself refers to as “La cuisine nouvelle”—in fact bears many features in common with some of the most extreme inventions of the nouvelle cuisine of our epoch (though it must be stressed that in 1912, when the influence of Escoffier’s cuisine was near its peak, this menu would have appeared to most as utter madness): The violets recall the use of sundry flowers, such as acacia, borage, poppy, wild rose, genet, St. John’s wort, dandelion, primrose, wild thyme, elder, garden valerian, chickweed—and violets too—by Michel Bras (Laguiole); the use of eucalyptus leaves is similar to wrapping techniques utilizing banana leaves and algae, derived from Thai, Cambodian, and Japanese cuisine, or Bras’s dessert of apple compote with red and black currants served in a gentian leaf; the curiosity of chewing tobacco as flavoring is not unlike Pierre Gagnaire’s (Paris) use of whole coffee beans in a sauce accompanying veal sweetbreads, or Alain Hacquard at Lapérouse (Paris) using ground coffee to cure salmon; licorice flavoring has become quite common; salad dressings utilizing unusual nut and seed oils and fruit vinegars are the rage; and the taste for relatively exotic spices like nutmeg (untraditional in the classic French context of Apollinaire’s period), is ever increasing, as exemplified by the cooking of Olivier Roellinger at the Maison de Bricourt (Cancale). Insofar as the dishes of Apollinaire’s menu are eminently edible, this experimental meal bears little gastronomic comparison with the otherwise avant-garde Marinetti and Fillìa publication, La cucina futurista, which is more phantasmagoric and contentious than gastronomic, bearing a closer relation to the Futurist plastic arts (and provocations) than to the history of cuisine. Compare a recent meal at the restaurant I consider to be on the cutting edge of contemporary (experimental) European culinary art:
Pierre Gagnaire, Paris, 16 December 1996Beignets d’escargots accompagnés de petites tomates confites et d’un gnocchi au vieux cantal
Ris de veau au grains de café
Homard en trois services: la gelée avec le corail, les pinces pochées, la queue rôtie
Des eaux glacées et du fromage blanc au safran, meringuage à l’italienne
[Snail tempura accompanied with conserved tomatoes and gnocchi made of Cantal cheese; sweetbreads with coffee beans; lobster in three servings; coral in jelly; poached claws; roast tail; flavored ices and cream cheese with saffron on a meringue.]
What might appear unpalatable in print is exquisite on the palate—such is the gastronomy of thresholds, the crux of innovation. The first dish is a curious mélange of styles and regions: the snails done up as a tempura, associated with typically Provençal preserved tomatoes and gnocchi (Italianate or Niçois) made with cheese from the apparently incongruous French Massif Central. The use of coffee beans in the second dish should surprise no more than the use of bitter chocolate in cooking (such as Mexican chicken mole), but it still does. The distention of a single course, the lobster, into three servings is a veritable analytic practice, a Gallic tour de force usually associated with the pot-au-feu, where the pure consommé is served first, followed by the boiled beef with its accompanying vegetables.5 Finally, the dessert, where the unsweetened ices and cheese ice cream are set on an over-sweetened meringue, is the sort of antithetical presentation that creates unexpected contrasts: the cheese course is condensed into the dessert, and the dessert is neatly divided into the sour and the sweet.
It is not at all certain that every art form can accept a methodology that successfully incorporates process as an integral part of its consumable production. As in all the arts, the experimental stages of cuisine do not always provide finished, or even palatable, objects. The role of taste-as-judgment exists in part precisely in order to differentiate between culinary experiment and experimental cuisine. To disturb hierarchies, to shift paradigms, to change taste alone is not enough. Quite simply, the dish must also taste good.
Allen S. Weiss has been working hard on ingestion: he recently co-edited French Food (Routledge), and his Feast and Folly is forthcoming (SUNY). He is an editor-at-large at Cabinet.
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© 2002 Cabinet Magazine