By Herb Gardener-
“Let’s imagine offering to discover for Americans their Most Wanted Food.” So begins philosopher Denis Dutton’s review of Painting By Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art. The book was a minor sensation in the 1990’s when the Russian émigré artists announced results of a statistically representative survey of national aesthetic preferences and also unveiled their interpretation of the data rendered on canvas — our most and least wanted fine art images.
Dutton dismissed the Most Wanted project by analogy, concluding that the ultimate dish based upon similar market research might result in “hamburger-flavored ice cream with chocolate-coated pizza nuggets”— perhaps a satisfying outcome for mischievous five-year-old readers of this column. (For more on the Most Wanted project visit the links below.)
Now, the food world is in the throes of its own scientific guide controversy. Polymath Nathan Myhrvold is the genius behind Modernist Cuisine, a 2,400-plus page, multi-volume set that treats the kitchen arts like university research in physics or chemistry.
Though the easiest book review to write is for the title left unread, I won’t attempt to characterize or describe this protean set other than to mention one of its central techniques, sous vide, French for “under vacuum”.
Immersion circulators are standard in many top restaurant kitchens, and they turn up with increasing frequency on TV shows like Top Chef or Iron Chef America. Vacuum sealed bags of a protein, often accompanied by herbs, oil, etc., cook in water at a constant temperature. Laboratory precision produces steaks, fish fillets, etc. that are perfectly done—literally to the nth degree.
Since the temperature never varies, distractions, say a phone call from your chatty Mah Jongg partner, won’t spoil anything. Ingredients can soak happily in a climate-controlled emersion bag for hours. Gee, what a life. I accept sous vide’s value in producing perfect cooking results and applaud Myhrvold and his band of atom-smashing assistants for revealing in rigorous text and stunning photos the science behind modernist cuisine’s legerdemain. Nonetheless, I find something sinister and cold about their manifesto.
The Japanese ceramic artist Uematsu said that only 80-percent of his art was his own; 20-percent came from nature and the unpredictability of the kiln. Isn’t chance and mastering difficulty part of what challenges and pleases us as cooks? In planning a summer vacation to Chicago with Flora my most wanted food is a great hot dog rather than a 16-course, four-hour modernist cuisine clinical trial featuring hamburger-flavored ice cream. But I may give Grant Achatz the opportunity to persuade me otherwise.