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Modernism, Postmodernism, Authenticism?

I’m not entirely sure what it says about me, but the first article I read in the Observer is always Jay Rayner’s restaurant review. (In fact, I started reading the Observer in high school because of Jay Rayner’s reviews – it came as a pleasant surprise that there was a really good newspaper organised around them.) Last week’s was on Viajante in Bethnal Green, which seems to specialise in a kind of sub-Adrià-esque complicated, miniaturised cuisine. Rayner was not impressed:

In its eagerness to be so very now and forward thinking, the food at Viajante manages at times to feel curiously dated; it recalls the first flush of Hestomania, when even he has moved on and is now cooking up big platefuls of heartiness at Dinner.

Modern techniques are great. They’re brilliant. If you want to cook my steak by banging it round the Large Hadron Collider, be my guest. Dehydrate my pig cheeks. Spherify my nuts. But only do so if the result tastes nicer. At Viajante deliciousness is too often forced to give way to cleverness.

Rayner’s point is that the modernist cooking presented by Viajante is beginning to feel old hat. Even if – as he’s admitted – restaurant critics are ‘rampant neophiliacs,’ it does seem that enthusiasm for the molecular gastronomy espoused most famously by Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià has peaked. Or that, rather, it’s become so integrated into the repertoires of high-end chefs that it no longer seems to be so very experimental.

I was surprised when I first heard molecular gastronomy described as ‘modernist cuisine’ – a term now probably forever associated with Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young’s five volume tome Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. This was published last year – long after what most people would agree to be the end of literary and cultural modernism in the 1950s and 1960s. (I wonder how we should define the cuisine of the modernist movement during the early twentieth century? I tend to think of Virginia Woolf’s descriptions of feasts in To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own.)

If anything, this should be postmodern cuisine. The purpose of molecular gastronomy is to reconsider the processes which underpin cooking: to understand them, and then reconfigure them. It’s all fairly similar to Derrida’s deconstruction – and Adrià has described his technique in precisely the same terms.

When I was in London at the end of last year, I went with a friend to the V&A’s exhibition, ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990’. It was a strange exhibition: in an attempt to include all that could be considered postmodern in design and architecture, it had a scattergun approach as to what it included. It felt curiously empty – but I’m not sure if that’s the fault of the curator, or of the movement itself.

One of the oddest features of the exhibition was a strange preponderance of teapots. It was a pity that this was as far as the V&A got to thinking about postmodernism and food – because nouvelle cuisine, the food of the postmodern moment, was so design heavy. Even if the point of nouvelle cuisine was to liberate high-end cuisine from the heavy, meaty, and flour-based-sauce cooking of the 1960s and 1970s, it was also characterised by incredibly careful plating and presentation. In many ways, garnishes were as important as the food itself.

There are strong links, I think, between nouvelle cuisine and molecular gastronomy. Both disregard the orthodoxy established by classic French cooking and experiment with ideas and ingredients from other culinary traditions – best exemplified by the late 90s enthusiasm for ‘fusion food’, done well by Peter Gordon, done badly by legions of others – and the techniques of cooking itself. Other than the fact that molecular gastronomy is underpinned by the work of scientists Hervé This and Nicholas Kurti, it also differs from nouvelle cuisine in its playfulness – its refusal to take itself seriously, something which places it firmly within the postmodern moment. But, as Rayner suggests, it would seem that molecular gastronomy has had its day: Adrià has transformed El Bulli into a foundation, and Blumenthal is serving hearty, historical meals at Dinner.

Two years ago I taught an introduction to historiography at Goldsmiths in London, and was struck by how dated postmodern theory felt. When I studied it a decade ago – crucially, pre-9/11 – it seemed, even then, to be an exciting and useful way of understanding the world, particularly because of its emphasis on the relationship between language and power. I didn’t – and still don’t – agree with the critiques of history offered up by Hayden White and Keith Jenkins, but they were thought-provoking.

After the events of 11 September 2011, the War on Terror, the 2008 economic crash, and the Arab Spring, postmodernism appears even more the product of its time: of the prosperous, confident 1980s and 1990s, when the end of communism seemed to signal Francis Fukuyama’s end of history. I find it easier to take seriously the postmodernism and poststructuralism of the 1970s and earlier – when philosophers, linguists, and theorists were attempting to find a new way of thinking reality – partly by emphasising the extent to which narratives and discourses are contingent and rooted in their particular contexts. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979) is still an arrestingly original document.

This act of de-privileging dominant discourses – or indeed any discourse – has also been its undoing, as Edward Docx argues in a recent article for Prospect:

by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended. … If we de-privilege all positions, we can assert no position, we cannot therefore participate in society or the collective and so, in effect, an aggressive postmodernism becomes, in the real world, indistinguishable from an odd species of inert conservatism.

So what follows postmodernism? Docx suggests that it is something he dubs ‘authenticism’. He explains:

we can detect this growing desire for authenticity all around us. We can see it in the specificity of the local food movement or the repeated use of the word ‘proper; on gastropub menus. We can hear it in the use of the word ‘legend’ as applied to anyone who has actually achieved something in the real world. … We can identify it in the way brands are trying to hold on to, or take up, an interest in ethics, or in a particular ethos. … Values are important once more…

…we can see a growing reverence and appreciation for the man or woman who can make objects well. We note a new celebration of meticulousness…. We uncover a new emphasis on design through making…. Gradually we hear more and more affirmation for those who can render expertly, the sculptor who can sculpt, the ceramist, the jeweller, even the novelist who can actually write.

It’s telling that the various manifestation of the new, global food movement – from Occupy Food to the hundreds of local campaigns for small-scale agriculture and unadulterated food – tend to refer to themselves as ‘real food’ (as opposed to Big Food – or the plastic, ‘Frankenstein’ food it produces).

This is a good way of understanding the recent trend in food – which Docx identifies – for the artisanal (whatever we may mean by that), the handmade, the local, the ‘old-fashioned’ (again, this is open to debate and redefinition), and the ethical. It says a great deal that the chef of the moment is René Redzepi, the Danish chef and owner of Noma, who sees himself as much as a cook as a food activist. This demand for ‘authentic’ food is, strange as it may seem, political: it’s a refusal to buy into the advertising and branding of the food industry, even if it’s an act that only a very small proportion of people can afford to do. But it’s a beginning, and a welcome one.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have much to say about this; for now a few quick reactions: (1) I am grateful for the introduction to Edward Docx — nothing so ironic as a writer whose name is the MS Word file format! (2) I am rather down on “authenticism” and the like; it _feels_ a little like neoconservatism (of the Allan Bloom strain), in that “authenticity” involves a degree of essentialization and simplification of the past/the other; there is a degree of anti-intellectual clutching-at-certainties about it. (As you know! It is mostly thanks to your blog that I associate “authenticity” with “pseudery.”) (3) It has always bothered me that localism/”authenticity” licenses a degree of insularity. (4) I agree that there are political implications to things but the English poets of the 1930s are pretty postmodernist on Docx’s terms, and your post reminded me of nothing so much as Empson’s (~1940) poem on the British museum: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/h/homage_to_the_british_museum.aspx

    February 11, 2012
    • Thank you! And I await further comments eagerly. I couldn’t agree with you more on all counts. I think what interests me about this ‘authenticism’ is that it does suggest a desire to engage with the provenance of food. Docx – and yes, what a surname – crystallised something which had always bothered me about postmodernism, but which I couldn’t articulate: that it makes engagement with any issue impossible. Politics becomes impossible in a postmodern world. Authenticism allows a kind of re-engagement – albeit one which is deeply problematic.

      February 11, 2012
  2. I’m not sure I’d classify Redzepi’s as a quest for authenticity – obviously they do source locally and are proud to tell you the name of the farm where the apple they used for their juice comes from. I’ve been to Noma and I’d classify it more as a spin on arte povera (I guess I tend to agree with Sarang’s post and the neoconservative angle). There’s something reminiscent of barren scandinavian landscapes on their food design. A lot of ice. A lot of reminders that, in Northern Latitudes in a previous age, if you didn’t pickle, the only green foodstuff you’d be able to eat was moss. This might be an interesting exercise but it strikes me as reactionary. There’s a whiff of 1930’s isolationism to it – that’s probably a bad analogy considering the very international team of chefs at Noma. An explicit denial of the benefits of global commerce is rather obvious even if they’re clearly in favor of immigration. It’s not even a glorification of terroir, it’s an exercise in restraint, in making the most of what you have at your doorstep. Even if it’s only moss. I imagine older people who went through periods of food poverty, depending on seasonality and limited to homegrown produce might not find this Noma philosophy that exciting.

    We got a bit of spiel from our waiter who compared Noma to the neighboring anarchist experience Christania. Basically, he said, they’re both bubbles where you are taken away from the mainstreetization of commerce. I found the comparison rather amusing, sitting there in a restaurant which tries to be unpretentious but which is not exactly cheap, surrounded by obviously moneyed patrons. It wasn’t a very fit comparison either as when we later walked to Christiania we found that (some) drug users seem to care about terroir but the sellers aren’t afraid of advertising the north african and asian origin of their products and they set their stalls like gourmet artisan chocolatiers, each brown square marked with origin and purity level.

    Then I went to San Francisco and found out some restaurants there have been redzepized. Which is ludicrous in such a great agricultural state as California with year round varied produce and no shortage of small organic farms. Being served foraged herbs and pickles in the land of plenty was rather odd. But that’s probably just a difficulty in interpreting the principles of Noma and resorting to mere mimicry.

    February 12, 2012
    • Hi – and thanks so much for this amazing response. I think you’re absolutely spot-on about Redzepi’s food being a kind of arte povera: that encapsulates it absolutely perfectly.

      Noma as Christiana? Puh-lease.

      February 12, 2012

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