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Posts tagged ‘MasterChef’

Sunny South Africanism

If South Africans were congratulating themselves in the wake of the contaminated meat scandal in Europe about the absence of horse – and, indeed, unlabelled pork – in their red meat, then their self-congratulation appeared misplaced. A couple of weeks ago, scientists at Stellenbosch University revealed that certain processed meat products contained donkey, water buffalo, goat, and even kangaroo meat.

It’s perfectly legal to sell these meats in South Africa, as long as they’re labelled correctly. But what is so disquieting about this local scandal is that it suggests a failure – even collapse – of South Africa’s food safety regulators: no South African abattoir is licensed to slaughter any of these animals, and it seems that this meat was trafficked into South Africa by criminal syndicates.

As I wrote last month, as the world’s food chain has been globalised since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, so this link between crime networks, poor regulation, and food adulteration is nothing new. I was also struck by the snobbery of so much of the response to the presence of horse and other meats in fast food and ready meals: that people who bought cheap, processed meat only had themselves to blame for inadvertently consuming horse, or other ‘taboo’ animals.

I have very little patience for the self-satisfied smuggery of middle-class foodies who advise eating less and more expensive meat to people who would never be able to afford even this shift in their eating habits. But I was amused by South African commentators who noted that nobody would notice if they had eaten water buffalo in their boerewors because, well, nobody really knows what goes into it in the first place.

I was thinking about this recently because a few weeks ago I had supper at Gourmet Boerie, a new restaurant which has opened at the bottom of Kloof Street, in the hub of Capetonian cool. There is something profoundly oxymoronic about a gourmet boerewors roll – or boerie – restaurant. If there is one item of fast – or street – food which unites the vast majority of South Africans, it is the boerewors roll.

Boerewors – which translates, literally, as farmer’s sausage – is a kind of coarse, highly-spiced sausage, sold in coils similar to Cumberland sausage. Strongly flavoured with salt, cumin, cloves, allspice and, particularly, dried coriander, it’s usually barbecued over smouldering wood, and then served either in a hotdog roll with All Gold tomato sauce, for preference, or with maize meal porridge and a spicy tomato and onion relish, also known as chakalaka.

The aroma of barbecued boerewors is the smell of suburban summer evenings, but it’s to be found in townships, at weekend football matches, with their largely black crowds, and at mainly white cricket and rugby games. The boerewors roll stand is a fixture of church bazaars, school sports meetings, festivals, local supermarkets over weekends, and even political party rallies. It is the South African hotdog, but, I think, much more delicious.

It’s also reflective of the country’s own complex social and cultural history. Its flavouring is borrowed from the southeast Asian slaves brought to the Cape Colony between the late seventeenth century and 1807, when the slave trade was abolished. But the sausage itself is part of a northern European tradition of meat preservation and sausage making. Indeed, it can be eaten dried as well. (Many a dog has been trained on bits of droëwors.)

The butcher in Sutherland.

The butcher in Sutherland.

Today, it can be bought in every supermarket, but also at butchers around the countryside. Supermarkets will carry at least two or three different ranges of boerewors, and it also differs from from region to region – the most popular local version being the slightly milder Grabouw sausage. Some of the nicest boerewors I’ve had recently came from a butcher in the Karoo village of Sutherland – best known for its astronomical observatory – but my local Pick ‘n Pay sells perfectly good boerewors too.

And although supermarkets are required to list the ingredients of each pack, there’s always a chance that a local butcher may add fairly unorthodox meats to his particular – usually secret – blend. Curious about what the standard recipe for boerewors is, I turned, inevitably, to my copy of that Mrs Beeton of South African cooking, Kook en Geniet. The recipe recommends a mixture of beef and pork, at a ratio of 5:1. Having marinaded the meat in a mixture of salt, pepper, vinegar, and ground dried coriander, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg, it’s all minced together along with some cubed lard and then stuffed into sausage casings. This is not, admittedly, the most overwhelmingly healthy meal.

Mutton is a frequent addition, and the sausage can vary in thickness and spiciness. The overwhelming flavour, though, is of ground coriander. A few winters ago, I upset a butcher in a farmers’ market held in a Marylebone car park, when I pointed out that his approximation of boerewors was too finely minced and not particularly faithful to the original, being fragrant with cumin and fenugreek.

My point is that although boerewors may vary significantly from region to region, and even from shop to shop, it’s still recognisably the same product because its texture and flavour tend to remain broadly similar.

I was, then, deeply curious about what Gourmet Boerie would do to the boerewors roll to make it ‘gourmet’. I was lucky enough to take Jeffrey Pilcher and Donna Gabaccia – brilliant, US-based historians of food and immigration – with me, and we puzzled over the purpose of the restaurant.

I had the ‘classic’ roll, with traditional boerewors in a hotdog bun with caramelised onions. Despite a softer-than-usual bun, this didn’t differ substantially from similar rolls I have eaten at festivals and friends’ barbecues. In fact, I think I could have eaten as good a boerewors roll at a Boland cricket match.

Jeffrey, though, as befitting a specialist in the history and politics of food and cooking in Mexico, tried the Mexicano roll, which came with tomato salsa, guacamole, sour cream, jalapeños, and fresh coriander. It was interesting – and it’s in the variety of boerewors rolls that the restaurant seems to position its ‘gourmet’ status. Not only can punters choose between different kinds of sausage (traditional, mutton, even vegetarian) and rolls, but they come with a selection of toppings, ranging from a breakfast boerie with bacon and eggs, to a ‘sophistication’ with goats’ cheese and basil pesto.

So the rolls themselves are fine, but not astonishingly, eye-poppingly revelatory. What interested us more was in the way the restaurant reframes South African cooking and, indeed, ‘South African-ness.’ It sells local beers, and versions of traditional puddings. It has proteas arranged in jars on the tables. The lampshades and soft furnishings are covered in fabric designed by Cape Town-based Skinny LaMinx.

Gourmet Boerie in Kloof Street, Cape Town.

Gourmet Boerie in Kloof Street, Cape Town.

Clearly, the owners of Gourmet Boerie are part of an international trend which transforms street foodhamburgers, ramen, Chinese dumplings – into a ‘gourmet’ experience to be eaten in restaurants. There was even, I am told, an episode in the South African series of Masterchef which required contestants to transform the boerewors roll into fine dining. The irony implicit in this refashioning of what was, originally, cheap snacks meant to be cooked and consumed quickly, is that their gourmet incarnations insist upon their ‘authenticity’. That it is, somehow, possible to eat ‘authentic’ Japanese or American street food in a London or Melbourne restaurant.

But what Gourmet Boerie is doing, is not only the recreation of a South African street food into a kind of ‘authentic’ and ‘gourmet’ experience (whatever we may mean by ‘authentic’ and ‘gourmet’), but a refashioning of South Africa itself: Gourmet Boerie is as much about boerewors rolls as it is about being South African. And the South Africa that Gourmet Boerie touts is one which ignores the country’s fractured, contested past and present – it is cool, beautifully designed, and emphasises South Africa’s easily depoliticised natural landscape with the presence of so many indigenous flowers.

But with an overwhelmingly black cooking and serving staff overseen by a white manager, the inequalities of contemporary South African society really can’t be elided in this sunny vision of South Africa.

I don’t argue that Gourmet Boerie should rethink its representation of South Africa – of course not, it’s a restaurant and not a museum – but, rather, that we should pay attention to how it links a version of South African street food to an attempt to create a depoliticised South African-ness. And one that is equally palatable to both locals and the legions of foreign tourists who visit Cape Town every summer.

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

Food Links, 10.10.2012

How rubber tappers in Indonesia are experiencing the food crisis.

Taking another look at African agriculture.

Tristram Stuart on food waste.

The implications of high food prices in the Middle East.

How Mitt Romney helped Monsanto to take over the world.

Hooters is trying to attract…female customers.

Jay Rayner on the incredible value of school breakfast clubs.

Justice Malala looks forward to the food at Manguang. (Thanks, Dad!)

Australia‘s food revolution.

New York’s earliest hamburgers.

An introduction to the tomatillo.

Chef’s Mask II. (Thanks, Mum!)

The rise of haute macho.

Prize-winning giant vegetables.

Microbiology and food.

How to make a baking tin out of foil.

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins opens a…tea shop.

Durian ice cream.

Is hundred-year-old sourdough be a myth?

Simon Hopkinson on how to boil an egg.

Zelda Fitzgerald, in cake. (Thanks, Jane-Anne!)

Gatsby gumballs.

A short interview with Yotam Ottolenghi.

The black-and-white McDonald’s burgers in China.

How to boil water without bubbles.

Nigel Slater’s favourite recipe books.

An A to Z of food trends.

The world’s most expensive meals.

Quinoa.

Why French Masterchef is better than English Masterchef.

An extract from the second volume of Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries.

The perfectly fried egg.

Fifty Shades of Chicken.

Preserving quinces.

Jerusalem street food.

What to eat and drink in Mauritius.

National Kitchens

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and my parents gave me a copy of the new revised English edition of that Bible of Afrikaans cooking, Cook and Enjoy. It’s testimony to the ubiquity of the book that I find myself referring to it by its Afrikaans title Kook en Geniet, rather than its English name.

Kook en Geniet is the Afrikaans Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Published as a guide to housekeeping and cooking for young brides in 1951 by Ina de Villiers, a Stellenbosch-based home economist, it has never been out of print. There are very few Afrikaans households which do not possess at least one copy of the book – and, like Mrs Beeton, its success lies partly in the fact that it is regularly updated.

De Villiers herself was responsible for testing and re-testing recipes, and for producing new editions of Kook en Geniet. Her long-standing association with the book helped Kook en Geniet to gain its reputation for being a fail-proof authority on Afrikaans cooking. Since her death in 2010, her daughter, Eunice van der Berg, who also happens to be a home economist, has taken over responsibility for it.

There is no single version of Kook en Geniet. Each edition retains a core of essential recipes, but methods and ingredients change as new products appear. Dishes are added and, less frequently, subtracted as culinary fashions evolve. De Villiers wrote in the preface to the 1992 edition:

As the microwave oven and food processor have become nearly indispensable in many kitchens today, their use is indicated in a number of recipes. However, experienced cooks will be able to use these timesavers for almost any recipe – it is left to their discretion.

My edition contains recipes for moussaka and lasagne. But it’s not for these that I use Kook en Geniet: it’s for staples of Afrikaans cuisine, like buttermilk rusks, Hertzoggies, quince chutney, vinegar pudding, and prickly pear jam. It’s a supremely practical recipe book. Helping out at the pancake stall which seems to accompany every major event – from agricultural shows to local government elections – in small town life? There’s a recipe to make enough batter for a hundred pancakes. Need to make bobotie for fifty at the church fete? Serving sosaties to eighty people at a barbeque? Kook en Geniet will come to the rescue with sensible, authoritative advice.

For anthropologists and historians interested in food, the value of Kook en Geniet lies in the fact that it changed as tastes evolved. It does not present readers with a static, inflexible view of ‘Afrikaner cuisine’. It acknowledges – tacitly – that cooking alters over time.

It’s not, though, the only source on what I’ve called Afrikaans or Afrikaner cuisine – more frequently referred to as boerekos, which translates literally as ‘farmers’ food’, but signifies considerably more than that. Boerekos is the homely, comfort cooking associated particularly with rural Afrikaans living. A wildly popular new series on the Afrikaans cable channel Kyknet, titled simply Boerekos, interviews a collection of Afrikaans women cooking their favourite, old-fashioned boerekos, from mosbolletjies to pie.

Programmes like this one, as well as other books on boerekos, seek to frame it as an unchanging cuisine: as a form of cooking which has remained reassuringly the same during a century of tumultuous change. For Afrikaner nationalists before and during apartheid, food was a useful way of forging a new, unified and distinct Afrikaner identity. As they codified and regularised Afrikaans, so they sought to create a unique Afrikaner cuisine.

C. Louis Leipoldt, culture broker, poet, journalist, doctor, Buddhist, and eugenicist, filled several journals with recipes he collected from friends, acquaintances, and people whom he came across while working during the 1920s and 1930s. (These are now held by the National Library in Cape Town.) He wrote about these recipes and rural cooking for Die Huisgenoot, a popular magazine with a distinct enthusiasm for nationalism, between 1942 and 1947. In 1933, at the height of the Afrikaner nationalist revival, he published Kos vie die Kenner (Food for the Expert), a collection of a more than a thousand recipes. Polfyntjies vir die Proe, Three Hundred Years of Cape Wine, and Leipoldt’s Cape Cookery appeared posthumously.

One of the ironies of boerekos is that so much of it is derived from the cooking of the slaves who were transported to the Cape from southeast Asia during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. The sambals, atchars, and chutneys of Afrikaner cooking are a particularly obvious debt to the food traditions imported to South Africa from present-day Indonesia and Malaysia.

Although Leipoldt, an unusually thoughtful nationalist, acknowledge that many of the recipes he found were cooked and invented by ‘Malay’ women – a term which he used to describe the largely Muslim and Afrikaans-speaking descendants of slaves who lived in the Cape –their presence gradually disappeared in other, later boerekos recipe books.

There is no neat boundary between Afrikaner cuisine and what most South Africans dub ‘Cape Malay’ cooking: there are recipes for bredie (mutton stew), bobotie, and sosaties (kebabs) in both boerekos and Malay recipe books. But in order to use food to construct distinct, discrete national or group identities, the differences between these two cuisines had to be emphasised over their similarities.

Nationalisms have long co-opted food and cooking to construct national identities. Leipoldt’s recipe books are the first in an extensive literature which seeks – both overtly and inadvertently – to construct an Afrikaner cuisine. It’s telling that the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuur Vereeniging (Afrikaans Language and Culture Organisation), once strongly allied to the National Party but now a society which works towards the promotion of Afrikaans as a language, bestowed Ina de Villiers with its Afrikoon prize in 2010 for furthering the cause of Afrikaans.

But minority groups use food and recipes in similar ways – to construct, maintain, and assert identities, often in the face of discrimination and social and political marginalisation. Cass Abrahams as well as other Cape-based women have created a rich literature on ‘Cape Malay’ cooking, often basing their writing on recipes collected from, and donated by, local women. These are as much social histories as they are cookery books.

Similarly, one of my favourite South African recipe books, Indian Delights, was compiled by a community organisation, the Women’s Culture Group in Durban. First published in 1961, the book has been revised several times. My mother’s copy – which I covet – is the 1982 ‘Enlarged Super Edition.’ As the editor, Zuleikha Mayat, writes in the introduction, the recipes were

mostly passed on to me by persons ranging from ordinary housewives to the super cooks who abound in our community. This is why Indian Delights remains – as it has always been – a representation of the collective culinary knowledge of our Community.

The book is as much an assertion of a distinct form of South African Indian cooking as it is a record of how a group of women cooked for their families in Natal during the second half of the twentieth century. But it is also an attempt to preserve a culinary tradition at risk of being forgotten as family life changed:

Twenty years ago when Indian Delights was first published, I had stated that the cookery book as such was something foreign to Indian women; that each dish was taught down the generations till daughters became as proficient as their mothers; but that the need of a reliable cookery book was beginning to be felt since daughters were spending more time with studies and acquiring careers.

As a result of this ‘a good reliable cookery book has become essential’.

It’s partly because of this extensive collection of recipe books – from Indian Delights to Kook en Geniet – that it’s particularly obvious that there is no, single homogenous South African cuisine. One of the best collections of South African recipes, African Salad demonstrates this particularly well: it’s a series of photographs and short interviews with of a more-or-less random selection of South Africans on their favourite meals. The recipes are as varied as the interviewees.

I’ve been struck while watching the South African version of the MasterChef franchise by the absence of references to the African cuisines of South Africa. During one episode in which the contestants were required to barbeque, one (black) Twitter user commented jokingly that the black contestants would struggle because they would prefer over- rather than underdone meat.

So far the dominant cuisine (the meta-cuisine?) of the show has been broadly western. It is this which is most closely associated with ‘fine dining’ (hateful phrase). Indeed, I was annoyed when a black contestant was criticised for cooking a steak too well: a liking for pink, lightly cooked meat is both a relatively recent phenomenon and culturally specific. Why should someone be penalised if she has cooked meat according to the dictates of another cuisine?

A couple of contestants have cooked African dishes and I’ve watched those with the most curiosity: as a white South African raised in the Western Cape, I feel that I have a fairly good grasp of Afrikaans and Malay cooking, but African cuisine still eludes me. I know of certain dishes and have seen sheep heads and walkie talkies (chicken heads and feet) being sold, but this is as far as my knowledge goes.

I know that there probably isn’t a single ‘African cuisine’ or African culinary tradition in South Africa – that it must differ between regions and has changed over time. There are, to my knowledge, no substantial recipe books dedicated to this country’s African cuisines – although do please feel free to enlighten me if there are.

With the current wave of enthusiasm for local producers, it’s striking that the various markets which have sprung up around South Africa have tended to model themselves on a foreign – mainly European – model. They are Borough Markets in miniature. These new ingredients – these cheeses, sausages, and free-range duck and chicken – are sold to be used in cassoulet, poule au pot, and arrosto di maiale al latte. We use local products for overseas cuisines.

I’m not some mad nationalist loon who advocates that we only eat local cuisines, but as South African society changes during the early twenty-first century – as urbanisation increases and as our middle class expands – we are, as in the case of any rapidly evolving society, in danger of losing a lot of culinary knowledge. This is a pity: not only do food and cooking provide useful ways of understanding how societies function, but it also strikes me as deeply strange that the white, middle-class customers of the Neighbourgoods Market in Cape Town know more about the cooking of northern Italy than they do of the Eastern Cape. Or Langa, which is right next door.

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

Square Meals

The best television chef ever is Adam on Northern Exposure (surely the greatest series ever made). Dirty, self-centred, arrogant, appallingly rude, yet phenomenally talented – he once turned down a job at the legendary Tour d’Argent – Adam appears periodically, often accompanied by his neurotic, hypochondriac, and equally selfish wife, Eve, cooks incredible food, and then vanishes.

Adam is the anti-foodie. His enthusiasm for cooking isn’t borne out of snobbery or a desire to demonstrate either his sophistication or moral superiority, but, rather, out of a liking for food and eating. And possibly a hatred for the people for whom he cooks.

He is a world away from the TV chef-celebrities who populate cooking-driven channels like the Food Network. Indeed, when Northern Exposure aired between 1990 and 1995, the idea that a single TV channel could be devoted entirely to food was relatively new. In the US, the Food Network launched in 1993, and the now-defunct Carlton Food Network – for which, incidentally, a young David Cameron did PR – aired for the first time three years later in the UK.

Now, food is everywhere on television, and food programmes have evolved from their most basic format – a chef cooking in a kitchen – to embrace travel and reality programmes. There’s been a lot of fuss about the launch of the most recent incarnation of the unbelievably successful MasterChef franchise in South Africa. In fact, the evolution of MasterChef says a great deal about how food on television has changed over the past few decades.

The original MasterChef series aired in the UK between 1990 and 1999 and was presented by pasta sauce entrepreneur and mid-Atlantic accent promoter, Loyd Grossman. It was all very serious and restrained and most of the contestants were terribly tense ladies from the Home Counties who replicated the nouvelle cuisine they had eaten at Le Gavroche, with varying degrees of success and anxiety.

It was revamped in 2005. With two shouty judges and considerably more socially representative participants, its popularity demonstrating the shifting significance of food within middle-class Britain. The new series’s focus on training contestants to be good, highly skilled chefs is meant to produce people who could, conceivably, run their own restaurants – which, to the credit of MasterChef, winners like Thomasina Miers and Mat Follas have done successfully.

The Australian, American, and South African versions of MasterChef have increased the emphasis on teaching would-be chefs how to work in professional kitchens. Of course, people watch these series for the same reasons that they tune into The Amazing Race, Strictly Come Dancing, and Project Runway. But MasterChef has the added appeal that it aims to teach its audience about cooking: the master classes offered by its presenters are aimed as much at those watching the series as at the contestants.

In fact, the earliest and most enduring TV cookery shows were intended primarily to educate, rather than only entertain, audiences. Dione Lucas – who claimed, incorrectly, to be the first woman graduate of the Cordon Bleu Cookery Institute in Paris – taught classical French cooking to the affluent American middle classes during the 1950s. Julia Child, an altogether warmer and more appealing presenter, did the same in her long-running series. Their aim was to teach Americans how to cook properly – and during the 1950s and 1960s, ‘proper’ food was French food.

Even Fanny Cradock, despite her increasingly ridiculous television appearances towards the end of her career, cooked a version of French cuisine which was meant to be affordable and accessible to her audience. Delia Smith’s first series, Family Fayre, in the mid-1970s was intended to teach its audience how to cook. Her success – built partly on the fact that her impeccably-tested recipes always do work – owed a great deal to her ability to teach and to de-mystify processes which may at first seem difficult and complicated.

Many of the cookery shows of the 1980s and early 1990s were made by the BBC’s Continuing Education Department: Madhur Jaffrey and Ken Hom, among others, owe their early success to the Beeb’s efforts to educate audiences. It was only with the coming of Graham Kerr – the ‘Galloping Gourmet’ – and, more successfully, Keith Floyd, that cookery programmes began to shift their emphasis from education to entertainment.

I’ve never really understood Floyd’s appeal, as Paul Levy writes:

Keith Floyd was a television cook who enjoyed and profited from a large audience despite having no outstanding talent, either as a cook or as a TV presenter, no great knowledge of his subject, or any apparent passion for anything but drink.

But he could be amusing – and more so than most of the considerably more serious presenters of food programmes in Britain. In many ways, the entertainment- and lifestyle-driven series presented by Nigella Lawson, Ainsley Harriott, Sophie Dahl and others are part of Floyd’s unwitting legacy.

I’m more interested in the way that presenters of food programmes have linked their teaching to wider, social projects. In post-revolution Cuba, cookbook writer Nitza Villapol used her long-running television series to teach Cubans a cuisine which was at once ‘authentically’ Cuban but also compatible with the country’s system of food rationing. During the Special Period, she provided recipes and advice for making limited supplies go further. She is still – regardless of her association with the period – seen as the pre-eminent expert on Cuban cooking.

In Egypt, Ghalia Mahmoud has recently emerged as a popular TV chef on the 25 January cable channel. From a working-class background, Mahmoud teaches audiences ‘traditional Egyptian food, such as mahshi (stuffed vine leaves), bisara and keshk, simple fava-bean and buttermilk-based stews.’ Not only do her recipes respect the differing dietary requirements of Egypt’s range of religious groups, but she cooks with an awareness that many members of her audience have limited resources. This is patriotic cuisine for a new Egypt: one which demonstrates how to feed a family on only 250g of meat a week.

It’s particularly telling that the TV chefs of the final years of the Mubarak regime were, as Mahmoud says, ‘bigger than movie stars and spoke English and French.’ The most popular cookery teachers on television – and this includes Ina Paarman in South Africa – have been lower- to middle-class women. It’s a common observation – even complaint – that while the majority of people who cook family meals are women, the best-known and most feted cooks are all male. This isn’t entirely true. Arguably, the most influential cooks of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – those who actually teach their audiences how to prepare food – are women.

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

Food, Love, and Molecules

This post is late because I came unstuck on a piece about food shortages and revolution and must entirely rethink my argument. So instead I present you with a soufflé of a post: a reflection on this year’s list of Top 50 restaurants which was announced on Monday.

For a long time I’ve wanted to discuss the kind of cooking labelled ‘molecular gastronomy’, practised most famously by Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck and, originally, at El Bulli in Spain by Ferran Adrià. I suppose that given last week’s rant about the adoration of the pavlova on MasterChef Australia it would be reasonable to assume that I am deeply critical of the food served at these restaurants. On the contrary, I’m fascinated by it and am a fan of both Blumenthal and Adrià.

This may seem like I’m trying to square the circle, but let me explain. It’s worth defining precisely what I mean by molecular gastronomy because, depending on context, it can refer to two separate, yet related, activities. Firstly, it describes what has also been dubbed ‘modernist cuisine’: a type of cooking which uses a range of unorthodox methods and equipment radically to alter familiar foodstuffs and dishes. For example, in a recent television series, In Search of Perfection, Blumenthal entirely reinvented, among other things, that classic of 1970s dining, black forest gateau. Adrià dislikes the term molecular gastronomy, preferring describe his cooking as ‘deconstructionist’, and I think that this is a useful way of understanding his and Blumenthal’s technique.

Heston Blumenthals revamped black forest gateau

Blumenthal reduced the gateau to its most basic components – chocolate, cream, maraschino cherries, and kirsch – and then reassembled it using aerated chocolate and cream jelly to emphasise the intensity of the dark chocolate, the richness of the cream, and the sweet-sourness of the cherries. Drawing attention to its origins during the 70s, the cake was spray-painted with a mock wood veneer in chocolate. Finally, Blumenthal poured the kirsch into a spray bottle and spritzed it in to the air as the cake was being eaten: we use our sense of smell to taste (which is why everything tastes of boiled knitting when your nose is blocked), and the scent of the kirsch combined with the taste of chocolate, cream, and cherries blends together as the cake is eaten.

In its second, more exact, meaning, molecular gastronomy describes a branch of food science which pays particular attention to the process of cooking. It was invented in 1988 by Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This, who explains:

Despite having a huge impact on other aspects of our lives, scientific advances have done little to change our cooking habits. When it comes to preparing food – the most important aspect of our life from a physiological point of view – citizens in developed countries still cook almost the same way as their ancestors did centuries ago. … Kitchens are equipped with basically the same pans, whisks and sieves that cooks used in the seventeenth century.

Indeed, cooking was the last of the ‘chemical arts’ to become the object of scientific scrutiny and it still relies on telltale and anecdotal knowledge rather than solid science. As recently as 2001, an inspector from the French Department of Public Education said, during a public lecture, that her mayonnaise failed when she was menstruating. Such old wives’ tales were partly the reason behind the creation of molecular gastronomy: I first started experimental studies of cooking after encountering a recipe for cheese soufflé that advised adding egg yolks ‘two by two, never by fractions’. Another reason was that the late Nicholas Kurti, professor of physics at Oxford University, UK, was upset by the poor and unscientific way that people cook. …in 1988, Kurti and I decided that we should create a new scientific discipline to investigate culinary transformations.

Originally, molecular gastronomy had five aims: ‘to collect and investigate old wives’ tales about cooking; to model and scrutinize existing recipes; to introduce new tools, products and methods to cooking; to invent new dishes using knowledge from the previous three aims; and to use the appeal of food to promote science.’ This has since been reduced to two: to look at how food is described or defined (a mayonnaise is a thick, jelly-like emulsion of egg yolk and oil, for example), and the range of hints, tips, and advice that accompany instructions for making food (when making mayonnaise, heat the bowl and add the oil in a thin trickle).

However, we rapidly found this new programme insufficient as well, because the main aim in cooking is to produce good food, which is art and not technique. Furthermore, a dish can be cooked perfectly, but if it is not presented in an appealing way, all the art and science will mean little to the customer or guest; we therefore decided that we must include the ‘love’ component of culinary practice. Of course, science will probably never be able to fully explain art or love, but it can help; for example, evolutionary biology can contribute to the exploration of human behaviours, and, accordingly, culinary practice. Consequently, molecular gastronomy not only uses science to explore the technical aspect of cooking but also the ‘art’ and ‘love’ components, both of which are important for the main aim of cooking: to delight guests.

I think that this sums up why I am fascinated, rather than repelled, by molecular gastronomy: it melds scientific enquiry (why do we cook in the way we do?) with a recognition that much of our response to food and eating is emotional, aesthetic, and irrational. This argues convincingly that the usefulness of molecular gastronomy lies in its ability to tell us more about how food is cooked: ‘If we are able to use the knowledge gained on food preparation, we might find new ways to make healthy food more attractive, we might persuade more people to cook better food and, last but not least, we might convince society to regard eating as a pleasure rather than a necessity.’

It’s for this reason that I am interested in what top-end restaurants do: the two uses of molecular gastronomy overlap in that both require us to think more closely about how we prepare food, and then to use this knowledge to look again at how we eat. I agree that it would be impossible to accuse Pierre Gagnaire and René Redzepi of producing affordable, interesting, and healthy food for the masses – and the same is true of the three South African restaurants (Le Quartier Francais (36), Rust en Vrede (61), and La Colombe (82)) listed in the Top 100. But then none of them pretend to do so: these restaurants are spaces in which food is the subject of experimentation and where, paradoxically, chefs are at liberty not to take it too seriously (as on MasterChef). They are free to play with food, and to rethink the ways in which we eat and respond to food.

There is a connection between restaurant and home cooking. When the much derided nouvelle cuisine of the 1980s swopped heavy, flour-laden sauces for lighter reductions, home cooking gradually followed suit (although this change took place within a broader context of heightened concern about healthy eating in the West). When Blumenthal unveiled his snail porridge at the Fat Duck, the dish was greeted with derision and disgust. But now – around a decade later – deeply savoury snails on a risotto-like porridge of oats is no longer thought to be repellent. In fact, Blumenthal simply combined a collection of ingredients usually loved by diners in a slightly different format.

In this way, these restaurants can be seen as laboratories in which the food of the future – the jellies, foams, sous vide cooking, and new flavour combinations – is developed. It’s worth noting that Adrià has recently announced the closure of El Bulli, and the opening of a research foundation dedicated to spreading the lessons learned from the technology developed at the restaurant. In particular, he aims to show how cooking and eating can – and should – be both healthy and delicious. That love, in other words, is as important as technique in cooking.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by <a rel=”cc:attributionURL” href=”http://tangerineandcinnamon.wordpress.com/”>Sarah Duff</a> is licensed under a <a rel=”license” href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/”>Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License</a>.

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

Be Modern: Worship Food?

On Monday evening I watched the first episode of the latest series of Australian MasterChef to be broadcast in South Africa. The previous series was so wildly popular here that I was interested to see what the fuss was about. Based on the latest incarnation of the MasterChef franchise in the UK, over the course of a few weeks the programme whittles down a group of fifty aspiring cooks to a four or five finalists who are put through a series of challenges – working a shift in a hotel kitchen, recreating a chef’s impossibly complicated signature dish (I hate the term) – until only one contestant emerges triumphant. It’s fun, self-important, and utterly ridiculous.

And then, towards the end of this first episode of season two, an audience of at least sixty intelligent adults applauded a pavlova.

A pudding consisting of egg whites, sugar, vinegar, and vanilla received a round of applause. I mean, I lecture three times a week and I’m never applauded.

Donna Hay's adored pavlova

I love pavlova and the MasterChef version – baked and unveiled by Donna Hay – looked fantastic, and I really don’t have much against reality TV shows (I can’t – I was once badly addicted to the second series of My Restaurant Rules.) And, to be fair, to accuse MasterChef of not being adequately realistic would be to miss the point. The British version is hosted and judged by two middle-aged men who yell things like ‘Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this!’ at the camera. It’s a competition and no attempt to train a new generation of chefs. But the round of applause and the reverence for a pudding struck me as being more than silly. It was, in fact, too serious.

MasterChef is like many other reality shows: it judges contestants on their ability at a particular skill. This skill can be anything – from fashion design to hairdressing – because it’s secondary to the format of the programme. It’s the vehicle for television series which are, essentially, talent shows, but on a more elaborate and glamorous scale. The adulation of the pavlova undermined this format. All of a sudden, the focus of that episode of MasterChef shifted from the contestants to the food.

Am I overreacting? Probably. But not without reason. Earlier that day I had read an article written by Angela Carter in 1984 for the London Review of Books, in which she reviewed The Official Foodie Handbook by Ann Barr and Paul Levy, Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. While she acknowledged that the Foodie Handbook was meant to lampoon middle-class ‘foodies’, it is was one of a series of guides – like the Sloan Ranger and Yuppie handbooks – to middle-class living which, she felt, walked an uneasy line between guide and satire. Writing about the Preppy Handbook she noted:

The book was an ill-disguised celebration of the snobbery it affected to mock and, under its thinly ironic surface, was nothing more nor less than an etiquette manual for a class newly emergent under Reaganomics. It instructed the nouveaux riches in the habits and manners of the vieux riches so that they could pass undetected amongst them. It sold like hot cakes.

Along with David and Waters, the authors of the Foodie Handbook elevate the preparation and eating of food to a rarefied art form only done ‘properly’ by those educated and sensitive enough truly to understand cooking. The book advised its readership: ‘Be modern: worship food!’ Carter was, like Jay Rayner and Anthony Bourdain, particularly scathing of Alice Waters:

Alice Waters [serves] a Franco-Californian cuisine of almost ludicrous refinement, in which the simplest item is turned into an object of mystification. A ripe melon, for example, is sought for as if it were a piece of the True Cross. Ms Waters applauds herself on serving one. ‘Anyone could have chosen a perfect melon, but unfortunately most people don’t take the time or make an effort to choose carefully and understand what that potentially sublime fruit should be.’ She talks as if selecting a melon were an existential choice of a kind to leave Jean-Paul Sartre stumped.

She concludes, gloriously:

Ms Waters has clearly lost her marbles through too great a concern with grub, so much so that occasionally ‘Alice Waters’ sounds like a pseudonym for S.J. Perelman. ‘I do think best while holding a tomato or a leg of lamb,’ she confides. For a person of my generation, there is also the teasing question: could she be the Alice, and ‘Chez Panisse’ the real Alice’s Restaurant, of the song by Arlo Guthrie? And if this is so, what does it prove?

Carter bases much of her criticism of the Foodie Handbook, Waters, and Elizabeth David on the grounds of insensitivity: how is it possible to be so precious about food, she asks, when so many people go without? I agree that there is something profoundly wrong with a world where some populations have so much food that they feel that they should spend a day searching for the perfect watermelon, while others starve or are reliant on the tender mercies of aid organisations.

We have, though, always imbued food with meaning. Food provides nourishment, but it also carries with it a range of assumptions, symbols, and signs which are occasionally as important as its primary function. When Spanish missionaries in sixteenth-century Mexico refused to celebrate communion using maize, instead of wheat, wafers, they did so purely on the grounds that wheat, an imported crop, represented Europe and, thus, civilisation. Similarly, when well-meaning lady food reformers attempted to ‘Americanise’ the cuisine of recent immigrants to the United States during the 1920s, they did so because the cooking of Italy, Poland, and Ireland was seen as less ‘civilised’ than that prepared by white, Protestant Americans.

Pears' Soap - The White Man's Burden

There is a difference, though, between the association of food with civilisation and cultural superiority and giving a round of applause to a pavlova – or, indeed, to a melon. In Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (1995), Anne McClintock examines the ways in which Victorian advertisers used images of empire to sell their products. Pears, the soap manufacturers, produced a series of advertisements which implied that soap was somehow connected to the success of British imperialism. In one of their best known ads from the early 1890s, a sea captain – surrounded by images of travel and conquest – is depicted washing his hands in his ship. It’s captioned: ‘The first step towards lightening the white man’s burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness.’ Another titled ‘The Birth of Civilisation’ is of an African man holding aloft a bar of soap which has floated ashore after a shipwreck.

This campaign crudely linked cleanliness – long associated with being ‘civilised’ – with the civilising mission. Colonised people, suggested Pears, could be made European by a bath with Pears soap. In the first volume of Capital (1867), Karl Marx began to develop the idea of ‘commodity fetishism’ to explain the kind of ‘magical’ attraction and meaning which commodities – ordinary, manufactured objects – seem to exude. He argued that a range of meanings – which are socially and culturally inflected and which change over time – are attached to commodities. Capitalism encourages people to confuse the utility of the object and social meanings – this is what Marx called ‘commodity fetishism’. In other words, objects take on meanings to the extent that they assume a kind of independence from their utility. The purpose of soap was no longer to clean bodies and clothes, but, rather, to civilise.

Pears' Soap - the Birth of Civilisation

A similar process occurred with the pavlova on MasterChef: it was no longer simply a pudding, but, rather, representative of success and good taste. When one of the contestants in the final round produced what she thought would be a bad pavlova, she collapsed in tears and refused to continue. It was as if it was she – rather than her ability to bake a pudding – who was being tested. When Alice Waters hunted for the perfect melon, she was not only seeking out a fruit, but also an object which embodied what she believed to be her goodness and moral superiority.

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I thought that this strange affliction was limited to Californian chefs and anxious Australians. Look at food magazines and food programmes: aimed at middle-class audiences, they conflate being able to cook well and to eat good – whole, organic, humanely reared – food with being good, successful, and environmentally and socially responsible. I have absolutely nothing against farmers’ markets, artisan bakers, small-scale farmers, co-operative supermarkets, and organic grocers – in fact, I think that they’re helping to create new ways of thinking about food – but I am deeply concerned when their produce is no longer thought of simply as food, but becomes a marker of middle-class morality.

This form of commodity fetishism is limiting: it associates good food with class and wealth. It encourages those who consume this food to think only about the product which they buy, and not to consider the complex processes which brought that piece of cheese or that steak to their deli or supermarket. It also mystifies the production, preparation, and eating of food. If we are to become more careful eaters – and more aware of how our eating habits impact on the world around us – we need to see food as food: as a product which is fundamental to life and which all people have a right to eat.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Donna R. Gabaccia, We are what we eat: Ethnic food and the making of Americans (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Karl Marx, Capital: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, [1867] 1990).

Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Other sources:

Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (London: Leicester University Press, 1996).

Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Yves Péhaut, ‘The Invasion of Foreign Foods,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 457-470.

<a rel=”license” href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/”><img style=”border-width: 0;” src=”http://i.creativecommons.org/l/by-sa/3.0/88×31.png&#8221; alt=”Creative Commons License” /></a>
Tangerine and Cinnamon by <a rel=”cc:attributionURL” href=”http://tangerineandcinnamon.wordpress.com/”>Sarah Duff</a> is licensed under a <a rel=”license” href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/”>Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License</a>.

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

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