This week, The New Yorker becomes the umpteenth publication to weigh in on Nathan Myhrvold’s 40-plus-pound Modernist Cuisine. It comes to many of the same conclusions that everybody else has: It looks great (thanks to its “liberal use of truly gorgeous photography”), it really champions sous-vide cooking (“If this book … had to be summed up in three words, they would be ‘Sous vide rocks’”), and it’s not really for home cooks ("The truth is that this stuff is for the pros”). But the thing that author John Lanchester really likes about the book is its title. Because we can now call this kind of whiz-bang cooking “modernist cuisine,” and that means we can also finally — finally — call it something other than “molecular gastronomy.” But what the hell? Why does that term get so bullied if it’s talking about the same stuff?
According to Lanchester, it’s “on the ground that [the term] is alienating and makes what [these chefs] do sound like scientific party tricks.” Look! Wylie Dufresne is not a fan of “molecular gastronomy”: “It just does not sound appealing, you just can’t hear people using it can you ‘hey you want to go out for dinner, Italian, Japanese, molecular gastronomy?’” Neither are Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, and Ferran Adrià, who also says the term “doesn’t exist.”
But people are already familiar with the term “molecular gastronomy,” so why try to introduce something new into the lexicon? After all, we’re talking about the same thing, whether we call it science cooking, modernist cuisine, modern cooking, or molecular gastronomy. And The New Yorker neatly offers its explanation of why it’s that thing, and not necessarily the term, that’s potentially off-putting for people:
The dance between the cook and the eater goes on longest at home, which is why we grow up loving a food from our first and most sustained encounter with it: nothing will ever beat your mom’s chicken, or meat loaf, or whatever it was. No food can ever mean as much to you as that food once did. That is why most of all the cooking in the world is comfort food. It is food designed to remind us of familiar things, to connect us with our personal histories and our communities and our families.
Modernist cooking is different from that: instead of inviting us to think about what we can do at home to copy the model offered by the best restaurants, it enacts a break between the high end of cooking and the levels below. In return, it proposes all kinds of new possibilities for food that takes us beyond familiar sensation and familiar language; food that is, to some deliberate extent, uncomforting. In the dance of cook and eater, some cooks have some new moves. Thanks to modernism, we can look toward tasting things we didn’t know before, even things whose existence we didn’t begin to suspect. The restaurants that are inviting their customers to follow them down these unfamiliar paths will always and necessarily be a little bit ahead of us.
So, see? It’s not that stuff like foam, and fluid gels, and licorice-poached salmon aren’t good; it’s just that you might not like them because you don’t get them, duh. Doesn’t matter what they — or the process behind those techniques — are called.