Optimism at the table, or why the dark void of the soul can’t be stuffed with spaghetti.
Given my voracious appetite for unusual cookbooks — especially ones at the intersection of food and the arts, including little-known gems from the likes of Andy Warhol, Liberace, Lewis Carroll, and Alice B. Toklas — I was delighted to discover The Futurist Cookbook (public library; AbeBooks) by Italian poet and editor Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, originally published in 1932 and reprinted in 1989, translated into English by Suzanne Brill.
At the time of its release, the cookbook became somewhat of a sensation, thanks to Marinetti’s shrewdness as a publicist. But while major newspapers like the Chicago Tribune proclaimed it a bold manifesto to revitalize culture by revolutionizing how people ate, what the media missed at first was that the cookbook was arguably the greatest artistic prank of the twentieth century — it wasn’t a populist effort to upgrade mass cuisine but, rather, a highbrow quest to raise the nation’s, perhaps the world’s, collective artistic consciousness.
In the introduction to the 1989 edition, British journalist, historian and travel writer Lesley Chamberlain calls it “a provocative work of art disguised as easy-to-read cookbook” and writes:
The Futurist Cookbook was a serious joke, revolutionary in the first instance because it overturned with ribald laughter everything “food” and “cookbooks” held sacred: the family table, great “recipes,” established notions of goodness and taste.
What made Futurist “cooking” so revolutionary was that it drew on food as a raw material for art and cultural commentary reflecting the Futurist idea that human experience is empowered and liberated by the presence of art in everyday life, that osmosis of arte-vita. Marinetti himself framed the premise of the cookbook in his introduction to the original 1932 edition:
The Futurist culinary revolution … has the lofty, noble and universally expedient aim of changing radically the eating habits of our race, strengthening it, dynamizing it and spiritualizing it with brand-new food combinations in which experiment, intelligence and imagination will economically take the place of quantity, banality, repetition and expense.
This Futurist cooking of ours, tuned to high speeds like the motor of a hydroplane, will seem to some trembling traditionalists both mad and dangerous: but its ultimate aim is to create a harmony between man’s palate and his life today and tomorrow.
It is not by chance this work is published during a world economic crisis, which has clearly inspired a dangerous depressing panic, though its future direction remains unclear. We propose as an antidote to this panic a Futurist way of cooking, that is: optimism at the table.
Indeed, Marinetti saw food as the ultimate promise of optimism — a gateway to sensual freedom, imbued with the carefree lightness of a children’s party and the intellectual enthusiasm of a literary salon. He believed that “men think, dream and act according to what they eat and drink.” But nowhere did his culinary and cultural dogmatism shine more blazingly than in his contempt for pastasciutta, better-known simply as pasta — the traditional Italian staple beloved the world over. He preceded the modern low-carb craze by more than seven decades, outroaring even its most zealous contemporary adherents with the fanaticism of his convictions. Pasta, he asserted, made people heavy in both body and spirit, turned them sour and pessimistic, and robbed them of the creative impulse. The riddance from pasta wasn’t merely a matter of individual salvation — Marinetti even made it a matter of patriotism, arguing that the abolition of pasta would liberate Italy from the despotism of expensive foreign grain and instead boost the domestic rice industry.
He resolves in the cookbook:
Futurist cooking will be free of the old obsessions with volume and weight and will have as one of its principles the abolition of pastasciutta. Pastasciutta, however agreeable to the palate, is a passéist food because it makes people heavy, brutish, deludes them into thinking it is nutritious, makes them skeptical, slow, pessimistic.
[Pasta] is completely hostile to the vivacious spirit and passionate, generous, intuitive soul of the Neapolitans. If these people have been heroic fighters, inspired artists, awe-inspiring orators, shrewd lawyers, tenacious farmers it was in spite of their voluminous daily plate of pasta. When they eat it they develop that typical ironic and sentimental skepticism which can often cut short their enthusiasm.
Any pastascuittist who honestly examines his conscience at the moment he ingurgitates his biquotidian pyramid of pasta will find within the gloomy satisfaction of stopping up a black hole. This voracious hole is an incurable sadness of his. He may delude himself, but nothing can fill it. Only a Futurist meal can lift his spirits.
He then outlines the eleven requirements for the ideal Futurist meal:
One perfect meal requires:
- Originality and harmony in the table setting (crystal, china, décor) extending to the flavors and colors of the foods.
- Absolute originality in the food.
- The invention of appetizing food sculptures, whose original harmony of form and color feeds the eyes and excites the imagination before it tempts the lips.
- The abolition of the knife and fork for eating food sculptures, which can give prelabial tactile pleasure.
- The use of the art of perfumes to enhance tasting.
Every dish must be preceded by a perfume which will be driven from the table with the help of electric fans.
- The use of music limited to the intervals between courses so as not to distract the sensitivity of the tongue and palate but to help annul the last taste enjoyed by re-establishing gustatory virginity.
- The abolition of speech-making and politics at the table.
- The use in prescribed doses of poetry and music as surprise ingredients to accentuate the flavors of a given dish with their sensual intensity.
- The rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and other they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise and imagination.
- The creation of simultaneous and changing canapés which contain ten, twenty flavors to be tasted in a few seconds. In Futurist cooking these canapés have by analogy the same amplifying function that images have in literature. A given taste of something can sum up an entire area of life, the history of an amorous passion or an entire voyage to the Far East.
- A battery of scientific instruments in the kitchen: ozonizers to give liquids and foods the perfume of ozone, ultra-violet ray lamps (since many foods when irradiated with ultra-violet rays acquire active properties, become more assimilable, preventing rickets in young children,etc.), electrolyzers to decompose juices and extracts, etc. in such a way as to obtain from a known product a new product with new properties, colloidal mills to pulverize flours, dried fruits, drugs, etc.; atmospheric and vacuum stills, centrifugal autoclaves, dialyzers. The use of these appliances will have to be scientific, avoiding the typical error of cooking foods under steam pressure, which provokes the destruction of active substances (vitamins, etc.) because of the high temperatures. Chemical indicators will take into account the acidity and alkalinity of these sauces and serve to correct possible errors: too little salt, too much vinegar, too much pepper or too much sugar.
Marinetti proceeds to offer several dozen colorfully titled, highly performative Futurist recipes compliant with these criteria. Her are a few favorites:
Stuff some trout with chopped nuts and fry them in olive oil. Then wrap the trout in very thin slices of calves’ liver.
HUNTING IN HEAVEN
Slowly cook a hare in sparkling wine mixed with cocoa powder until the liquid is absorbed. Then immerse it for a minute in plenty of lemon juice. Serve it in a copious green sauce based on spinach and juniper, and decorate with those silver hundred and thousands which recall huntsmen’s shot.
DATES IN MOONLIGHT
30–40 very mature and sugary dates, 500 grams Roman ricotta. Stone the dates and mash them well (all the better if you can pass them through a sieve). Mix the pulp thus obtained with the ricotta until you have a smooth poltiglia [mush]. Refrigerate for a few hours and serve chilled.
The diner is served from the right with a plate containing some black olives, fennel hearts and kumquats. From the left he is served with a rectangle made of sandpaper, silk and velvet. The foods must be carried directly to the mouth with the right hand while the left hand lightly and repeatedly strokes the tactile rectangle. In the meantime the waiters spray the napes of the diners’ necks with a conprofumo [perfume] of carnations while from the kitchen comes contemporaneously a violent conrumore [music] of an aeroplane motor and some dismusica [music] by Bach.