I was reading my food encyclopedia, as you do during lockdown, just flicking through, sort of aimlessly. I was heading for the G’s since I foggily thought this is where I ought to be. But then a eureka moment. I came upon Futurist cuisine. Now, you probably know all about this but I had no idea such a thing existed. So guess what I am writing about this week.
I have to say that I agree with Rachel Corbett of Food and Wine when she says that Italian Futurism ranks among the more bizarre movements in history. Futurist cuisine was the brainchild of the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), the founder of the Italian social and artistic movement known as Futurism.
The movement started in 1909 and its first wave lasted roughly from 1909 through the start of the First World War. It aimed to revolutionize art, literature, music, theatre, dance, and food, rejecting the styles of the past to dynamically embrace modern life. Futurism’s principles were exemplified in for instance, sculpture (Umberto Boccioni’s ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’, from 1913), painting (characterised by ‘swooshes and dynamism’), poetry (using a new writing style called ‘words in freedom’, rid itself of conventional grammar and linear typography, with a hodgepodge of words running in swirls around the page), and in food.
The official Futurist entry into the culinary world, however, actually occurred, according to Callegari, during the second wave of Futurism. It is marked by Marinetti and Fillìa (Luigi Colombo)’s publication of the “Manifesto della cucina futurista” [Manifesto of Futurist Cooking] in the December 1930 issue of the Gazzetta del Popolo. This was followed by the spring inauguration of the first Futurist restaurant in Turin, La Taverna del Santopalato [Tavern of the Holy Palate], and finally by Marinetti’s triumphant 1932 publication of La cucina futurista [The Futurist Cookbook].
As Open Culture notes, ‘while hardly the first or the last artist to publish a cookbook, Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook seems at first glance deadly, even aggressively, serious, lacking the whimsy, impractical weirdness, and surrealist art of Salvador Dali’s Les Diners de Gala, for example, or the eclectic wistfulness of the MoMA’s Artist’s Cookbook‘.
A short excerpt from his introduction shows Marinetti applying to food the techno-romanticism of his Futurist theory:
‘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.‘
So that sort of explains why he wanted pasta abolished from the Italian diet. Believing that people “think, dream and act according to what they eat and drink,” Marinetti formulated strict rules not only for the preparation of food, but also the serving and eating of it:
Rules for the perfect lunch:
- An original harmony of the table (crystal ware, crockery and glassware, decoration) with the flavors and colors of the dishes.
- Utter originality in the dishes.
- The invention of flexible flavorful combinations (edible plastic complex), whose original harmony of form and color feeds the eyes and awakens the imagination before tempting the lips.
- The abolition of knife and fork in favor of flexible combinations that can deliver prelabial tactile enjoyment.
- The use of the art of perfumery to enhance taste. Each dish must be preceded by a perfume that will be removed from the table using fans.
- A limited use of music in the intervals between one dish and the next, so as not to distract the sensitivity of the tongue and the palate and serves to eliminate the flavor enjoyed, restoring a clean slate for tasting.
- Abolition of oratory and politics at the table.
- Measured use of poetry and music as unexpected ingredients to awaken the flavors of a given dish with their sensual intensity.
- Rapid presentation between one dish and the next, before the nostrils and the eyes of the dinner guests, of the few dishes that they will eat, and others that they will not, to facilitate curiosity, surprise, and imagination.
- The creation of simultaneous and changing morsels that contain ten, twenty flavors to be tasted in a few moments. These morsels will also serve the analog function […] of summarizing an entire area of life, the course of a love affair, or an entire voyage to the Far East.
- A supply of scientific tools in the kitchen: ozone machines that will impart the scent of ozone to liquids and dishes; lamps to emit ultraviolet rays; electrolyzers to decompose extracted juices etc. in order to use a known product to achieve a new product with new properties; colloidal mills that can be used to pulverize flours, dried fruit and nuts, spices, etc.; distilling devices using ordinary pressure or a vacuum, centrifuge autoclaves, dialysis machines.
Maria Popova tells us that, ‘At the time of its release, the cookbook became somewhat of a sensation, thanks to Marinetti’s shrewdness as a publicist. But 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’. She says that British journalist and historian Lesley Chamberlain called the Futurist Cookbook ‘a serious joke, revolutionary in the first instance because it overturned with ribald laughter everything ‘food’ and ‘cookbooks’ held sacred.’
Marinetti swept away tradition in favor of creative dining events the Futurists called “aerobanquets,” such as the one in Bologna in 1931 with a table shaped like an airplane and then with dishes called “spicy airport” (Olivier salad) and “rising thunder” (orange risotto). Lambrusco wine was served in gas cans.
Food and Wine’s Rachel Corbett details a few recipes from The Futurist Cookbook in her article, 6 Insane Recipes for Your Italian Futurist Dinner Party
It should be noted, first, that the recipes ban forks and knives, incorporate perfume and music, and often require chemistry and sculpture skills. Be (a)ware.
“Pastry in animal shapes, made of rice flour and eggs, filled with jam and served in a hot pink broth spiked with a few drops of Italian eau de Cologne.”
“Hollow out an orange to form a little basket in which are placed different kinds of salami, some butter, some pickled mushrooms, anchovies and green peppers. The basket perfumes the various elements with orange. Inside the peppers are hidden little cards printed with a Futurist phrase or a surprising saying. (For example: ‘Futurism is an anti-historical movement,’ ‘Live dangerously,’ ‘With Futurist cooking, doctors, pharmacists and grave diggers will be out of work,’ etc.)”
“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 perfume of carnations while from the kitchen comes contemporaneously a violent sound of an aeroplane motor and some music by Bach.”
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, in a country famed for its carbohydrate, Marinetti’s juncture that there be, ‘no more pasta, as it causes lassitude, pessimism and lack of passion’, did not endear him to the general population. The cuisine has gone mostly uneaten and un-experienced since the death of Marinetti, and his movement, in 1944. Elizabeth David, the cookery writer, comments (Italian Food, Penguin Books, 1974, pp.93-94) that Marinetti’s ideas about food contained a germ of common sense, but behind his jesting lay the political Fascist obsession with nationalism. It is said that Marinetti wanted to prepare the Italians for war. “Spaghetti is no food for fighters,” he declared.
Some do, though, note the vestigial beginnings of Italian Nouvelle Cuisine in Marinetti’s methods and recipes. Indeed a direct link between the science-based processes of Futurism’s cuisine and, for example, the molecular gastronomy of Heston Blumenthal has been drawn. But it is in the presentation of food that a direct line can be seen between the original Futurists and the new ‘cusina futurista 2.0’ of chmara.rosinke. Here there is, in addition to a focus on the styling of food, a grounded commercialism which puts the design of hardware for presentation to the fore.
‘Marinetti’s radical approach in the presentation of food and the scenography of dinner are impressive… We want to encourage chefs to seek new approaches by working closely with designers. Rather than pushing the design of the crockery itself to the fore, we believe that by setting limitations to the boundless possibilities of the white plate new creative solutions will arise. These restrictions do not only concern the presentation of the dish, but also the kitchen equipment. Apart from the creative aspect, this shall guarantee a broad reproducibility of the dishes.’
In defiance of Futurism, here is an Italian pasta recipe from my hero Deb Perlman.