Molecular Gastronomy and Me

September 28, 2010 § 17 Comments

A recent comment has prompted me to state my position on something.

I love Molecular Gastronomy.*

I know, I know, The Establishment insists that it’s Men’s Cooking. Only men have the Big Brainz necessary to understand all that haaaaard chemistry, only men cook flashy cutting-edge food. Us women-folk should content ourselves with making nourishing comfort food, because that’s what natural to us. It’s just what women do.

Fuck that noise.

I think it’s fascinating. It’s food as fine art rather than craft, food as abstract art, even. And Accepted Wisdom to the contrary, women can do that, too. And some of us even want to.

I keep hearing bullshit like, “Oh, I don’t like molecular gastronomy. I’m trying to get the chemicals out of my food!” Holy shit, the ignorance. Leaving aside the fact that food, like everything else, is made of chemicals, many of the chemicals the people who say this object to are extracts of other foods. Things like agar agar and sodium alginate are taken from seaweed, lecithin from soy beans, maltodextrin from tapioca. They aren’t any more “unnatural” than the papaya enzymes or essential fatty acids that these people (and I) take as supplements.

Then there’s this idea that MG is somehow not “nourishing,” as if food prepared with Xtra Science somehow has no calories or nutrients. I mean, we certainly have the technology to make food-like substances without calories and nutrients, but it’s not generally a focus of MG. This misapprehension seems to stem from the way MG food is usually served: in a tasting menu. Tasting menus involve a large number of very small courses, and are designed to circumvent palate fatigue, the tendency of the human tongue and brain to stop tasting food as acutely after a few bites. Food served in a tasting menu may leave some diners hungry between courses, but a 10 or 15 course menu is going to deliver roughly as many calories as a plate full of steak and potatoes, ultimately. The tasting menu isn’t for everyone, though. Fortunately, there’s nothing about MG that requires it to be served in a tasting menu format. It’s customary, and for some good reasons, but there’s no reason it can’t be served in larger portions.

Or I hear that MG is opposed to locavorism and sustainability, which is, again, bullshit. This time we’ll leave aside just how privileged you have to be, both geographically and economically, to eat a strict locavore diet, and in how many places that diet would cause severe malnutrition (including diseases like scurvy and pellagra), to point out that many MG restaurants and chefs source many of their ingredients locally and seasonally, as much as is possible in their various locales. They are two distinct, and reasonably compatible, philosophies of food. Sure, they’ll be bringing in some of the more unusual ingredients from outside that magic 100- or 50-mile radius, but most of them will be bringing in their olive oil and salt from outside that radius, too, just like nearly every other restaurant.

I’m very lucky, very privileged, to live in a place where I can get a balanced diet most of the year from food grown in my state. I make an effort to use seasonal, sustainably-farmed, locally-produced (for values of “local” that include “this state and its next-door neighbors”) meats, produce, and wines, but again, things like oils, salts, fresh fruit in winter, spices, and hot peppers can’t be sourced locally, and I don’t try. The restaurant would die if I tried. On the other hand, adding El Bulli’s fizzy crystals to my truffles is just fun.

So yeah, I love Molecular Gastronomy. You’re all welcome to your own opinions of it, love it or hate it, and you’re welcome to express those opinions. But ignorant and sexist comments about how it’s Menz Cooking will not be tolerated.

*OK, fine, we’re not supposed to call it molecular gastronomy. Achatz and Dufresne and Adria and all those chefs don’t like it. I don’t care. I think it’s an awesome name, and they won’t give us one they like better, so I’m using it.

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§ 17 Responses to Molecular Gastronomy and Me

  • cgeye says:

    Apologies, for my gender essentialism and stereotyping.

    But I still don’t trust molecular gastronomy.

    • Ginny W says:

      Apologies accepted.

      You can distrust it all you like, as long as you don’t say it’s Menz Cookins or perpetuate these ridiculous misconceptions in my space. 🙂

  • Sixwing says:

    My first reaction to molecular gastronomy is “yay,” because I am a giant nerd. And also “ooh, can I do that?” Typically that answer is “no.”

    I was reading the other day about someone who made fruit juice “caviar” by clever use of sodium alginate and calcium chloride, and now I’m itching to try it at home. My spouse would love those fizzy crystals, too.

    What if the opposition based on the idea that MG is unnatural comes from the same place that says it can’t be good for you if it tastes good? If the food was designed and built from the ground up to taste good, it must be REALLY bad for you.

    • Ginny W says:

      You can pick up the sodium alginate and calcium chloride from Chef Rubber. Then all you need is a plastic syringe. It’s really easy, actually. And you can get the fizzy stuff off Amazon.

      Well, definitely some opposition to MG comes from the Tasty Food Is Bad For You camp, but a lot of it comes from the Science Is Bad, Everything Must Be Natural camp, too.

      • Sixwing says:

        Oh, sorry. I think I phrased that badly, did not mean to imply that your hypothesis was bad! Which, rereading, I totally did. >.>;;

        Thanks for the links. :3

        • Ginny W says:

          No, I didn’t take it that way at all. You were suggesting another, but not conflicting hypothesis, and I was affirming that it has a place alongside my hypothesis.

  • nm says:

    Oh, please, don’t say we can do MG at home. There has to be something left that I can say I have to go out to eat because I can’t manage it myself.

    • Ginny W says:

      Well, there are a bunch of things you can’t effectively do at home, because it requires expensive equipment or extensive hacks to replicate expensive equipment. And even the simple things require very accurate scales and other specialized stuff. So you can do some MG at home, if you’re feeling really dedicated. But don’t feel obligated to do so. 😀

      Besides, even if you could do all of it yourself, eating out still has a point: to see what other people are doing, which gives you ideas of what to do yourself!

  • Yapper says:

    Ginny, what’s your take on home sous-vide-ing? The Williams-Sonoma catalog, my bellwether for all things trendy, now has an offering or two in this category–an immersion circulator, a vacuum machine and whatnot. Wouldn’t buy such a setup, but if W-S has it…

    • Ginny W says:

      Sous vide is Teh Hotness, and now I must save up for that immersion circulator. That’s the cheapest I’ve seen one. Last time I checked, they were still over $1200. Mmmmm… Pardon me, I’m in my happy place.

      OK, I’m back. If you’re thinking of getting into it, I recommend Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure, a sous vide cookbook that is pure food porn. Take a look at that, and get an idea if it’s something you really want to get into, before you go investing so much in a circulator.

      • Yapper says:

        OK, thanks. No, really, thanks. The PITILESS RULES (of logic?) dictate that I must now buy a home sous-vide-ing setup and immerse, immerse, immerse.

        Fab blog, you are great!

  • Schwa says:

    Having some training in molecular biology, I loathe the name molecular gastronomy. I do not have any formal training in cooking, so maybe I’ve missed something, but it does not appear to me that ‘molecular gastronomy’ involves any more molecular techniques than any other cuisine – in Indian cooking, for example, extraction of aromatic compounds in oil or butter is very prominent, and the Maillard reaction is no less chemical than agarose polymerization. What’s more, many of the unique techniques that are used (e.g. liquid nitrogen, sous vide, however the hell Adria makes those foams) are physical, not chemical – i.e. not molecular. In fact, given the non-molecular, non-micro scale of a lot of cooking, gross (as in anatomy, not disgusting) is probably a better descriptor.

    Since Gross Gastronomy is probably not going to win many converts (and is itself not 100% accurate), I’d prefer something like Technical or Technological Gastronomy. What sets it apart is really the way in which things are being done, but calling those techniques and tools ‘molecular’ isn’t doing either the word or the cuisine justice.

    • Ginny W says:

      The processes are not particularly more chemical than more traditional cuisines, but the people who practice MG tend to study more chemistry and better understand what they’re doing. Things like spherification, “fizzy” crystals, and flavor pairings based on common aromatic compounds all arise out of cooks with an understanding of chemistry.

      Originally, the term was “molecular and physical gastronomy,” coined by Nicholas Kurti and Herve This (a physicist and physical chemist respectively), and was only contracted later. The discipline of molecular and physical gastronomy — the organized study of the science of food and cooking — is intimately connected to, but distinct from, the artistic cooking movement known as molecular gastronomy. The artistic movement takes its name from the scientific discipline, but because it’s better known and the term is a popular rather than a technical one, it’s gotten a bit fuzzy. The chefs at the forefront of the movement don’t care for the term — some of them partly because it’s not accurate — but because they haven’t put forward a name that they prefer, they’ve gotten stuck with the popular one. I doubt it can be changed now, especially as “molecular gastronomy” just plain sounds cooler than the alternatives. Alas, the general public cares little for precision and accuracy of language.

      • Schwa says:

        Yeah, I just have a tendency to moan about language. Incidentally, do you know if there are any good MG restaurants in Columbus, OH? I’ve read some reviews of Eleven, but the service is pretty universally panned and the food reviews have been mixed.

        Your blog, on the other hand, seems consistently interesting. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

        • Ginny W says:

          I really don’t know much about the restaurants in any other cities. I stick to my town pretty closely except for visiting family back east, and I’ve never been to Ohio. You might check out a Zagat’s.

  • Seth says:

    You say we just need Sodium Alginate and Calcium Chloride, but what proportions do they need to be in to the water and the liquid you are using?

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