I like to think of myself as a tolerant person, if you define tolerant as someone who once decided it could never work out with a man because his grocery list contained the item parmashawn chese, but hung around for a few more months anyway. But hear me now and remember it later: If anyone in my circle spends $625 on “Modernist Cuisine”? You’re dead to me. (If you go through the Kickback Lounge, I will consider upgrading your status to Cold Shoulder.)
I’ve been reading about this five-volume, 40-pound, 2,238-page be-all and end-all of 21st-century cooking for a few days now — I guess the pub date was this week, although it should be noted it was self-published. The more I read, the more bugged I get. All reviews take the time to stipulate a few things:
1) This is a very ambitious work, and ambition should be honored;
2) The book(s) — shall we call it a “project,” or something else? — contain many astonishing and beautiful photographs;
3) If you have the will to dive in, there are diamonds there;
4) But not enough to justify the expense, work and other irreplaceable resources that went into producing the thing.
Descending this week on the culinary scene like a meteor, “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking” is the self-published six-volume masterwork from a team led by Nathan Myhrvold, the multimillionaire tech visionary who, as a friend of mine said, “decided to play Renaissance doge with food.”
…Ultimately, it is a manifesto declaring that the new form of laboratory-inspired cooking — led by Grant Achatz in the United States; Heston Blumenthal in England; and Ferran Adrià, the father of this cuisine, in Spain — is a cultural and artistic movement every bit as definitive as Impressionism in 19th-century France or Bauhaus in early 20th-century Germany. It proclaims a revolution “in techniques, aesthetics and intellectual underpinnings of gastronomy.”
I read fast, and I had to go back and find the nettle in this opening passage, and it was this: tech visionary. Those guys? Can be real pains in the ass:
“Life has not been boring for me,” Nathan Myhrvold says. An overachiever’s overachiever, Myhrvold, 51, graduated from high school at 14, had two master’s degrees and a Princeton Ph.D. in theoretical and mathematical physics by 23, worked alongside Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, and went on to earn hundreds of millions for Microsoft (and himself) as chief technology officer. Cashing out in 1999, he began pursuing his true passions by the armful: skydiving, car racing, scuba diving, volcanology, and UFOlogy, not to mention whole alternate careers as a wildlife photographer, dinosaur hunter, inventor (his name is on nearly 250 patents and counting), and author of the extraordinary new cookbook Modernist Cuisine.
Wow. Respect. Although one person’s overachiever’s overachiever is another’s dilettante, but never mind that. The guy has zillions and a coltish intellect; let him spend his money — and, again, this is his money he’s spending — on what he wants. He’s only in his early 50s. In his laboratory of wonder, he’s also pursuing big-think solutions to more serious, mundane problems (hospital infections, global warming). I guess everyone hopes for a line like this in their obituary:
His 1997 talk on dinosaur sex is the TED equivalent of Jimi Hendrix playing Woodstock.
All stipulated. There’s just something about five volumes, 40 pounds, 2,238 pages and a plexiglas cover, all in the service of a project that boils down to a foundational text for a silly style of cooking sought after and consumed by the tiniest handful of people in the world. Nathan Myhrvold has carved “The Last Supper” on the head of a pin. Whoop-de-do.
What style of cooking is this? That molecular gastronomy nonsense that’s always tripping somebody up on “Top Chef.” Foams and gels and puzzling techniques Julia Child would laugh at. Like this:
Among his favorite (recipes): scrambled eggs slow-cooked at low temperature in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag using a SousVide Supreme SVS-10LS water oven.
Because that is what the world has been waiting for: sous vide eggs.
Myhrvold made his fortune as Microsoft’s chief technology officer. Ha ha. In the early days of personal computing, when I had my first little laptop, I used to ask J.C. Burns what on earth was in MS Word that justified its $600 cost and bloated footprint on my 160-megabyte hard drive. “Lunch recipes,” he quipped, and it looks like he was right. This is what Myhrvold was thinking about when his underlings were giving the world Mr. Clippy.
Well, as Julia famously said, you are alone in the kitchen, and all that matters is what comes out of it. For people who already have thousands of dollars’ worth of high-tech gadgetry in place, maybe they’ll welcome a $625 reference work to tell them how to use it all. The NYT review acknowledges there is a great deal of very useful information between its many covers, but nearly all of it is for the professional, not the home cook. Maybe a restaurateur can justify the purchase. As for me? Eh, I’ll have a sandwich.
Bloggage for a fogbound Thursday here in Michigan:
Julianne Moore will play $P in the HBO adaptation of “Game Change.” Every time I think about dropping our subscription? They pull me back in!!! Who will play Barack Obama? On this, imdb is silent. Maybe Ms. Lippman knows.
As I believe I’ve mentioned approximately 7,000 times before, one of my several part-time jobs involves news research for the pharmaceutical industry, which every night exposes me to a fairly horrifying but still not widely reported story developing down in Dixie — legal pill mills operating out of storefronts, mainly in Florida, that push an appalling amount of prescription painkillers onto the street under the flimsiest pretense of medical treatment. It is the engine behind an explosion of addiction, overdose and death all over the country. Abuse of legal prescription drugs long ago outstripped that of heroin and other street drugs. It’s the reason pharmacists get ulcers and some are simply no longer carrying these hydrocodone-based potions; too many junkie stickups have taken their toll.
In its own way, the state has tried to tackle the problem; two years ago it created an office to maintain a patient database, in an effort to track obvious abuses. It didn’t fund the office, but y’know — details, details. Lately Purdue Pharma, the company that makes the most sought-after of these drugs, the notorious OxyContin, beloved by Rush Limbaugh and many others, offered $1 million to fund the database. This week, Gov. Rick Scott said, eh, no thanks. He wants to do away with the database entirely; it’s an invasion of patient privacy. Where does the GOP find these guys? I’m speechless.
OK, time to wind up and head out.