Essentialism and Authenticity in Food: Molecular Pablum

September 5, 2007 in cooking, Food Science, Molecular Gastronomy, New York Times


(Erlenmeyer flasks from the Argonne National Laboratory glass blowing shop. source)

Today’s article, “The Essence of Nearly Anything, Drop by Limpid Drop“, by Harold McGee in [tag]The New York Times[/tag], has me thinking on what what we might call “[tag]real food[/tag]”, [tag]authenticity[/tag], [tag]essentialism[/tag], and [tag]molecular gastronomy[/tag].

You likely know that [tag]Harold McGee[/tag] is a [tag]food science[/tag] writer who’s book “[tag]On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen[/tag]” is a core primer on [tag]food[/tag] [tag]science[/tag] for non-food scientists.

In this article, McGee talks about a “new” method of making flavored liquids or essences by a “[tag]gelatin clarification[/tag]” [tag]method[/tag].

The basic overview of this method is this:

  • Prepare a liquid from desired food (lobster, peaches, carrots, spirulina, chicken, hog toenails, whale mesentary, simply anything at all)
  • If the liquid was made without bones or some cartilage, add a small amount of gelatin, dissolve
  • [tag]Freeze[/tag] preparation
  • Place frozen block in strainer (with cheese cloth?) in bowl in the fridge
  • Allow [tag]ice[/tag] [tag]crystal[/tag]s to slowly melt over days and release into bowl (be sure to seal up this assembly otherwise it will pick up other odors in the fridge)
  • Use what drips from the [tag]matrix[/tag] (gelatin, fats, proteins, etc) as an [tag]essence[/tag].

What is happening here is that the gelatin forms a matrix or net into which everything is bound. As is the wont with all things fluidic, upon freezing, the water portion of the fluid is excluded from the gelatin matrix as it freezes into crystals, leaving behind particulate matter. Water [tag]soluble[/tag] components travel with the water.

When the frozen block is slowly thawed at temps that are too low for the gelatin and fats to become fluid, the ice crystals melt and water and [tag]water soluble[/tag] fractions drip away from the matrix.

The molecular gastronomists like to call this an “essence”. With this, you have purified the water soluble flavors. You have also left behind [tag]fat soluble[/tag] flavors which can be extraordinary.

The “novelty” here is that the water soluble essence may deliver a different and perhaps more intense flavor because it is no longer combined with what ever flavors may have been in the fat soluble fraction.

Those fats may have served to mask, dampen or modify the water soluble flavors.

Fat and water soluble favors have become uncoupled in an “un-natural” or not naturally occurring way that will usually not be present in [tag]legacy[/tag] preparations, recipes, foods, or cuisines.

These [tag]clarified[/tag] essences have become [tag]faddish[/tag]. (Actually, I think they were “conceived” in such a way that faddism was a foregone conclusion.)

Chefs who strive for “fame” and profit jump on the essence bandwagon and deliver [tag]victual conceits[/tag] such as lamb loin flavored with [tag]pretzel[/tag] [tag]elixir[/tag], a creation by [tag]Wylie Dufresne[/tag] of [tag]WD-50[/tag] in NYC. I have not had this dish but I suppose I would consider trying it if I were in a “gee wiz” mood.

I think I would know I have lost my way if I had to start a $500 meal (gratuity, alcohol, parking, and bathroom usage not included) by signing a non-disclosure agreement, be frisked for a prohibited camera, and eat crappy photos of sushi printed on oddly favored “food product” paper sheets while sniffing aerosolized “ocean” and watching hypodermic needles being used to extrude lyophylized clam deoxyribonucleic acid noodles that are then infused with cotton candy essence, incubated in fluorescein dye and all the lights doused while I am spoon fed the glowing concoction while being irradiated with a UV light by an unpaid intern wearing UV safe goggles and a meat jerky flavored gel bodysuit.


(Fluorescein dye)

I would much prefer to try such a meal prepared by a passionate food hacker (for a modest fee and at an ad hock food hacking party – all in the spirit of fun, experimentation and “science”) than as a status meal in an expensive restaurant served with considerable self-importance.

With respect to “authentic” food and whether pretzel essence infused lamb loin is authentic in any way, I think we need to stick a definition on that word.

From Merriam-Webster Online:

“Main Entry: au·then·tic
Pronunciation: &-'then-tik, o-
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English autentik, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin authenticus, from Greek authentikos, from authentEs perpetrator, master, from aut- + -hentEs (akin to Greek anyein to accomplish, Sanskrit sanoti he gains)
1 obsolete : AUTHORITATIVE
2 a : worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact <paints an authentic picture of our society> b : conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features <an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse> c : made or done the same way as an original <authentic Mexican fare>
3 : not false or imitation : REAL, ACTUAL <based on authentic documents> <an authentic cockney accent>
4 a of a church mode : ranging upward from the keynote — compare PLAGAL 1 b of a cadence : progressing from the dominant chord to the tonic — compare PLAGAL 2
5 : true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character “

Authenticity is not the impetus or motivation in “gee wiz” victual conceit molecular gastronomy. Innovation may be a motivator but I think that the vagaries of ego and business capsize that noble though misplaced ambition.

No, I fear that most of the commercial molecular gastronomy [tag]pablum[/tag] we are “fed” would be better defined as “derivative”:

“Main Entry: 2derivative
Function: adjective
1 : formed by derivation <a derivative word>
2 : made up of or marked by derived elements
3 : lacking originality : BANAL

I would prefer unadorned roasted [tag]marrow[/tag] [tag]bone[/tag]s or a slice of [tag]headcheese[/tag] with a side of just picked [tag]calabash[/tag] tomatoes sprinkled with chunky [tag]sea salt[/tag] to some expensive overwrought pseudo-imaginative and derivative essence delivered with pomp and circumstance.



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