Strict Interdisciplinarian: Building a Meal by Hervé This [review]
French gastronomic chemist Hervé This's new book, Building a Meal: From Molecular Gastronomy to Culinary Constructivism (buy on Amazon) is as much an exploration of cultural culinary traditions as it is scientific ones, full of intentionally provocative speculations like "Every departure from one's culture is a piece of daring, a deviation—indeed, a perversion."
Structured along a framework of the courses of a classic French meal, This engages in an academic investigation into why we eat what we eat, how we cook it, and whether or not there is any benefit to tossing out the old ways in favor of new ones — with particular emphasis on the benefits to be gained from opening the kitchen to interdisciplinary influences. While the scientific information is not as detailed as that in This's previous Molecular Gastronomy (buy on Amazon), the theoretic discussion he's initiating (or continuing, depending on which circles you frequent) give us a lot to think about.
This's prose — translated by M.B. DeBevoise — is charming if a bit obtuse; reading him is like having a long chat with a kindly professor to whom you don't have the heart to say you have no idea what he's talking about. It comes off surprisingly well, perhaps because as a culinarian, This is firmly rooted in classic French cuisine, which itself balances charm and obtuseness. This's cultural boundaries are limiting to be sure, but there's plenty to consider within that scope, from pre-Carême to Escoffier to France's current tradition-informed scientific gastronomy.
The idea of tradition plays a central role in Building a Meal, as This examines what he refers to as "culinary maxims." This is particularly interested in the question of why we establish certain culinary practices in the first place, especially if those practices turn out to be less precise or produce an inferior result than they could otherwise. Taking a clear-eyed look at the conventional wisdom of, say, boiling an egg (start in cold water? in boiling?) or making stock (is it necessary to leave the lid partially open?), he discovers that, often as not, some rules and standards of traditional gastronomy are largely arbitrary. Not only that, but they make little to no improvement to a dish, and occasionally even harm it.
Knocking down the kitchen walls
This's explorations of the perfect hard boiled egg, scientifically interesting as they are, pale in comparison to his fascinating take on the interactions among the different disciplines that affect the gastronomic world. Whether or not you agree with This's philosophy of molecular gastronomy (in short he thinks the more the better, and the sky's the limit), his passion is seductive in its intensity. This makes the case that the culinary world has been changed forever, and the more we're willing to look beyond the kitchen for culinary inspiration, the more extraordinary things we can be capable of. This uses science, Grant Achatz uses theater and psychology, Heston Blumenthal has begun to delve into history. This thrills at the idea of what other disciplines could be used to change the food world, and to what degree.
In that spirit, much of Building a Meal reads more like a manifesto than a culinary text, forcing the reader to examine whether or not they want their cuisine to change. Even if that change for the better, if it would mean giving up certain processes and opening certain doors, thereby possibly forsaking nostalgic tastes, smells, and textures — some of the very things that make the kitchen such a magical place. There's comfort, after all, in the repetition of a process.
The dream of an interdisciplinary cuisine
Anticipating a backlash against his ideas, This often reads like his own best cheerleader — breaking down everyday culinary practices seems benign enough, but taken to extremes like an entirely artificial meal, some preemptive defense is rarely unwise. So it's not surprising that at times, the book reads like a rallying cry:
Readers, my friends, don't hesitate to join in — and by your own singular abilities contribute the this cultural banquet. Cast your gaze upon the culinary world, its customary practices, its usual assumptions, and communicate your insights to the community of those who wish to understand them and make use of them, and in this way help to improve an activity that amply deserves out assistance. How do you show love to your guests?
This has written a thought-provoking case for the necessity of taking a long, hard look at our culinary customs, both chemical and cultural. For all of This's talk about interdisciplinary gastronomy, the most difficult element of the book is how much of his thesis relies on a intensely science-oriented foundation. Gastronomy, he tells us, is at its most fascinating when it's at its most interdisciplinary. If only This could follow his own advice — Building a Meal would have been fully a masterpiece.