Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Gastronomy, TV and 'Culinary Texts of Indirection' I

Since writing a quick response to the Channel 4 cookery show Heston’s Feasts in an earlier blog entry, Joanne Hollows and Steve Jones have been thinking in more depth about the show. In the first of two entries, they explore the idea that the show drew on some of the conventions of gastronomic writing to produce a televisual form of the ‘culinary text of indirection’.

Each episode of Heston’s Feasts saw Heston Blumenthal creating a memorable meal for celebrity diners which evoked a particular historical period: the Victorians, the Middle Ages, the Tudors and the Romans. At the outset of each episode, he says that ‘the future of cooking lies in the secrets of the past. I’m on a mission to use myth, science and history to create the greatest feasts ever seen’. These features give the programmes a scholarly feel that is accentuated by his use of the literary: for example the first episode on The Victorians is inspired by the spirit of the age but mediated through Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In this indebtedness to literature, Blumenthal plays with the connections between the gastronomic and literary fields identified by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson and Stephen Mennell.

Of Mennell’s four characteristics of gastronomic writing, two concern us here: first, gastronomic literature aims to provide ‘a brew of history, myth and history serving of myth’ and second, it is a nostalgic ‘evocation of memorable meals’ (1996: 271). Blumenthal’s characterization of his own practice as using ‘myth, science and history’ corresponds with Mennell’s first definition while his continual emphasis on the meal as the source of memory corresponds with the second. In this way, HF draws on the conventions of gastronomic literature to reconceptualize cookery TV. Like Mennell’s gastronomes, Heston’s role is to transform the creation of food into an activity of a higher order. For example, he experiments with a Victorian recipe for Mock Turtle soup. While the result is enjoyed volunteers on the street, Heston concludes that this incarnation of the soup lacks the element of the sublime he demands from his creations. In order to perfect his take on Mock Turtle Soup, Blumethal subjects it to further processes of refinement:
All I’ve done is made consommĂ©, froze it, ice-filtered it over night… then I just froze it again, put it in a centrifuge… spun all of the clear broth from the ice, and then I froze it again in a minus 80 freezer and all I needed to do after that was pop it in the freeze-dryer and then simply add gelatine and Madeira.
However, even this does not exhaust the process: Heston makes a soup cube from this using a ‘Mad Hatter’ fob-watch shaped silicone mould before wrapping it in gold-leaf to form the basis of his Mock Turtle Soup. The ingot is places like a tea-bag in a tea-pot where the resultant brew is then poured over a turnip and swede gel ‘Mock Turtle egg’ adorned with minute enoki mushrooms, a terrine of cured pork fat and braised ox tongue served with ‘lightly-pickled’ turnip, cubes of black truffle gel, a scattering of mustard seeds and a few micro-leaves.

The original recipe for mock turtle soup that Blumenthal located in an old cookbook is merely an inspiration for the chef-artist’s creativity. Furthermore, it is not the sole inspiration as his culinary process is also infused with literary sources, scientific experimentation and historical research. Across the series, historical recipes serve as an inspiration in terms of what they signify (theatre, fun, experimentation, naughtiness) as much as their actual ingredient and techniques. Indeed, the recipes usually go through a series of versions and refinements as Blumenthal and various guinea pigs reject the ‘authentic’ recipe in favour of a series of improvements. While Heston’s Feasts seems to be an exercise in grounding his practice in tradition, the series is a demonstration of the ways in which tradition can be ‘invented’. Just as Duchamp’s intervention was necessary to create the modern artwork from found objects, so the series demonstrates how it is the production of the chef as artist and theoretician that is ‘the precondition for the production of these object [meals] as works of art’ (Bourdieu 1993: 61).

1 comment:

  1. Dear Joanne and Steve,
    I'd hesitate to make the comparison with Duchamp you've been using, after Bourdieu. You seem to be thinking in terms of Duchamp's alleged transformation of isolated found objects into "works of art" through his self-theorizing as an artist. This is not as obvious as it seems, although it has given rise to a lot of theorizing by, well, theorists. Duchamp actually transformed the objects' meaning(s) and function(s) through their set of relationships between themselves, AND between themselves and their titles, as, most notoriously, is the case with "Fountain" (which attains its ironic aura, not because Duchamp chooses to call it art, but primarly because he chooses to call it a fountain). Obviously, there is here a questioning on why this is art, but mostly on why we should care whether it is art in the first place, given that the objects retain an unsettling quality foreign to their institutional artistic aura, such as it is.
    Now, not knowing the TV show you're referring to (yes, I've been away too long), it seems to me that there is a difference between "inventing" and "improving on" tradition. The process you've been describing is not a Fordian "print the legend" routine, but rather the culturally inherent paradox of "progressivism", whereby tradition is at once celebrated as a precondition and openly transgressed precisely for being a precondition (the chef does not hide his present intervention). The chef-artist's role is thus a traditional one, albeit with specific historical roots: a function acknowledged and perpetually, indeed inevitably, "improved on". The reinvention of the past is essential to its overcoming, albeit not by any sort of radical questioning; rather, as a process that the self-appointed artist/master (chef) has undertaken, combining (in yet another unsolvable paradox) personal creativity with historical "inevitability". I fail to see how any of this reinvents the function of cooking in a manner comparable to Duchamp's: the meals are apparently (re-)invented as food, albeit "better" than the originals (better as food AND art, obviously); so the prime contradiction of cooking ("high," patently elitist art subjected to use in the interests of a basic, universal need) is not by any means challenged; rather, we are left with the same underlying set of paradoxes, which Duchamp's intervention questions or even transgresses. Indeed, what is most shocking in Fountain is precisely the utilitarian function of the object, which persists in its decontextualization-via-renaming. I don't see any of that in your descriptions, which insist on "refinements", hence on a progressivist logic including all the aforementioned paradoxes but not doing anything significantly novel with them.