In the early twentieth century, the idea that art could change the world was strong — and many artists set out to do so. While styles and movements within the arts before the nineteen-hundreds would largely be recognised by critics in retrospect, now, more than ever before, artists started committing themselves to groups with shared aesthetics and politics. These ideas were not solely expressed through the art itself. Instead, movements like the German Bauhaus appeared, a school that changed society through the arts by training a generation of what would become some of the most influential artists, designers and architects under its guidelines. Not every avant-garde group was quite as organised, but still many would pen down their new ideas into full-blown manifestos. What most of these groups shared was a disdain for everything old — one has to get rid of the old to make space for the new —, but none were quite as vocal about their hate for the dusty remnants of the past as the Futurists in Italy. Under the leading force of Italian poet Filippo Marinetti, the Futurists embraced technology, speed, youth and violence in search of a life sizzling with exciting novelty. Knowing about these basic guiding forces, it will come as no surprise that some of Futurism’s advocates went on to support Mussolini’s fascist regime.

Coming from a country with such strong culinary tradition, the Futurists realised that in order to really make an impact, they would have to tackle the culinary arts as much as any other. On December 28, 1930, the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking was published in the Turin newspaper Gazetta del Popolo. Its publication a little over twenty years after the original Manifesto of Futurism, the author feared the initial shock Futurism had unleashed had been forgotten; that over time its ideas had become too accepted and, even worse, been watered down by other avant-garde groups. Futurism relied on the element of shock, and so, re-instilling the fear, the manifesto’s second paragraph stated the impossible: That Futurists are “against pasta”. “It may be that a diet of cod, roast beef and steamed pudding is beneficial to the English, cold cuts and cheese to the Dutch and sauerkraut, smoked pork and sausage to the Germans, but pasta is not beneficial to the Italians”, Marinetti wrote, necessitating the “abolition of pastasciutta, an absurd Italian gastronomic religion.” All great Italian achievements had been made in spite of the “voluminous daily plate of paste” — imagine what would be possible without it! Pasta had to be dropped, not least to make the “Italian bodies agile, ready for the featherweight aluminium trains which will replace the present heavy ones of wood and iron.”

Perfect food, perfect bodies

Although — shocker — these ideas about pasta never found their footing in Italy’s eating culture, other statements made in the manifesto hardly sound as crazy ninety years later — not just in Italy, but the world over. The four demands Marinetti makes have either, in certain circles, become a reality, or have at least become technically possible. The remarkable thing about them is that they seamlessly switch between two now well-known discourses around food that seemingly oppose each other. The first, building up upon the demonisation of pasta, has to do with the idea of food as fuel. The most important role of food here is to create healthy, ‘agile’ bodies. In this respect, it is no far stretch to say that certain elements of the fascist body cult are to be found in the Futurist theory of food. The second idea is about food as art, an experience that has nothing to do with bodily needs, but rather serves as ‘food for the soul’. The reason Marinetti can logically combine these two very different concepts is because in his theory, one serves and enables the other. In true Futurist fashion, technology and science are asked to play a part in inventing chemical substances that provide “the body with its necessary calories through equivalent nutrients provided freely by the State, in form of powder and pills, albumin compounds, synthetic fats and vitamins.” In doing so, food as such loses its function of, well, feeding. In 2013, the seemingly ludicrous idea that one would never have to eat again (apparently) became a reality with the invention of a smoothie-like drink called ‘Soylent’. Developed by Rob Rhinehart, a twenty-four-year-old software developer from Atlanta, one drink a day was claimed to contain all the nutrients and vitamins found in a balanced diet. Many similar experiments with ‘food’ in the form of bars and pills have also been undertaken.

Coming back to the Futurists, food, liberated from the ball and chain of having to be nutritious, would then be free to fulfil different needs, and could be enjoyed more, less often. This gave space to Marinetti’s ideas for “perfect meals”. These meals would require originality and harmony in the table setting, absolute originality in the food, appetising food sculptures serving as food for the eyes, the abolition of the knife and fork to increase tactile pleasure, ‘art perfumes’ to enhance the experience, limiting music to in between courses so as not to distract the tongue, the banning of politics at the table, “prescribed doses” of poetry and music to enhance the experience, the quick showing of dishes that would not be eaten to increase curiosity, canapés containing “ten or twenty flavours”, and a line-up of scientific instruments like ozonisers and ultra-violet lamps to change the experience of eating.

In these Futurist ideas about food, it is easy to recognise an array of modern-day eating trends, from the use of chemistry in so-called molecular cuisine, to tasting menus comprising a great many courses and psychological sense experiments like the pitch-dark restaurants that were all the rage a few years ago. In our day and age, it has become obvious that these experiences are only available to the select few. The Futurist Manifesto, however, had a social aspect built into it: the hope that one day, we would be fed by scientists instead of farmers, which would allow the general population to work less and enjoy more. This form of social equalising is yet to become a reality. Although we have seen science taking a large influence on the food we all eat, we value this influence differently across the spectrum. Many ‘foodies’, for lack of a better word, will turn up their noses at what is called highly processed food for its ‘unnaturalness’ and lack of nutritional value, yet express great wonder at the artfulness of molecular cuisine that turns cauliflower into caviar. While we increasingly expect fast-food chains to take responsibility for the unhealthiness of their food, no one questions the amount of deep-frying taking place in Michelin star restaurants, or the lacking nutritional value in foie gras. To be clear, of course haute cuisine can be healthy, just like haute couture can be wearable, but that will always be an afterthought. Food in these arenas is considered art, which is a treat for the select few that also have access to expensive juice bars and natural food stores, in which food is treated almost like medicine — so it’s fine if the occasional high-end treat isn’t healthy. Highly processed food, on the other hand, is associated with a lower social standing and obesity, so we lose sight of the scientific and culinary miracle that is, for example, a Pringles crisp. Instead, we complain that fast-food restaurants are poisoning our poorer demographics, without wondering why these groups resort to those restaurants in the first place. While we need to discuss these topics and make sure everyone in our societies gets the chance to live a happy and healthy life, we also have to be aware of the classist pitfall in a lot of these discussions.

Like all manifestos, the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking was not written just to describe a status quo, but instead demanded change to it. It would be interesting to know how Marinetti would view the current food landscape — or that of the 2000s. It’s likely that he would have been amazed by the cooking of, for example, Ferran Adrià, chef of the now-closed restaurant El Bulli in Spain and one of the pioneers of molecular cuisine. He created dishes Marinetti could not have dreamt up, as he tried to “turn eating into an experience that supersedes eating” — not just through the food itself, but also by giving immense thought to the rhythm and flow, the ‘choreography’ of the meal. Around the same time, Heston Blumenthal, Adrià’s colleague of three stars over in England at The Fat Duck, was not just using chemistry but brought in technical innovation of a different kind as well: “Eating is a multi-sensory experience. We’re working with Sony to develop a directional speaker to push sound at diners in a particular way while they are eating”, he told The Guardian in 2006. It was in that same interview he declared molecular gastronomy ‘dead’ — although his problem wasn’t with the food, but with the term itself. “Molecular makes it sound complicated and gastronomy makes it sound elitist.” If it sounded complicated and elitist, that’s because it was.

The beauty of science

While people like Blumenthal and Adrià have changed the view of what is possible in creating artwork out of food (Adrià was famously the first and so far the only chef asked to take part in the Documenta art fair in 2007), they have much less been able to change society through their art. The Futurists, like many other avant-garde groups, set out to take the art out of the museums, to subvert societal structures and change the way we live — which is not to say that their ideas were necessarily desirable. Although using advanced science to create surprising and artful food has become possible, it still almost exclusively takes place in the ‘museums’ that these restaurants are. The long waiting lists and high prices ensure these experiences are only available to a small elite, and they are surrounded by a veil of secrecy. Where food science is available to a wide audience, it is generally not valued as art or innovation — caused by a strange double standard around the ‘purity’ of food. Science has a large role to play in the coming decades to really change something about food and our relationship to it, and it’s obvious that the change the Futurists asked for, largely limited to the rituals and ornaments of the table, is not going to help us now. Instead, food science will have to help steer us away from the environmental disaster we’re facing. To change the world, lab-grown meat is now more important than Adrià’s signature liquid olive, ways to protect crops without killing birds and bees more essential than the usage of ozonisers and ultra-violet lamps in restaurants, and genetic manipulation of crops to help feed everyone clearly a more singular achievement than a restaurant with the lights switched off. These are just some of the problems we will have to tackle — and there will be real beauty in solving them.

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