Pornography of the Kitchen
The futurists' shopping list: salami, rose petals, and steel balls.
If the Marx brothers had ever taken to food writing, they might have produced something very like F.T. Marinetti’s marvelously slapstick work, The Futurist Cookbook. The provocative (and regrettably Mussolini-approved) Italian artist Marinetti was infatuated by all things sleek, sharp, electronic, and shiny, but he was also an avowed enemy of pasta, which he denounced as a pathetic Italian addiction to nostalgia and tradition. Instead, he preferred his Futurist meals to combine the radical use of color, shape, music, lighting, and ideas, leaving taste and nutrition off the list entirely. In fact, the modern vitamin supplement industry should make Marinetti a patron saint: He argued that all sustenance should come from pills, freeing up food to be the raw material of art, preferably to be consumed while listening to the soothing hum of an airplane engine.
His oddball cuisine debuted in the first (and only) Futurist restaurant, in 1929 Turin — an angular, alumina-plated interior called La Taverna del Santopalato, or Tavern of the Holy Palate. It was an event Marinetti considered on a par with the discovery of America and the fall of the Bastille (“the first human way of eating is born!”) His cuisine was then replicated at various Futurist events across Europe, to the horror of many pasta-lovers, and his 1932 cookbook has both delighted and mystified gastronomists ever since.
Some recipes can be visualized fairly easily, such as his sculpted meat skyscrapers with geraniums on skewers. But other recipes are more conceptual:
Aerofood: A signature Futurist dish, with a strong tactile element. Pieces of olive, fennel, and kumquat are eaten with the right hand while the left hand caresses various swatches of sandpaper, velvet, and silk. At the same time, the diner is blasted with a giant fan (preferable an airplane propeller) and nimble waiters spray him with the scent of carnation, all to the strains of a Wagner opera. (“Astonishing results,” Marinetti says. “Test them and see.”)
Taste Buds Take Off: A soup of concentrated meat stock, champagne, and grappa, garnished with rose petals — “a masterpiece of brothy lyricism.”
Italian Breasts in the Sunshine: Two half spheres of almond paste, with a fresh strawberry at the center or each, sprinkled with black pepper.
Chicken Fiat: A chicken is roasted with a handful of ball bearings inside. “When the flesh has fully absorbed the flavor of the mild steel balls, the chicken is served with a garnish of whipped cream.”
Beautiful Nude Food Portrait: A crystal bowl filled with fresh milk and the flesh of two boiled capons, all scattered with violet petals.
Equator + North Pole: “An equatorial sea of golden poached egg yokes” surrounds a cone made of whipped egg whites. This is “dotted with orange segments like succulent pieces of the sun” and black truffle carved to look like airplanes.
The Excited Pig: A “whole salami, skinned” is cooked in strong espresso coffee and flavored with eau-de-cologne.
Candied Atmospheric Electricities: Brilliantly-colored bars of marbled soup, filled with sweet cream.
Diabolical Roses: Red roses, battered and deep-fried.
Simultaneous Ice-Cream: Vanilla dairy cream and little squares of raw onion frozen together.
Marinetti was not entirely indifferent to the romance of fine dining, and does include a “Nocturnal Love Feast” in his cookbook. The meal, which should be eaten at midnight on the island of Capri, climaxes with a cocktail called the War-in-Bed — a relatively appetizing blend of pineapple juice, egg, cocoa, caviar, red pepper, almond paste, nutmeg, and a whole clove, all mixed in the yellow Strega liqueur. He declares that modern women (preferably sheathed in dresses made of gold graphic patterns) will inevitably be won over by the intellectual rigor of Futurist cooking, describing one beautiful donna’s wide-eyed response: “I’m dazzled! Your genius frightens me!”
Although Marinetti’s reputation suffered thanks to his embrace of Italian fascism and his taste for macho posturing, the goofy humor of his cookbook would influence a generation of younger artists, most notably the Spaniard Salvador Dalí. Dalí wrote obsessively about the connection between food and art, providing recipes for a Venus de Milo made from hard-boiled eggs (imagine the pleasure, he explained, of biting into her yolky breast) and championing the Art Nouveau style of Antonio Gaudí as a form of edible architecture, “whose softness seems to beg ‘Eat me!’” He penned and illustrated his own cookbook (Les Diners de Gala, dedicated to his wife) and included loopy food imagery in many of his surrealist paintings, such as “Average French Bread With Two Fried Eggs Without the Plate Trying to Sodomize a Crumb of Portuguese Bread” (1932) and the famous “Soft Construction with Baked Beans: Spain, Premonition of Civil War” (1936). In the modern world, Dalí declared, “beauty will be edible or not at all.” • 13 February 2008
SOURCE/FUTURE READING, Irwin, Robert, “The Disgusting Dinners of Salvador Dali,” Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1998, pp. 103-111; Marinetti, F.T., (ed. Chamberlain, Lesley), The Futurist Cookbook, (San Francisco, 1989).
Tony Perrottet's new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, July, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.