rumination 20: spoof…

RANDY: There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance: One: You can never have sex. The minute you get a little nookie-you’re as good as gone. Sex always equals death. Two: Never drink or do drugs. The sin factor. It’s an extension of number […]


RANDY: There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance: One: You can never have sex. The minute you get a little nookie-you’re as good as gone. Sex always equals death. Two: Never drink or do drugs. The sin factor. It’s an extension of number one. And Three: Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, say “I’ll be right back.”


Genre fully matures, and, indeed, survives, when it’s able to hold a mirror up to itself, point, and laugh.

So predictable become its habits, so formulaic its courses, that to continue without acknowledging them would be suicidal, endangering its species to a hoary fate of tropes and clichés, dismissed as easy.

Why? Because a puzzle solved is a puzzle no more. Fashion becomes unfashionable, fads fade, and trends die.

Out of self-preservation, genre must break the fourth wall and address its audience directly, jumping one step ahead of its demise to acknowledge and appeal: here’s why you have loved me and why you will continue loving me – because I don’t take myself too seriously.  We know it as parody. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s profound, but it always refreshes the stale and stagnant with a candy coat of artificial reality.

I touched on this topic briefly in a previous rumination. I return to it here for a lengthier consideration, an extension to my thoughts on the edible proscenium.

So, Randy tells us what we already know about horror movies, and, suddenly, “Scream” isn’t just another cheesy example.

The Lady of the Lake and Sir Galahad harmonize a rousing Broadway show-stopper in “Spamalot” to acknowledge that “Once in every show, there comes a song like this; it starts off soft and low, and ends up with a kiss.” The song is overblown, sticky and sweet, and we love it because it’s true.*

Austin Powers, an international man of mystery, a spy for Her Majesty’s crown, is, admittedly, not as dashing as 007.  But we don’t care, because, in the end, he still gets the villain, with an arsenal of preposterous gadgetry and some scripted luck. And more importantly, in the end, he gets the babes.

Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, two fictional NBC executives atop 30 Rock, drop Verizon’s name repeatedly in an indiscreet product placement in an episode of their Emmy Award-winning sitcom, and then turn into the camera and ask, “when do I get my money?”  Let’s just call a spade a spade, we agree.

Picasso, who had mastered all of the masters, repainted Velazquez’s iconic Las Meninas in a new shapes, colors, and flavors, the princess of Spain in cubic form. We oooh.

Tongue-in-cheek, Roy Lichtenstein took America’s comic strip and turned it into a body of work, melodramatic, oversized, and transformative. We ahhh.

A mustachioed mixologist swings his tweeded vest into the saddle at a bar and declares, “I’ve brought my own ice.”  It’s all a farce, of course, “Shit Bartenders Say,” just one in a series of generic memes, viral now.  We cheer and clap.

Why are parodies so popular?

Because they invite us inside the genre for an intimate roast, and reward us for having done our homework. Spoofs rely on the ability of the audience to recognize a set of conventions, without which its conceit would fail. Able to register the references, keep with the curve, we become smug with savvy, proud of our intellectual prowess: we got the joke. And suddenly, we’re no longer bored with the dull and dying, because we’ve been included in the demystification of an icon, and, ultimately, we’ve had our egos stroked. Satisfied, knowing that the genre needs us, would die without us, we happily set aside our need for utility and innovation and grant clemency to an otherwise expiring set of conventions that offer no challenges or progress, renewing and revalidating them.

So, horror movies ply on with their predictable plots; Broadway keeps churning out easily digestible belters that bring down the curtain; spies keeping trapping their villains with impossible gadgetry, and their women too; products continually drop onto screen and out of actors’ mouths; and artists continue to push the boundaries of sense and sensibilities – a twelve million-dollar stuffed shark, anyone?

And chefs continue to weave their nostalgic stories, currently foraged and foamy, witty and wild.

But how much of it is actually worthwhile?  Or, are we all just gushing because we like feeling smart, proud to say that we “get it?”  Parodies are powerful like that.

I think about this a lot when eating in restaurants.

True parody in cooking is rare. Most of the culinary commentary I’ve encountered is actually quite shallow – simple imitation, attribution, or inspired variations, at best. I don’t mean this as an insult. To be sure, there’s a lot of deliciousness, and quite a bit of thought in present day cooking. But rarely does cooking step outside of itself to examine and exploit its own conventions the way other genres have done on such thrilling terms.

Trends will rise, and trends will fall, and then rise again. It was chicken kiev in 1912, and it was chicken kiev in 1961, and again, briefly, in 2008.  It was cocktail o’clock in the 1925, and again in the 1959, and again in 2007.  It was table-side Caesars in 1958, table-side carving in 1985, and table-side saucing in 2001. These are not parodies. These are facsimiles and fads. Everything is a remix.

But molecular gastronomy isn’t a remix.  It’s not just a fad, or just a “riff.” It’s much more. Molecular gastronomy (note: for fear of over-generalizing, I refer only to its very best examples) is a parody on cooking, a conceit and commentary.  It’s a contortion of cuisine, where the whole is deconstructed and examined, part for part, right in front of its audience.** And that, I’ve realized, explains why it is so popular. It demystifies and compliments all at once.  And that is also why I think molecular gastronomy has a limited run. Like all parodies, it is nothing but a splashy pause, to acknowledge and appeal, to roast and reward.  And then the show goes on.

But what happens when a parody takes itself more seriously, escaping mere commentary and endeavors to replace, or at least, equal its subject?  Has molecular gastronomy become a genre in its own right?  (I think it has, for parody is a genre too.) Will it replace cooking as we’ve known it?  (I don’t think it will.)  As a genre, will it mature and die, or will we renew it with a series of spoofs?

Only time will tell.  (I think it will die.)

In the meantime, we return to our whole-roasted beasts, pastas and fried chicken, cupcakes and donuts, cocktails and coffees, macarons and canelés. Fads though they may be, coming and going, and coming again, they comprise the staple set that we’ve renewed and revalidated against artifice. These, we have rescued from their endangered fate as mere tropes and clichés. Over the centuries, we’ve conquered them, and they’ve conquered us. We like them, and they like us. It’s a tried-true relationship, where a spade is nothing more than a spade. It’s a natural evolution, uninterrupted, but for a brief, self-aware comment, by and by, that puts it all back into perspective for us.

*An Original Musical” from [Title of Show] is another excellent example (actually, the whole musical is a wonderful parody).  It was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical in 2009.

** Example: At alinea, Grant Achatz served a dish entitled “Beef Steak Cap with the Flavors of A1 Sauce.”  By sight, it was a collection of ingredients that seemed to make little sense together. But, all mixed up, it tasted just like A1 sauce.  This was steak and sauce, familiar to most Americans, in a different form.

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7 replies on “rumination 20: spoof…”

This is a very well thought out and interesting post, as always, but I disagree with your conclusions regarding Modernist cooking techniques. At one time these techniques were exciting simply because they were new, clever and different, whether or not the food itself had substance. The era of extreme technical innovation and surprise has now passed and we are no longer thrilling to a dish simply because the technique is exciting. As a result, Modernist technique has now fallen back into the shadows and the overall brilliance of the end-plate has super-ceded it. That, however, doesn’t mean that these techniques have or will die. Quite the contrary. They are now fully incorporated with traditional techniques in many, if not most, top kitchens. These new, Modernist techniques have now morphed into the general repertoire of contemporary kitchen technique. Just because they may not be obvious, doesn’t mean they haven’t been used.

I’m not saying that there aren’t influential currents (e.g. Faviken) actively avoiding Modernist techniques. That represents the “new” novelty and fashion and has its merits like any other approach when done well. There are all sorts of ways of doing things. That approach, while titillating those of us always seeking the cutting edge, does not represent the mainstream. Modernist techniques are now part of the main stream and will be, IMO, for quite some time, as they are very useful techniques to reach specific end-points.

@docsconz: I think you’re confusing techniques with genre. I’m talking about the diminishing currency of the molecular restaurant more than the techniques upon which it relies.

Yes, especially now with retirement of elBulli from the scene. These restaurants are no longer the darlings of the food world as they had been, but I would say that what will be gone are the dilettantes. I think there will always be room for restaurants in this genre that wow with creative technique. Some, like Mugaritz have morphed into Modernist or more appropriately, especially in their case, Techno-emotional restaurants with strong expression of the new Naturalism. The problem is that the bar has been set rather high and it has become difficult to wow with technical novelty. Those who can still accomplish that, like Mugaritz and a few others will still shine from within this genre.

@docsconz: But that’s exactly what I’m saying. Molecular gastronomy (or, what you term “Modernist”) is an artifice, a spoof of the reality of cooking. So, what I’m saying is that, as a spoof, I don’t think Modernist cooking will last. We will return to the original subject matter.