“To cook something to exactly the right degree is a delicate operation which requires great care, scientific interest, and art – that is to say, love.”
– Édouard de Pomiane
while this goes against my actual cooking practice (non-scientific interest, careless measurement, reckless abandon), i like the idea of love as involving rigour – that it demands something of they who love, and of the beloved. i haven’t fleshed out what that means exactly, but it makes good (counter)intuitive sense to me.
i’ve been reading the Modern Library’s edition of Cooking With Pomiane, skimming the recipes while relishing Pomiane’s style and personality, but i am annoyed to discover how difficult it is to get clear information on the source of the text. in her introduction Ruth Reichl refers to Cooking With Pomiane as the first of his books to be published, in the 1930s, but when one actually looks at his list of French publications, it is nowise clear of which of these books it is a translation. i would like to believe that it is Réflexes et réflexions devant la nappe, as that is the cleverest of the titles, but it is my suspicion that Cooking With Pomiane is probably an anthology (if anyone has information to the contrary, i would love to be disabused of this notion). this, and the attendant difficulty of pinpointing when the text(s) was written, is unfortunate because much of the réflexions of Pomiane concern the past; the past of French cuisine, and his own. it is the way that his recipes are larded and barded with memoir that makes the book so attractive:
These friands bring back all my childhood. Alas, the people I loved have vanished. Asphalte has covered the fields of the Butte Montmartre and the streams have disappeared beneath the pavements
but the book has become unmoored in time, and it is difficult to situate this nostalgia – is this the Pomiane of the ’60s or of the ’30s who is looking back so wistfully?
elsewhere, he writes:
What would our lives be like without tradition? What terrible fatigue would overwhelm humanity if it only had to concern itself with the future? Tradition represents a momentary pause in the course of toil – repose and backward glance toward the past – the comparison of today with yesterday. Tradition is the memory of happy moments which have vanished, and their ephemeral return to life.
this is certainly a rosy view of tradition, that which rests and revives, rather than stifles and binds, but Pomiane is considered neither reactionary nor conservative. he has been hailed by many as a culinary Modern, even iconoclast, and has been cited as an intellectual forefather of molecular gastronomy, himself a scientist and physician, working at the Pasteur Insitute in Paris. indeed, i think we can read in Pomiane the best of the spirit of molecular gastronomy (or the spirit of the best molecular gastronomy). the public face of molecular gastronomy is too often that of of wild abstraction, deconstruction, the technological colonization of the kitchen by a perhaps mad-scientific rationality. but there is also a respect for tradition, and for the foods themselves, combined with an unwillingness to be bound by that tradition, and one could say that molecular gastronomy is (the formal grounding of) the theory, which undertakes a demystification of the kitchen, while modern(ist) cooking is the practical remystification of the cuisine.
i would like to pursue a more in-depth comparison between Pomiane and Hervé This, but unfortunately i lost both my notes and my (borrowed) copy of Molecular Gastronomy somewhere in Europe while i was on tour. which is bad news for you guys, because there were some real gems of insight in there, i’m pretty sure. in any case, to make explicit the connection, it is important to bear in mind Hervé This’s point that “molecular gastronomy” is not a style of cooking, despite how the term is bandied about. gastronomy is the study of food, cooking, eating. it’s a body of knowledge. molecular gastronomy (or in its earlier, more accurate if more unwieldy formulation – “molecular and physical gastronomy”) is about constructing an understanding of food and cooking based specifically in the ‘hard’ sciences. modern/modernist cooking is about taking this understanding as a starting point and using not only the theoretical apparatus of chemistry and physics, but also its material battery (such as the infamous centrifuge, itself borrowed by organic chemistry from physics in the making of molecular biology) to take the preparation of food in new directions.
this distinction is important, and i find makes the term “molecular gastronomy” that much less annoying. so when Pomiane speaks of the art, science, and love involved in cooking food to exactly the right temperature, one can’t help but the thermal immersion circulator (the instrument used for sous vide cooking) comes to mind. it is the technological answer to Pomiane’s heart’s desire, or so i think its exponents would put forth, perhaps going so far as to say that the thermal immersion circulator is a cyborg technology of love (no one would say that). the use of such technology raises the question as of whether they are better thought of as shortcuts or as extensions of human capability. a sort of technological precising definition of the act of love?
reining myself in for a moment, i had another worlds-collide moment when i read that while at the Pasteur Institute Pomiane worked with Felix d’Herelle on his pioneering study of bacteriophage – a class of what were eventually decided to be viruses that feed specifically on bacteria and have been sources of both elucidation and problematization in the history of virology. notably, it was particularly with the work of the Phage Group in the 1950s that physicists (and their wacky instruments) began to enter into the study of viruses, which played a major role in the rise of molecular biology and of chemical and physical understandings of life.