The father of Futurism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, hated pasta but was a big believer in raw sausages marinating in coffee and Eau de Cologne.
The dining table of the future. All photos were taken by Stefano Santangelo.
This article originally appeared on VICE Italy
"While recognising that great deeds have been performed in the past by men badly or crudely nourished, we affirm this truth: that we think, dream and act according to what we eat and drink."
- Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
A little over a century ago, in 1909, the Italian poet and art theorist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published The Futurist Manifesto. It became a seminal work, giving life to the homonymous artistic and cultural movement that's been one of the most avant garde and absurd in history. After starting the movement, stating that "art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice" and inspiring Mussolini and Italian fascism, Marinetti decided to dedicate himself to applying the Futurist principles to as many disciplines as possible – including gastronomy. That's how he ended up writing The Futurist Cookbook – an actual recipe book.
In practice, Futurist cooking was short-lived. Marinetti himself had a futurist restaurant in Paris for some time, which he started with the help of French chef Jules Maincave. After that attempt, various restaurants opened under the "Futurist restaurant" moniker but for the most part it was more the décor that could be called futurist, rather than the menu. Probably for the best, given that the guidelines for futurist cooking are truly absurd.
First of all, Marinetti proposes to get rid of cutlery so as not to interfere with the possible "pre-labial tactile pleasure" that eating can give. He wanted to abolish traditional condiments in favour of having some smells waft through the air and, in a more general sense, he wanted to remove "everyday mediocrity from the pleasures of the palate". Having dinner should, in Marinetti's mind, be an experimental journey through the senses. On top of that, he deemed it necessary to ban the "absurd Italian gastronomic religion" that is pasta, in order to free Italy from the weight of its wheat imports and to promote the local rice industry.
Marinetti invites his readers to invent new flavours through "pills, albuminoid compounds, synthetic fats and vitamins" and hopes for the creation of "simultaneous and changing canapés which contain 10, 20 flavours". He writes: "In futurist cooking, these canapés have by analogy the same amplifying function that images have in literature. A given taste of something can sum up an entire area of life, the history of an amorous passion or an entire voyage to the Far East."
Since this all sounds amazing, I got hold of a copy of The Futurist Cookbook. It wasn't just its absurdity that sparked my interest, but also the knowledge that I would be one of the few people who has prepared and eaten these dishes in decades. I got my friend and colleague Federico involved and one evening last week, we embarked on an adventure into hardly explored culinary territories.
We had to compile a menu from the cookbook, which wasn't easy – every recipe seemed very deserving to be made. We made a selection based on how inspired we felt by a dish, by how difficult it would be to prepare and by the aesthetics and name of it. That meant that too complicated dishes like "Sculpted Meat" or not futurist enough sounding dishes like "Divorced Eggs" ("Divide some hard boiled eggs in half and remove the yolks inside. Put the yolks on a mash of potatoes and then the whites") were off the table.
In the end, we decided on "Tummy Tickler", "The Excited Pig" and the "Black Shirt Snack" as starters. The main dish would have to be the "Fasces"— according to the recipe, its shape ought to bring to mind a fasces – a symbol of authority in the Roman Empire that later became the symbol of the Italian Fascism. To accompany it all we'd have a "polibibita" (poly-drink, the futurist version of a cocktail) with the suggestive name "Devil in Black Key". It consisted of two quarters orange juice, one quarter grappa, one quarter liquid chocolate and a floating hard-boiled egg yolk. Just to be safe, we also bought cheap beers.
We spent about an hour preparing it all, before we sat down at the table. We decided to start with a toast so that I could try the polibibita. Federico toasted with water.
I don't know what Marinetti was thinking when he chose these ingredients, but the fact of the matter is that once we sat down to drink, the chocolate had sunk to the bottom of the glass. It looked like mud, it smelled terrible and it tasted exactly like you'd expect – like grappa, with egg and orange juice and a slight aftertaste of chocolate. You can see how the tasting went for me in the GIF below.
After having a few sips I put the polibibita aside and cracked open a beer.
Then, we ate. Because of its name, we thought that it would be wise to start with the "Tummy tickler". At first sight, this dish seems disgusting, but it turned out to be the most edible thing we prepared all night. Humanity doesn't necessarily consider pineapples and sardines to be complementary but, honestly, the combination isn't too bad. The extreme sweetness of the pineapple and the saltiness of the sardines turned out to be a sweet-and-sour bolus made quite doughy by the tuna. It seems strange at the beginning but once you get used to it, it becomes totally edible. It's worth noting that the nuts add nothing to the whole experience.
The second dish was the "Excited pig": A raw salami served without its skin in a bath of coffee and Eau-de-Cologne – we didn't have that, so we replaced it with standard men's perfume. For some reason I was under the impression that this would have been the most inviting dish of the whole dinner, but instead it was the only one we didn't even try. Besides worrying about getting tapeworm or salmonella, the idea of drinking perfume just wasn't tempting. The smell emanating from the plate made it even less enticing.
According to the Futurist Cookbook, the perfect meal cannot be achieved by simply following the recipes word for word. It is not the quality of the ingredients or the talent of the chef that makes a difference but how well one adheres to a certain etiquette when presenting or tasting the various dishes, too. For example, the Futurists thought music should not be played while you're eating but during intervals between the dishes, "so as not to distract the sensitivity of the tongue and palate but to help annul the last taste enjoyed by establishing gustatory virginity".
We followed this guideline with particular enthusiasm, pausing after each dish to play something on YouTube. Marinetti did not specify what kind of music should help establish gustatory virginity, so we tried a bit of everything, from chants from Italy's fascist era to Avril Lavigne.
By this point the pineapple and sardines had tickled our tummy sufficiently to be very hungry, so we decided to move on to the "Black Shirt Snack", an apple cut in two with a battered cutlet of cod in between. The original recipe required the dish to be soaked in rum and served in flames but we wanted to avoid setting the house on fire. So we opted to do it flambé – we put the dish in the sink and set fire to it in a controlled environment.
To be honest, if it hadn't been for that final part it could have even been tasty. Apple and fish aren't bad together. The real problem here was the foul taste of the cheap rum we'd bought, which was so terrible it took a considerable effort to even light it.
After we'd devoured the fish and – with some effort – part of the apple, we were ready for the final monster of the evening. The "Fasces" is one of the most important futurist dishes of Marinetti's manifesto – a composition of minced meat, celery stalks and rice. It was the most difficult recipe of the lot, but we managed to follow it word for word. And I have to say that the result was baffling.
Building the structure wasn't easy but the final result was better than I could have hoped. The raw minced meat inside the cylinder of celery stalks, seasoned with oil, salt and pepper, was basically a carpaccio. The rest was quite tasteless – especially the rice. At this point I'd lost count of the amount of beers we'd had, so I'm a bit vague on the details with this dish.
All in all, I have to say that some of the Futurist rules for cooking turned out to be less absurd than they seemed at first glance. Sure, some excesses are decisively revolting, but in general I can say that these dishes aren't just culinary provocation.
After we had cleared the table we did the dishes. From the window of the kitchen we could see the Cimitero Monumentale – the cemetery where Marinetti is buried. He didn't seem to have turned in his grave.
(The translation for the Marinetti's quotes comes from the 2014 Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Futurist Cookbook)