I Tried to Eat Like an Italian Futurist and Learned that Fascism Isn't Delicious
One hundred years ago, an avant-garde group set out to transform meals into performance pieces. Were they any good?
All photos by Hedda Rysstad.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Denmark.
On my right is a plate with black olives, fennel hearts, and kumquats. On my left is a rectangle consisting of sandpaper, red silk, and black velvet. From a speaker nearby thunders a cacophony of Bach’s "Goldberg Variations" mixed with the sound of an old airplane motor. My left hand slides over the rough sandpaper as I simultaneously lift a bitter olive to my mouth. I chew meditatively as a waiter spritzes a carnation-scented perfume on my neck.
This is Futurist gastronomy: the past’s vision of the future. I’m in the heart of Copenhagen with a view of Rosenborg Castle and not 1930s Turin, but I’ve nevertheless decided to recreate this avant-garde dish, "Aerofood," which is now almost 100 years old.
Before molecular gastronomy transformed the kitchen into a laboratory and so-called "gastronomic revolutions" swept our postmodern world, there was an Italian avant-garde movement turning our idea of what food can and should be on its head. They called themselves Futurists.
if you thought it was forward-thinking when Heston Blumenthal served a dish with an accompanying iPod soundtrack, then you’ve probably never been introduced to "Strawberry Breasts" (made with ricotta colored pink with Campari, with candied cherries as nipples). And if you thought it was progressive when Noma dropped live ants on their dishes, then you’ve probably never tried the Futurist dish "Hunting in Heaven" (rabbit roasted in Asti Spumante and cocoa powder, served with a spinach and juniper sauce and decorated with silver coins).Or "Ultravirile", which involves cow tongue, shrimp, lobster with zabaglione, as well as rooster combs. And that was one of the more manageable Futurist dinner courses.
Like every avant-garde movement, Futurist gastronomy operated on a set of core tenets. For one, they advocated renouncing forks and knives in order to emphasize the tactile experience of the food. They also exhibited an exaggerated proclivity for perfume. Not just sprayed into the air, but sometimes directly into the food, such as in the dish "The Excited Pig," in which a stick of salami protrudes from a sauce made with coffee and eau de cologne.
At the forefront of the Futurist movement was the charismatic writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who, in addition to being a visionary and gifted poet, was also what many prominent historians call a fascist prick.
As their name indicates, the Futurists held progress and technological innovation as more sacred than anything else, and in their Manifesto of Futurism, published in 1909, Marinetti declares their intention to “fight moralism and feminism” and “glorify war, the world’s only hygiene.” Not surprising, then, that Marinetti’s musings were a fundamental pillar of fascism, and that the Italian dictator Mussolini was a major adherent of this line of thinking.
Over time, however, Marinetti began to think that fascism had become toothless and reactionary, so he resolved to revolutionize the lives of his countrymen in a functional manner. Art and life were to become one, so every aspect of life was to have an artistic dimension. He thus delved into revamping Italian eating habits in the early 1930s.
Besides laying the foundation for a Futurist restaurant, the purpose of the book The Futurist Kitchen was to break free of Italy’s addiction to pasta, which he called “our absurd gastronomic religion.” Marinetti opposed all traditions, but his country’s penchant for spaghetti and ravioli was a major thorn in this aggressive provocateur’s side. Although pasta was of course “pleasant on the taste buds,” he thought it made his people “bulky, lazy, slow, and pessimistic,” qualities he did not find to be advantageous in this new era where agility, efficiency, and ceaseless progress were a goals unto themselves.
“Men think, dream, and act according to what they eat and drink,” proclaimed Marinetti, who wanted to make the Italian national diet more purposeful as well as more aesthetically pleasing.
He gave the restaurant a streamlined interior with aluminum-plated surfaces, and tried to center the experience on stimulating all the senses. I discover this very quickly during my attempt to recreate the Futurist dish Aerofood. The scent of perfume, the sound of airplane motors and baroque music, minimalist surroundings, rough and soft surfaces to caress while I eat, and of course the taste of the dish’s different elements. All of this plays into a sensory experience that culminates first and foremost in a state of disorientation. But progress is disorienting, so I’m sure that Marinetti would be proud.
His lofty gastronomic visions were made tangible when he and the Futurist painter Fillía opened the restaurant Taverna del Santopalato (Tavern of the the Holy Palate) in Torino on March 1931 to extensive media coverage. It was their anti-pasta stance in particular that drew journalists from near and far, but it also helped that they had connections to the fascist regime’s news publications. In any case, the dishes on the menu were so eccentric and sculptural that the press found them hard to ignore.
How about a tower of meat shooting upwards from the plate, doused with glistening honey and propped up by small meatballs made of chicken?
Or what about polyrhythmic salad, where each guest receives a music box to wind with their left hand while eating lettuce, dates, and grapes directly from the bowl with their right, and the waiter dances slowly, making “elaborate gesticulations” in front of the table until the food has been ingested?
And then there’s my arrangement of olives, fennel and miniature citrus—with added noise, perfume, and tactile rectangles—all of which I’m attempting to take in. As I sit there with olives in my mouth, unable to enjoy Bach due to the airplane motor sounds thundering over it, I can’t help thinking that Futurism is a truly grotesque project. Like with so many other Futurist dishes, the overall experience is of more interest than the taste of the meal itself, because this is honestly just three types of fruits and vegetables on a plate. If this is the best that fascism could deliver, I can see why its ideology fell apart like an IKEA cabinet assembled on acid.
Like most of the Futurist body of thought, it’s mainly on paper that these dishes work. There’s something intriguing, almost sublime, about the Futurists’ worship of fleetness and progress, but it was clearly a set of thoughts that could only exist in a vacuum.
Futurism emerged during the dawning of the modern age, when democracy was taking shape and humans had discovered the miracle of flight, but before the bleaker sides of technology had revealed themselves. A time before humanity’s innocence was blown to scraps and shreds in the trenches of World War I. A time when we saw ourselves as gods and did not yet comprehend the negative influence we could have on the planet and on each other.
Marinetti never managed to eradicate the dull phenomenon of pasta, and fascism crumbled rather decisively during the decades that followed, as the world witnessed the hatred and division that its militaristic methods could lead to. Many of Marinetti’s ideas have been forgotten, but his uncompromising need for culinary experimentation lives on—and fortunately so.