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Allusion is not Illusion

You'll pry my books off my cold, dead body. By the time you shift them all I'll be flat and dessicated.

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Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine - Rene Redzepi
Floating to add this awesome portrait of the author:


Out of respect for Redzepi's emphasis on the interconnectedness of environment, taste, appearance and other factors leading to the final experience of consuming a dish, I will attempt to consider all the aspects of this book in my review. Because it is first way in which one encounters a book, I will begin with book as object. NOMA is large and heavy. The title is oversized and arty. It correctly communicates the weighty ideas and glossy images one finds inside. Very coffee-table-for-intellectuals. The quality of paper, binding, and photography is all very high. This book takes itself seriously, as does the author. The mixed-off-whites color scheme and modern fonts are true to the Scandinavian aesthetic that Redzepi promotes. As an object, the book is beautiful.

Unfortunately, appearance is only a part of the reading experience. As already stated, the book is heavy and large. Awkwardly so. It was uncomfortable to hold and I had a hard time finding a place to read it. I ended up placing it on the kitchen table, but even that wasn't very satisfactory because of its size. Despite the large pages, the print in most sections is rather small (art books seem to require huge margins these days) and I had to lean forward over the book to read the tops of the pages. This was hard on my spine and made it difficult to read much at a time, which is too bad because the introductory essays were my favorite part. This book is emblematic of what happens when one prioritizes appearance over functionality.

The same can be said about the food itself. Visually, it is beautifully styled and plated and photographed. It is art. In fact, if I saw an image out of context I would guess that it was glass or stone rather than edible materials. It stimulated my appetite less than any recent book on food I can think of. Of course this doesn't make a practical difference because I'm not scheduled for a trip to Copenhagen and the ingredients are impossible to obtain fresh here -- and fresh is the whole point of NOMA's the culinary philosophy. But pretending for the moment that I in fact possessed the opportunity to eat there, would I? Well, yes. There is some novel stuff here, and anyway I'll try anything once, or even twice. NOMA's menu is highly seasonal so maybe if it wasn't horrible the first time (and I had lots of money and time) I'd try it again at a different time of year. Redzepi himself admits that lack of repeat custom is a serious problem for the restaurant.

Philosophically I found the approach to food very interesting. Redzepi's idea is that dishes should not be only seasonal and local but also environmental, not necessarily in the "green" sense but in that they recreate ecological systems by serving things that live together or eat one another, such as wild boar with roots and berries and leaves. Here is a description of one such dish:
A plateful of milk skin with grass, flowers and herbs... The garnish came from the field where the cow that had supplied the milk had walked, grazed and defecated. The plate itself was a small ecosystem... my mouth was exploring very area of the field.
Now, I'm very attuned to terroir, but to me, this is far more interesting than appetizing. It is food for your mind, not your mouth. Redzepi is quite young and I think he makes the mistake of many young chefs in prioritizing originality over all else. Sometimes there's a reason no one has done something before. Sometimes, it is because it isn't good.

So while not in any way inspired to try more modern Scandinavian food, I did enjoy this book as a thinker, if less so as a reader or gourmand.

And if you ever need an intellectual argument to convince some one to try -- I mean really try, not take one bite, say "There, I tried it and I don't like it" -- new foods, here it is:
We are constantly confronted with a trivialized sensory world, largely the product of banal commercialization. The makers of that world aim for 'safe' sensations, selling experiences with which their target group can immediately identify. As a result, the individual's imaginative ability is levelled off to become the same for everybody. The senses are blunted.
...When you work with a language of very delicate shades of meaning -- in cooking as well as in art -- it gives access to a subtle and unfamiliar register of experience. You come closer to the limits of your sensory values. The senses combine, stretching your brain, and a new synaesthetic map appears.