Wild Ecosystems, Culinary Abstractions and the Long Tails of Modernism
Volume 4, Cycle 2
Writing for Wired magazine in 2004, Chris Anderson introduced readers to a statistical concept coined shortly after World War II: the long tail. In the abstract, the term describes a numerical distribution for which the aggregate share of rare occurrences outpaces the most popular or common occurrence—say, responses by one million different people to the question of the estimated number of books owned. More concretely, a long tail market is one in which lots of individual items (such as all of the coffee brands and roasts sold in 2018) comprise more of an industry’s total sales than its bestsellers (such as Folgers Classic). With the rise of digital commerce, analysts adapted the concept to apprehend the economics of highly subdivided online markets. Narrating a success story of the music platform Rhapsody (success that would prove fleeting), Anderson writes: “You can find everything out there on the Long Tail. . . . There are live tracks, B-sides, remixes, even (gasp) covers. There are niches by the thousands, genre within genre within genre. . . . ‘The biggest money is in the smallest sales.’”
Well before the long tail entered business idiom, Gertrude Stein was contemplating the economic value of cultural niches. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), “the profusion of mass consumables” jockeys for textual dominance with a multiplicity of unique and unconventional objects: among them, tiny impressionist paintings, banned books, and “a pigeon out of a fair.” Describing this pattern, Alissa Karl concludes that Stein advances “modernist consumer practices” as “a means of using the market to distinguish the avant-garde” (“Modernism’s Risky Business,” 91). Put differently, The Autobiography helps to define modernist aesthetics in terms of two essential characteristics: artistic novelty and socioeconomic distinction, the latter in sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s sense. In their oft-cited PMLA essay introducing the New Modernist Studies, Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz suggest that this double valence gained traction through the subsequent “marketing of modernism”: “For the mid-twentieth-century commentators who helped solidify modernism as an object of analysis . . . it was evident that a common denominator in the vast welter of modernist formal innovations was the property of being hard to sell to large numbers of people.” Their account departs from those of Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, for whom modernism coheres as “a strategy whereby the work of art resists commodification, holds out by the skin of its teeth against those social forces which would degrade it to an exchangeable object.” According to this formulation, modernism retrospectively takes shape in opposition to a postmodernism enthralled with global capitalism. Contra definitions of modernism that rely on a postmodern strawman, this essay begins from the idea that modernism persists into the present by way of its nimble marketability, which makes differentiated styles and schools of cultural production saleable. It persists, that is, through long tail economics that foster ever-branching brands of modernism—from mid-century furniture to modernist cuisine.
This cluster shows that an interest in food systems and food cultures (or what Kyla Wazana Tompkins terms “eating cultures”) puts the aesthetic forms of modernism into contact with industrial commodities, consumer tastes, and colonial histories. Akin to other cross-disciplinary humanities scholarship, this critical food studies approach to modernism necessarily situates its most canonical figures and works in an expansive cultural field. What follows shifts the cluster’s temporal scope from food cultures that are contemporaneous with modernist canons to twenty-first-century modernisms that, imagined as avant-garde, circulate on the long tails of increasingly segmented cultural niches. My point of departure is the intersection of these contemporary modernisms with both ecology and green marketing, a convergence at work in the culinary movements variously branded as technique concept, New Nordic, and hyper-locavore that this essay groups under the heading of eco-modernist cuisine. Taking the creative and material stakes of these cuisines seriously reveals the idiosyncratic edges of global capitalism, where modernism’s afterlives include green avant-gardes and where “the biggest money is in the smallest sales.”
Avant-garde Chefs, Conceptual Restaurants
In the early twenty-first century, modernism’s long tail markets have expanded well beyond literature, architecture, performance, and visual art to include the sustainability consulting of groups like the Breakthru Institute (whose founders contributed to the 2015 “Ecomodernist Manifesto”), the popularity of Scandinavian design in gentrifying neighborhoods, and the fan culture around “post-rock” bands such as Radiohead and Sigur Rós. Perhaps nowhere are long tail markets for modernist culture more apparent, though, than in contemporary gastronomy. Over the past decade, modernist cuisine has come to signifiy disruptions of the rituals and recipes of high-end restaurants. The earliest published instance of the phrase appears to be a 2007 Columbia University Press book about Spanish chef Ferran Adrià’s now shuttered restaurant elBulli. Four years later, former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold monetized the moniker by publishing a six-volume tome priced at $625 and titled Modernist Cuisine. Bolstered by international media coverage, the phrase has helped build both cultural capital and venture capital for restaurants, product lines, and cooking implements whose branding as modernist distinguishes them from, on the one hand, the mass market of industrialized fast food and, on the other, activist-driven markets for organic, vegetarian, and slow food (the last of which dates to 1986, when Italian anti-globalization activist Carlo Petrini and others founded Slow Food International to “defend regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life”).
“Genre within genre within genre” is an apt gloss for the styles and schools that modernist cuisine now encompasses. Adrià, for example, classed elBulli with a handful of other restaurants under the label of “technique concept” cuisine to signal a style of culinary fabrication reminiscent of Italian Futurist preoccupations with the machinery of industrial manufacturing. For their part, restaurants aligned with Adrià’s label adapt the tools of wet labs and product design studios to break down ingredients and reassemble them as conceptual textures, flavors, and designs that surprise and sometimes outrage diners. It is for this reason that elBulli and its peers have been aligned (often to protests from the chefs) with “molecular gastronomy,” which French scientist Hervé This popularized in writing about the biochemistry of traditional cooking methods, such as egg poaching and meat searing. Although technique concept restaurants and their test kitchens emulate food science labs, chefs like Adrià part ways with molecular gastronomy’s emphasis on cooking traditions in viewing themselves as avant-garde artists who deconstruct and reinvent the rules of fine dining, somewhat akin to the Cubist painting’s fracturing of traditional portraiture.
As this proclaimed avant-garde has taken on the whiff of an establishment, new brands of modernist cuisine have emerged, analogously to the “late modernisms” of abstract expressionism, neo-Dada, theater of the absurd, and so on. These range from New Nordic Food to neuro-gastronomy but also encompass outliers that buck labels altogether. Consider the case of Vespertine. Located in Culver City a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, Vespertine opened in 2017 and shortly thereafter made the number one spot on Jonathan Gold’s annual list, 101 Best Restaurants in Los Angeles. Alternately lauded and mocked as futuristic, Vespertine sees itself not as a restaurant per se but as a four-story stage for conceptual and performance art. Having purchased nonrefundable tickets online, the twenty-two diners accommodated at each seating begin their time at Vespertine standing in the kitchen rather than seated at tables. Continuing the kinetic and tactile experience, each party moves throughout the meal, from the kitchen to the top-floor “aerie” of “low couches” to the main dining space (whose acrylic tables have deliberately sticky surface) all while listening to a paradoxically “extreme[e]” and “ambient” soundtrack by the Texas post-rock band This Will Destroy You. Vespertine’s $250 tasting menu in its format and in the minimalism of each dish deliberately vexes gourmet diners’ expectations. “From a time that is yet to be, and a place that does not exist,” to quote a press release, head chef Jordan Kahn fabricates what Gold calls “culinary abstractions.” Moreover, while elBulli maintained the protocols of white tablecloths and attentive service, Vespertine’s spare, sculptural plates are presented, with an ironic nod to its setting near Sony Pictures Studio, by costumed servers who wear “severe frock[s] like something out of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’” and who provide virtually no information or guidance. “You are not sure exactly what you are eating. You are not meant to know,” Gold observes. Invoking the idea of a total work of art, his review concludes, this “is not dinner; it’s Gesamtkunstwerk” (Gold, “At Vespertine”).
The Vespertine building stands as an architectural analogue for the nightly performance inside: a twisted tower of glass and steel designed by Eric Owen Moss Architects. The architects’ website sums up their own practice with the well-worn imperative “Make it New!”—the presumed DNA for modernist novelty that, as Michael North shows, was in fact recycled by Ezra Pound from Chinese Confucian texts. Although Vespertine presents itself as an utterly novel “gastronomical experience,” the building and the menu both borrow from historical modernisms that are at odds with one another in terms of their artistic and ideological commitments. In the self-conscious melding of sculpture, architecture, stagecraft, music, ceramics, textiles, and organic farming, for example, Vespertine implicitly draws on the Bauhaus School and its transdisciplinary practice of Gesamtkunstwerk. In flouting patrons’ bodily and psychic comforts, Kahn’s recipes echo those of F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook, whose “formulas” for dishes such as “Steel Chicken” and “Atlantic Aerofood” were prototypes for a fascist diet that aimed to supplant regional and ethnical food traditions. Finally, in the endeavor to make a prix fixe dinner an “immersive, multi-sensory event,” Vespertine invokes Antonin Artaud’s 1932 manifesto for a “theater of cruelty,” which advocated a visceral kind of theater organized around “[d]irect contact . . . between the audience and the show, between actors and audience, from the very fact that the audience is seated in the centre of the action, is encircled and furrowed by it.”
To these disparate modernist influences, Vespertine adds a peculiar environmentalist bent. The ethereal video montage that launches when one visits the restaurant’s website opens with a female figure cloaked in a monastic hooded robe and filmed walking across a landscape suggestive of California’s coastal chaparral hills. As she walks, the figure runs her fingers first through the coals of a wood fire and then through the fronds and flowers of wild plants. This organic tableau bleeds into an angular composition of Kahn dressed similarly to the woman but absent the hood; standing in the Vespertine kitchen, he molds the same wild plants into tiny sculptures. Taken together, video and text convey a loosely environmentalist ethos for modernist cuisine. This ethos is not identical with that of the now relatively widespread farm-to-table movement, whose chefs tend to publicize their food sourcing values and name local producers and purveyors. Vespertine, in contrast, severs the links between agricultural and culinary production in favor of putting on center stage aesthetic techniques abstracted from “what nature does in the wild”—adaptation, evolution, symbiosis, predation, extinction, and so on. More pointedly, akin to Pound’s appropriations of Chinese philosophy, this modernist program assimilates ecological knowledge about biodiversity along with cultural traditions around wild foods into a cuisine tailored for a small number of people who have the means and disposition to nourish themselves (more or less) on one of modernism’s long tails.
The Niche of Wilderness-to-Table Cuisine
In this, Vespertine can be situated in a network of contemporary restaurants whose chefs transmute wild ecosystems into culinary abstractions. A rarefied print culture documents these abstractions in the form of arthouse cookbooks whose hard-to-reproduce recipes, impressionistic narratives, and elaborate manifestos broadcast the chefs’ experimental practices. Examples include Virgilio Martínez’s cookbook Central, which features collages devised out of plants and animals collected from different Peruvian biomes, along with René Redzepi’s box set A Work in Progress, whose three nested volumes recall the sketchbooks and diaries of nineteenth-century naturalists even as the writing style trades on an urban punk aesthetic and the main narrative stresses the innovations of Redzepi’s Copenhagen restaurant Noma as the progenitor of New Nordic food. In this print culture, a recurring trope comes into focus as the defining mark—and marketability—of eco-modernist cuisine: the trope of the avant-garde dish as a microcosm of ecological niches and their wild, edible species that envisions the contemporary experimental restaurant as a hybrid space of art and science.
To quote Martínez, “at Central, we cook ecosystems.” A first-person vignette in his 2016 cookbook relays an origin story for this precept. “I took a year off to just travel around Peru,” he writes:
I explored the Andes in Cuzco and in Huaraz, the Amazon in Pucallpa, and the coast around Chiclayo. I saw how Peruvians enjoyed their local food much like I saw people in Asia embracing their local cuisine. I came across a huge number of ingredients that I had never seen or heard of or cooked with before and I wanted to do something with this biodiversity, but I didn’t know how. I knew that these ingredients were only the starting point. (Martínez, Central, 15)
Returning from his sojourn, Martínez restructured Central around the framework of altitudes and the edible organisms found at particular altitudes in Peru: from abundant seaweed species and unusual mollusks found in tidal pools to wild tubers and grasses that grow in the Andes. Modernist novelty mixes with natural history at the new Central, where Martínez has convened a team of cooks and biologists (the latter group led by his sister Malena, who runs Central’s laboratory arm, Mater). The team’s foraging expeditions lead them from the Lima-based restaurant to sites across Peru, where they collect caches of specimens that are first studied and catalogued in the Mater lab and then put through various state changes in the Central kitchen as part of a process of iterative recipe development.
A national imaginary enlivens the research methods and recipes of Central, whose altitude concept confines itself to Peru’s nineteenth-century colonial borders. This imaginary crystallizes in the cookbook’s narrative of a Quechua couple named Francisco and Trinidad who teach Martínez, Malena, and others a method of cooking Andean potatoes underground in a clay oven known as a hautia. In narrating this experience, Martínez notes that the couple holds a “database” in their heads of Andean plants and their medicinal and alimentary uses—expertise in what anthropologist Anna Tsing terms the “familiar places” and multispecies ecologies of foraging communities (Central, 90). Retreading the primitivist strain of high modernism, Central incorporates such indigenous knowledge into Mater’s physical specimen collection and digital database of Peruvian species, which provide ingredients for culinary innovation. Through its forays outside Lima, then, Central digests both wild ecosystems and ethnic cultures, activating the dialectic of indigeneity and avant-gardism by which modernist artists have acquired special value as at once translators and disruptors of tradition who stand outside mass consumerism.
Another vignette in the Central cookbook underscores the charged meanings of wilderness within eco-modernist culinary praxis. “Whenever we think about new dishes that will involve seafood,” Martínez reflects about Central’s procedures of recipe experimentation and menu formulation, “we prefer it in its raw form—even if it is hard, even if it is gummy, chewy, or rubbery, we still prefer the raw over the cooked. It’s vital to work with it alive, to get a sense of the creature in its natural state” (Central, 44). Calling to mind Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist binary of The Raw and the Cooked, this meditation lauds less the ecological importance of the wild plants and animals that Central collects and cooks than the aesthetic potential of those organisms for making unorthodox aromas, colors, and textures. The allure of wild ecosystems and foraged specimens for chefs like Martínez, in turn, recalls John Cage’s avid practice of mushrooming. Tsing explains the connection between the composer’s musical aesthetics and foraging habits: “Cage wanted a music that forced listeners to attend to all the sounds around them, whether composed or incidental. Teaching and writing about mushrooms helped him explain how to practice an open yet focused attention.” Similarly, restaurants like Central and Vespertine look to wild spaces (or, more accurately, spaces imagined by the chefs as wild) to craft a multi-sensory cuisine that captivates the paying diner in a liminal world suspended between real environments.
The dish “diversidad de maíz” illustrates this point (fig. 1). To prepare it requires making six individual recipes: corn leaves stock, corn broth ceviche, yellow corn cake, purple corn cake, fried corn silk, and corn skin ring. Should one have the time and tools to follow these recipes, one would first have to procure multiple maize species endemic to the Americas—a mix of so-called landrace plants, contra the patented hybrid and transgenic corn varieties found in supermarkets as well as all manner of food additives and biofuels. And yet, “la diversidad” in this recipe represents sensual and visceral functions more than agro-ecological ones. Introducing the dish, Martínez notes that Peruvian farmers have “been central to the diversification of maize in the country” through their methods of “mutation, hybridization, acclimatization, and selection” (Central, 68). However, the histories of settler colonialism and industrial agriculture that have shaped such once-wild, now-cultivated foods disappear from view in the cookbook, as in the presentation of the dish at Central. Instead, the various colors and textures of maize are raw materials for an edible microcosm abstracted from the arid coast and hills where agrarian communities who cultivate maize struggle to continue their livelihoods in the context of global agribusiness. The pattern continues throughout the Central text: for instance, with a recipe whose centerpiece ingredient is a hand-harvested, pearl-shaped algae that the Martínez team collects from Andean lagoons located above 13,000 feet and with another recipe that calls for yuyo, a red algae “endemic to cold waters of the Humboldt Current along the southern Pacific Coast” (49). A project of curating and then extracting manifold sensory properties from regional biodiversity animates dishes like these, a project visible in the wider print culture of eco-modernist cuisine.
Abstract Appetites, Vulnerable Environments
There is a tension in this culinary niche between scientific aspirations to study and cook from wild ecosystems and aesthetic claims of radical novelty and irreproducibility. The latter flouts a key feature of the recipe as a genre of vernacular knowledge: what Tompkins terms the recipe’s style of “doingness” in “the temporality of the everyday.” In contrast, the recipes published as artifacts of the food served at eco-modernist restaurants are neither doable nor quotidian. Rather, they document edible sculptures whose design and craft are highly technical and whose audience is extremely narrow—consumers with an appetite and budget for culinary abstraction. Consider how Central cooks from endangered species and ecosystems, evident in the team’s expeditions into the protected Tumbes Mangrove Area and the recipes those expeditions have informed. These treks afford two specific recipes that have made their way onto Central menus: “roca de manglar” and “suelo de mangle,” which feature a fruiting plant that grows at the same level as mangrove roots (Martínez, Central, 50, 55). These dishes extract from vulnerable ecosystems like coastal mangrove forests digestible materials imagined as “alien” to the restaurant and its patrons.
This interest in protected environments reveals the contradiction between such restaurants’ minimalist style of plating dishes and maximalist fixation on collecting, cooking, and promoting a cornucopia of edible biodiversity. The problem is keenly apparent in Central’s uses of ingredients derived from the huarango tree—which is endangered in its native habitats of Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia. To Martínez, Central stewards the tree by collecting, experimenting with, and processing its bark and molasses. Although the tree’s “population . . . continues to decline,” he writes, “maybe—just maybe—by serving sweetener from [the tree] at Central, and letting the general public know about sustainable uses . . . we are helping too” (57). However, this hope that an experimental restaurant frequented by a few hundred people weekly redresses widespread habitat degradation discounts the scale and ignores the material conditions of biodiversity loss and its implications for the communities closest to that loss. Climate change is itself an abstract entity at Central, one that makes appearances in the cookbook only obliquely by way of references to El Niño weather patterns, rural flooding events, and Andean droughts. Climate change is untethered, in other words, from the concrete causes of slow environmental violence, which Rob Nixon has defined as the ongoing and durable harms of extractive industries and other modernization forces. In the case of Peru, agents of slow violence include the oil and gas industries that continue to expand their footprint in the Western Amazon—from the southern Camisea gas fields to blocks in the north and along the coast near Tumbes Mangrove Area, where the Central team forages for tastes of wildness.
To conclude with this recognition raises the question of how or whether eco-modernist cuisine could trade the profit potential of long tail markets for a more robust environmental ethics, which likely would require substantive changes to the aesthetic and technical procedures of restaurants like Central and Vespertine. What might this reconfigured cuisine look like? And would it continue to be designed or marketed in terms of modernism? For one, such a cuisine might collaborate with the environmental justice work of indigenous and immigrant communities. So too would it endeavor to avoid greenwashing, which abstracts ecologically-minded consumerism from the specific benefactors and consequences of modernity. And, it would likely be skeptical of wilderness mythologies that, as environmental historian William Cronon has argued about US wilderness rhetoric and law, have relied on narrow definitions of nature that have sometimes licensed profiteering and pollution of places that fall outside codified wildness. Such a cuisine arguably is taking shape in the work of Minneapolis-based Lakota chef Sean Sherman and other chefs whose experiments with “ancestral cooking” not only adopt avant-garde culinary techniques and forms but also join social and environmental movements for community food sovereignty. These chefs’ restaurants and cookbooks resonate with how Neshnabé philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte describes indigenous strategies in the upper Midwest for the conservation and use of wild foods in the context of slow violence: “[o]ur conservation and restoration projects are not only about whether to conserve or let go of certain species. Rather, they are about what relationships between humans and certain plants and animals we should focus on in response to the challenges we face, given that we have already lost so many plants and animals that matter to our societies.” Applying this analysis, we could envision a cuisine responsive at once to modernist aesthetic and cultural forms and lived environmental crises as a radical food culture that eschews palatable abstractions in favor of a cuisine developed out of thick ecological and cultural knowledge.
 Alissa Karl, “Modernism’s Risky Business: Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and American Consumer Capitalism,” American Literature 80, no. 1 (2008): 83–109, 89.
 See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London: Routledge, 2014).
 Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–48, 744.
 Terry Eagleton, “Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism,” New Left Review 152 (1985): 60–73, 67.
 Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the Nineteenth Century (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 2.
 See M. Pilar Opazo, Appetite for Innovation: Creativity and Change at ElBulli (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
 See Isabelle de Solier, “Liquid Nitrogen Pistachios: Molecular Gastronomy, elBulli and Foodies,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 13, no. 2 (2010): 155–70; Hervé This, Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); Hervé This, Building a Meal: From Molecular Gastronomy to Culinary Constructivism, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
 Jonathan Gold, “At Vespertine, Jonathan Gold Makes Contact with Otherworldly Cooking. Is Dinner for Two Worth $1,000?,” Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2017.
 F. T. Marinetti, The Futurist Cookbook, trans. Suzanne Brill (1932; rpt., San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991), 143, 158.
 Antonin Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty––First Manifesto,” in Artaud on Theater, ed. Claude Schumacher (London: Metheun, 2001), 112–17, 115.
 Virgilio Martínez, Central (London: Phaidon Press, 2016), 8.
 Anna Tsing, “Unruly Edges : Mushrooms as Companion Species,” Environmental Humanities 1, no. 1 (2012): 141–54, 142.
 See Martínez, Central, 21–22.
 Anna Tsing, “Arts of Inclusion, or How to Love a Mushroom,” Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing 22, no. 2 (2010): 191–203, 194. Emphasis removed.
 I have written elsewhere about the history of seed patenting in the United States. See especially, Allison Carruth, “Open Source Foodways: Agricultural Commons and Participatory Art,” ASAP Journal 1, no. 1 (2016): 95–122.
 See Martínez, Central, 233.
 In the cookbook Sea and Smoke (affiliated with the Lummi Island restaurant Willows Inn and chef Blaine Wetzel), for instance, there are recipes whose titles border on the absurd in the appearance of wild ingredients: among them, “Many Types of Wild Berries in a Broth of Herbs and Grasses,” “A Broth of Roasted Madrone Bark,” and “A Stir-fry of Wild Beach Peas and Giant Clams” (Blaine Wetzel and Joe Ray, Sea and Smoke: Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest [Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, 2015], 162, 126, 150).
 Kyla Tompkins, “Consider the Recipe,” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1, no. 2 (2013): 439–45, 442.
 See Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
 See William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1, no. 1 (1996): 7–28.
 Kyle Powys Whyte, “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene,” in The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, ed. Ursula K. Heise, Jon Christensen, and Michelle Niemann (New York: Routledge, 2017), 206–15, 207.