Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s take on modern food was astonishingly prescient in 1932. He came to it late, after the pioneering Futurist manifestos on art and music two decades earlier, but the thrust was the same: to infuse life with art, and art with new dynamism.
As with all modernists, the way the world had changed since the nineteenth century grabbed Marinetti’s imagination. Technology had transformed experience. The twentieth century was about speed, and about sensual bombardment, and about being in more than one time and place at once. Think radio and film, car and aeroplane. Fired by the new possibilities, Marinetti took a fresh and funny look at food. Cooked dishes were calories, but also shape, texture and sign. Recipes on the plate were exciting, colourful and suggestive, a bit like paintings and a bit like poems. We’d call them mini-installations today. I was always fond of the little diversion Marinetti thought up instead of a sideplate: strips of velvet and sandpaper would be provided to exercise the tactile sense, while nose, palate and eye went to work on the main course. Main course? That would be food plated by a cook with a cubistic eye. Diners might expect perfume to be sprayed in the air and sounds to be relayed by a Futurist music box, to complete the multiple sense-nourishing experience. You can see a clever interpretation of what he meant in a Channel Four film from 1989. I’ve put it on YouTube. When you organise your own Futurist banquet don’t forget to tell the guests to come in pyjamas. (The idea, I suppose, eighty years ago, was to be as informal as possible, after centuries of ‘dressing for dinner’.) What made Marinetti turn to food? Sheer creativity and a desire to have fun. Turn to any of the recipes in La Cucina Futurista and watch what happens as you carve out the cylinders of meat and amass the ballbearings. This is architectonic food you’re shaping. For a colour opera in the kitchen you’ll also need food dye and interesting lighting. A few cases of Asti Spumante, Italy’s then most famous fizz, are also prescribed, to keep the guests afloat. They may not totally love what you give them. One thing Futurist food doesn’t have is sauces. There are no liaisons between ingredients. It’s not the subtlest nor the most delicious stuff to eat. But the look of it! A revolution, still today.
The chefs you want to ask whether Marinetti influenced them, Fernan Adria late of El Bulli in Rosas, Catalonia, and Britain’s Heston Blumenthal, are deaf to the question, understandably. No one original in their own time wants to be tied down to a name from the past. Quite possibly neither chef took his inspiration from anywhere but his own head. I have a particular take on ideas: that they’re out there for the taking, and just keep going round and round, so every now and again someone picks one up that’s old/new and does something with it. There were times in the seventeenth and eighteenth century when the food idea was extravagantly and astonishingly Baroque. That was the opposite of Futurism at the table. The Baroque idea was the lusciousness of bodily existence. The apple in the boar’s mouth, the heads on the table, the birds in the pie, celebrated nature’s plenty. But it’s the machine that grabs the Futurist imagination, and so recipes become like blueprints and cooks are designers tentatively working with materials that can hold shape. I love that idea, of the cornmeal and the rice flour, and the cooked rice, all of which can be moulded. Futurism was trying to introduce an industrial edge into the kitchen, although never with an eye to mass-production. Making Futurist Food involves a conveyor belt for one, and you work with it as if you were an artist in the studio. Just one proviso: the stress on architectonics is exactly why there’s so such thing as Futurist soup. Any guest asking for soup can go back to the nineteenth century!
The Futurist Cookbook is only partly a collection of recipes and arguably its avant-garde inventiveness really comes to the fore in Marinetti’s food charades. The charades, or tableaux vivants, are like screenplays for chic tv ads today. They were staged who knows where. Probably in restaurants or private homes, or somewhere out in the country, or at least in the garden. Futurist actors dressed up and danced, smoozed, lunched and lounged in stylized poses. Some act of food sampling, like tasting strawberries, focused the fun. If you read the food scenarios you’ll see that they perfectly predict the kind of themed restaurants we’ve been enjoying for the last half century, reflecting different countries and cultures, town and country, and so on. They’re also poetic texts, waiting to be brought alive. In fact La Cucina futurista is a historic text shot through, with two kinds of writing: one publicistic, the other artistic and allusive. On the publicity side think everything from the boastful bombast of the whole Futurist movement down to their very real manipulation of the press worldwide. Marinetti famously got The Chicago Tribune to run a headline: ITALIANS MAY DOWN SPAGHETTI! Perhaps I’ve read that joke once too often. I find it a bit tedious today. Something else about the historical text: Marinetti’s text is full of political allusions, some unsavoury. Our moustachioed master of ceremonies’ weakness for Fascism and his links to Mussolini are the main reason why his impact as an artist on our tables was long delayed. After the war the Italians didn’t know what to do with their Fascist past, except forget it. Marinetti, ever ready to throw a punch, definitely had the wrong behaviour. Even now La Cucina Futurista is book that evokes much more interest in the anglophone world because we don’t have the awkward associations to deal with. We need to understand them though, and I’ve explained that in my introduction to the classic English-language version. When I first started working on Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook it was a time, as early as 1984, when I was getting out of an interest in food and wanting to get back to literature and art. Marinetti’s work was the perfect bridge. I was never sure where my crossing to the other side would lead, but the lure was to work with images and ideas again, also outside the kitchen. It was difficult to find a publisher for an English Cucina futurista. Penguin was less bold in those days, and one or two small publishers also said no. Copyright problems deterred them. Step up Conway Lloyd-Morgan at Trefoil, who bravely took the project on, commissioning a translation from Sue Brill and a wonderful design from Liz Mcquiston. My role was to edit the translation and write an introduction. Actually I remember typsetting it too, on my computer, because having embarked on my career as a writer I was what writers always are: hard-up. Still, fond memories on all counts. Since that gorgeous pink and green and black and yellow volume came out in 1989 The Futurist Cookbook has become a frequent point of reference in all manner of art and history books. The edition was a great success. So now, finally, Penguin have reprinted that edition, in a sober black-and-white livery, and with a photograph on the cover from the 1930s that stresses the historical reality of the Futurist banquets blueprinted inside. Actually our 2014 edition is closer to Marinetti’s original, which looks as if it were issued in wartime, when there was a shortage of paper and not much scope for design flair.
In 1989 we took much of our inspiration from Marinetti’s earlier books, like Mafarkar the Futurist, which were typographic fantasies closer to the Russian Futurists, and pointed the way forward to the Concrete Poetry of the 1960s.
The 1989 edition stirred some interesting responses in the media. I talked about it on the radio (Women’s Hour, The Food Programme) but really it was a subject made for television. And Channel Four, which was seven years old and still had a cutting edge, took it up. It staged a live Futurist banquet featuring a handsome host, wizardrous art historian Lutz Becker as a great explicator, your editor, and sundry other guests, all of us in baggy bedroom attire. The programme went out in the series Club X. As I say, I dug out my old video and you can watch it today on YouTube. Futurist Food even made daytime tv, and for that show called Tell the Truth along with my omni-talented friend Maxine Symons I made the best Futurist dishes of my life, for the camera to shoot, but these images have sadly been lost.The British Library also staged a terrific Futurist Banquet in 2009 to celebrate a cookbook with a difference, and with a great future.