October 23, 2009
A conservative town San Francisco is not, but even the among the most open-minded veterans of Bay Area culture, a short intake of breath was heard on Saturday night when into the foyer of the SF Museum of Modern Art rolled a bicycle trailer hauling a whole, spit-roasted cow.
The bovine beast was the centerpiece of an evening with OPENrestaurant, a collective of young Bay Area chefs who stage performance installations that revolve around food, farming, and the politics of the two. This time the theme was futurism—specifically, the Futurist Cookbook, written in 1932 by pioneering Italian futurist, F.T. Marinetti. The event was part of SFMOMA’s exhibition honoring the centennial of the futurist movement, entitled Metal + Machine + Manifesto = Futurism’s First 100 Years. OPENrestaurant founders Sam White, Stacie Pierce and Jerome Waag brought together a formidable group of local chefs and designers to recreate the wild mechanical inventions and adapt the even wilder recipes from the famously radical book.
Entering the space, guests were handed martini glasses filled with a thick, potent avocado and brandy cocktail squeezed from a pastry bag. Overhead a remote-control cropduster hung from the ceiling and volunteers of the event wore armbands screen-printed with a matching propeller plane. I was told afterwards that the circling plane was spritzing the audience with “Agent Orange flower water” (made from orange trees planted by the creator of the dreaded chemical), though with the overwhelming amount of action in the space, a spritz was too subtle to be sensed. Our senses were instead stimulated by the amplified recitations of an Italian poet performing over a loudspeaker, recordings of mooing cows on their way to slaughter, giant wall-projected video clips of old Italian road bike races (and crashes), and of course the tastes of numerous foods, each rich with symbolism: Small early girl tomatoes stuffed with halibut ceviche referenced the infamous genetic engineering experiment that spliced the DNA of a tomato and a flounder; fried corn tortillas shaped into cones and filled with ground beef represented the corn-fed cows of industrial meat production; gelatinized beet juice molded into the shape of a heart and studded with goat cheese signaled a beating heart.
In the midst of it all, a team of female butchers broke down the body of the bike-delivered steer, sending the beef on a conveyor belt around the floor of the museum to stations where it was cut and served to the audience. The open-faced beef sandwiches—”true cost beef”—were dressed with thick molé, to represent the crude oil used in industrial meat production, and a bean foam, which alluded to the methane gas produced by cows. The bewildering complexity of the meaning behind the dishes never betrayed their flavor. As would be expected from a team of chefs with a Chez Panisse pedigree, each bite was delicious. Sadly, we left prematurely and missed the arrival of dessert, which came from the ceiling by parachute. In their description of this course, the OPEN team says, “the parachutes reference the militaristic side of the futurists and a bit of the idea of ‘winning the hearts and minds of people’ by the military dropping Hershey bars, or propaganda from overhead.”
While food is integral to the text of the Futurist Cookbook, OPEN is quick to articulate that the Futurist movement itself is about art writ large, and Marinetti’s treatment of his ingredients had far more to do with art and design than nourishment. In fact, he believed that food itself was better left to creative manipulation, and nutritional value should be popped in pill form. Appropriately, great attention was paid to the aesthetics of the experience, and while most of it was bound within the space and time of the evening, one great takeaway was the beautiful menu, which was designed by Sasha Wizansky, founder of Meatpaper Magazine (get a PDF here).
By the time we left, our heads were spinning (of course that had nothing to do with the half dozen different cocktails that were served throughout the night) and our stomachs were full. It was remarkable to see just how many people could be fed from the flesh of a single steer. Our only regret was how many details we surely missed with our senses kicked into overdrive for all those hours. In studying the menu later, which includes mention of most of the notable works of culinary and physical art, I uncovered even more layers in hindsight. But the production is imprinted so indelibly in my mind that it’s not hard to travel back mentally and add a spritz of Agent Orange Flower Water to the memory.
Photos: Creative Commons licensed and taken by Sasha Wizansky
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