What did you do this summer? Work as a counselor at camp Pine Fresh, maybe? File papers/pay bail for your local congressman? Slowly toast your way to skin cancer on the beach?
Guess what: this summer I witnessed a miracle — hot ice cream.
When I say “witnessed,” I mean “viewed pictures of on the Internet as my jaw hung down to the floor.” But it seems that Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot, the cheftastic mad scientists behind the blog Ideas In Food, have achieved the impossible: with the help of mysterious additive methylcellulose, they’ve devised an iceless cream that somehow retains the taste and melty quality of the freezer-friendly original. Somewhere in Vermont, Ben and Jerry are weeping into their Chubby Hubby.
When it comes to modern experimentation with food, Alex and Aki are just the tip of the ice(less)berg. Wylie Dufresne, the badass Bill Nye of chefdom and the brains behind New York’s WD-50, is known for turning chicken mole into pebbles and serving meals out of squirt bottles. At Chicago’s Alinea, chef Grant Achatz churns out popcorn foam. In establishments that rely more on spatulas than on beakers, foodplay remains increasingly popular: foie gras crème brulée? Pineapple croutons? Five years ago they made us gasp; now they’re just making us fat.
To a certain extent, these innovations are the inevitable consequence of our being übermodern whackjobs. After we started calling PDAs BlackBerries, it was only a matter of time before we started turning blackberries into PDAs.
But this food science business has me caught in an ethical dilemma. On one hand, my Obnoxious Food Geek Self is curious to taste pizza-flavored spoom or blueberry Legos or cauliflower soup molded into John McCain’s face — but I also wonder if it’s right and proper to treat food this way. Is ice cream still ice cream if it doesn’t have ice in it? Can popless popcorn still rock the “pop”? Are these science experiments a testament to our ingenuity, or are they devaluing what makes a food delicious?
Let’s consider popcorn for a minute. Popcorn is freaking awesome. Popcorn-flavored jellybeans, though, are pretty nasty. It isn’t that the taste is wrong — it’s actually strangely accurate — but the size and gummy interior of a jellybean are ill-suited to the salt, crunch and airiness of actual popcorn. A popcorn-flavored jellybean is sort of like a man on the subway who smells like mac and cheese. You might love the smell, but when it takes the form of a sockless unibrowed ass-scratcher, you feel somehow robbed.
In a way, something gets lost in all these chemical modifications. Astonishing though hot ice cream and bacon gelatin might be, I can’t help but view them as corruptions, not enhancements, of the original foods. The white-coat/white-tablecloth contingent underestimates the yum factor that lies in texture and composition.
I’m not a manic organic — your meal doesn’t have to be plucked from a tree by rosy naked cherubs with clean fingernails — but it should at least tell the truth about where it came from and how it was prepared. Peach dust might be inventive and even tasty, but there is no way to trace that flavor back to an actual peach, which is why (in my humble opinion) it no longer counts as peach. It is the Devil’s peach.
And now the reason I’m ethically conflicted: peach dust sounds kind of cool. Foot-high towers of congealed guava juice, braided ropes of parmesan, coffee you can cut with a knife — I mean, what the hell, but also, wow. This might make me the Devil’s columnist. It might also just make me a seminormal person who is equally susceptible to the siren calls of yummy things and things that have been turned into foam. You know what? I’ll try your hot ice cream. I might even like it. But I’m calling it methylcellulose cream.