Optimism at the Table

“It is not by chance this work is published during a world economic crisis, which has clearly inspired a dangerous depressing panic, though its future direction remains unclear. We propose as an antidote to this panic a Futurist way of cooking, that is: optimism at the table.”

—F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Cookbook

On the plane back to New York, watching Karen meticulously fold her paper cocktail napkin into strange configurations (nothing is too humble for an ingeniously gorgeous Karen Azoulay creation), I start to fantasize about staging our own Futurist banquet. Karen often takes prosaic materials—ribbons, pompoms, broken umbrellas—and turns them into fantastical installations, like fireworks and waterfalls; I’ve long been especially fond of the artichoke she crafted from plastic spoons. What would happen, I begin to wonder, if she were invited to have her way with The Futurist Cookbook? There seems something delectable about two modern-day women taking on that peculiarly sexist world. Our conversation goes something like this:

Me: Karen, do you want to co-host a Futurist banquet, you art-direct, I do the rest?

Karen: Without question. I’ve already started in my head.

That was February. By March, Karen had drawn up an aesthetic blueprint (“vaudevillian laboratory”). By April, we’d secured two very generous drinks sponsors (Campari, for whom, in 1932, Futurist Fortunato Depero had designed the Campari Soda bottle that’s still in use today; and family-owned Italian vintner Livio Felluga, maker of an especially delicious bright yellow Friulano and crimson Sosso), a location (the Tribeca apartment of modern-day mad scientist/tech entrepreneur Josh Koppel, inventor of ScrollMotion and the Iceberg e-reader), and a date (May 30). By May, we had a truckload of Karen’s cunning handiwork—gold-leaf candelabra, sculptural lamps, whimsical serving platters—and a 20-person guest list (whittling it down was the most stressful chore of all). By May 29, we just needed a finalized menu.

Herewith, a condensed list of the elements required for the perfect meal, according to The Futurist Cookbook:

  1. Originality and harmony in the table setting extending to the flavors and colors of the foods.
  2. Absolute originality in the food.
  3. The invention of appetizing food sculptures.
  4. The abolition of the knife and fork for eating food sculptures.
  5. The use of the art of perfumes to enhance tasting.
  6. The use of music limited to the intervals between courses so as not to … help annul the last taste enjoyed by re-establishing gustatory virginity.
  7. The abolition of speech-making and politics at the table.
  8. The use, in prescribed doses, of poetry and music as surprise ingredients to accentuate the flavors of a given dish with their sensual intensity.
  9. The rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and others they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise, and imagination.
  10. The creation of simultaneous and changing canapés that contain 10, 20 flavors to be tasted in a few seconds.

11.  A battery of scientific instruments in the kitchen, i.e., ultra-violet ray lamps, electrolyzers, colloidal mills, centrifugal autoclaves, and chemical indicators.

Keeping such dictates in mind elevates the humble routine of grocery shopping into a genuine adventure. When you roam the aisles scanning for interesting textures instead of ingredients or brands and fill your basket with fruits and vegetables chosen for their colors, not how they taste, food reveals itself in an entirely novel, Alice in Wonderland sort of way. Suddenly, a bowl full of lanky scarlet rhubarb stalks, crisp red radishes, and glossy cherries materializes in your minds’ eye as the epitome of haute cuisine. (You also come to truly appreciate the cornucopia New York City has to offer in the year 2009: Between Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, the farmers market, and Chinatown, exoticism is shamelessly easy to come by, almost disappointingly so—where’s the chase?)

On Saturday, the day of the banquet, we assemble a team of helpers and set to work transforming Josh’s apartment. Karen’s “sensory sample” table runner, a long strip of bright yellow burlap with inset repetitive geometric shapes cut from sandpaper and velvet, is unfurled and ironed; her hand-printed napkins and hand-enameled cutlery arranged just so at each table setting; her sculptural lamps illuminated with new brightly colored bulbs. Meanwhile, more by way of intuition than logic, we “cook” the food. Our menu:

One medicine dropper full of pink bubble gum infusion;
one Petri dish of yogurt culture.

Skewer of strange tastes, served with purple blindfold.

Frozen soup ice slabs (white, brown, green) and rubber glove (yellow).

Anti-Caesar salad with gelatin dressing mounds (lemon-garlic and mixed herb).

Meatloaf wedding cake with chartreuse mashed potato piped icing
and peacock feather embellishment.

Miracle fruit berry with lemon wedges and salt-and-vinegar potato chips.

The guests, advised to dress in “clashing glamour,” arrive at 8 p.m. in all manner of bedeckment (most dashing, perhaps, is the choice of seersucker suit paired with black leather vest and bow tie). After mingling a bit over predinner cocktails, everyone is seated at 8:30 sharp for their appetizers: a glazed brown-mottled plate bearing a medicine dropper filled with an unidentified pink liquid and a Petri dish that looks as if it’s had a poached egg cracked into it. The diners delicately dig in. Next is the skewer of strange tastes, which everyone is directed to eat blindfolded in order to enhance the intensity of each flavor: jelly donut, vegetable shumai, marshmallow rolled in chili-lime sugar, sour plum, mango. For the soup course, everyone dons yellow rubber gloves to protect their fingers from the chill of a trio of coconut, miso, and cashew-butternut ice slabs. Now for the anti-Caesar salad: at each setting, a plate dotted with two quivering mounds of gelatin dressing and a pile of black salt, and the verbal instruction to select a few huge leaves of radicchio curling from a lofty, ruinlike structure that Karen promenades around the table. The entrée draws audible gasps: a meatloaf (courtesy of Ann Landers) molded into the shape of a three-tier wedding cake and embellished with lime-green mashed potato-and-mascarpone/parmesan icing that Karen piped masterfully herself. For dessert, we present each diner with a single miracle fruit—the tiny West African berry that, once eaten, turns sour tastes sweet—and let them eat lemon wedges and salt-and-vinegar potato chips (our test kitchen sampled 10 brands before settling on Trader Joe’s) to their hearts’ content, while drinking ruby-red Campari cocktails.

Beyond the darkened windows, New York glitters stoically through its economic recession. Inside, the mood, judging from the roaring conversation and laughter of 20 mostly strangers is undeniably optimistic. Score one for the future.