Play with Your Food

The Good Food Fight

The whole is always more than the sum of its parts, but sometimes it’s also altogether different. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when—at chef Dave Arnold’s  New York bar Booker and Dax—I ordered a drink with the component parts of a Bloody Maria (a variation on a Bloody Mary made with tequila in lieu of vodka) but received a clear, herbaceous drink more reminiscent of a mouthful of red pepper flakes.

Post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida coined literary deconstruction, and now many chefs employ a culinary equivalent of the technique. To deconstruct a text is to highlight how the meaning of its words is determined by experience, reference, and context, and how those words have no intrinsic meaning. To deconstruct food is to take its component parts and reassemble them in an unexpected or novel way, challenging our assumptions about the proper way to prepare a dish or a drink. To deconstruct food is to play tricks on the taste buds.

The world of modernist cooking is rampant with this sort of “food-play,” a way to undermine culinary authority—for example, the authority to define “tortilla espanola” as just this or just that—with a smirk. Booker and Dax is no exception. To really deconstruct Arnold’s Bloody Maria required specific tools, analytical or otherwise, and he had plenty: a custom-built 1,500-degree-Fahrenheit poker to caramelize sugars, a rotary distiller to make tomato juice into “tomato water,” and plenty of liquid nitrogen for herb muddling. Arnold and similar tech–savvy chefs play with food as a young child might—by questioning absolutes, thereby reinventing culinary art with an eye to the counter-intuitive.

The close association between particular food names and the dishes they are meant to represent encourages easy and repeat consumption, but it shirks real creativity. The combination of centrifuged tomato juice, rotary-distilled horseradish, and reposado tequila at Booker and Dax left something to be desired, but that was the point. Making a thick vegetable cocktail into a light, sippable drink is not meant to satisfy our conventional expectations, but rather to stress culinary imagination over sameness and repetition. It repurposes the act of cooking from the mere fulfillment of hunger to the creation of art with a personal touch.

Who is to say that a Caesar salad requires more lettuce than bread? We could resign ourselves to reproduce the work of strangers, but this challenge to deconstruct can provide inspiration even when we believe a dish to be complete. Descended from Mexican-Italian heritage, I was taught from a young age the proper way to assemble pasta and the appropriate fillings for a taco. But why shouldn’t we do otherwise?

The annual guacamole-making competition Guactacular in Brooklyn, New York, provides the perfect opportunity for playing with your food. I entered last year with my brother, a Brooklyn Heights resident, and we began a weeklong trial-and-error process of determining the best guac recipe. After the fourth batch—seasoned with lemon, diced cucumbers, and perhaps too much mint—it was clear that any guacamole deserving an award or at all worthy of a prize ought to be something new, inviting us to think in novel ways about form and flavor.

My favorite contender of the Guactacular 2011 fought the urge to mash the avocados and swapped in fruit and chocolate for the traditional vegetables and peppers. They topped a chip with an avocado slice, strawberry, kiwi, and shaved chocolate: simple, delicious, unrecognizable.

For our part, we ended up going with our Mediterranean take on the dish­—a hummus sandwich sans the chickpeas, instead with avocado. It lacked the potent and citrus-based overtones of cilantro, instead with a hit of minty freshness. We didn’t win, but the result of our food-play was something all our own, and it made the result that much more flavorful.

—Columnist Natalie C. Padilla can be reached at npadilla@fas.harvard.edu.

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