F O O D  A N D  W I T

 Roger Owen, with assistance from Sri Owen

I am sure we shall all agree that cooking is an art. Or it can be. But does it have anything in common with other arts? I am not a cook; my wife Sri most certainly is one, and I think is an artist by any definition. In this paper, I shall try to suggest an answer to my question, and Sri will add her comments, with some suggestions for what may be called witty food: not witty because it makes us laugh, but because we realise that the mind and senses have been waylaid and ambushed, to our own deeper satisfaction.

All arts demand technical skill; without technique, you cannot be an artist (though there are, of course, many who try). Every art is intimately linked with at least one of our physical senses. Most important for my argument here: every art has unlimited scope but has to do its work with limited resources. You may object that music is based on a continuum of pitch which can be divided up into an infinity of different notes; the painter works with a colour spectrum which is infinitely variable. The cook has a taste spectrum which likewise allows infinitely small degrees of saltiness, sweetness or whatever. This is true, but our senses, however we may train and refine them, can’t distinguish infinitely small degrees of anything. There may be a hundred million steps between no-salt-whatever and nothing-but-salt, but a hundred million is still a finite number.

It may occasionally be pleasant to taste pure salt on the tongue, but no one is going to call that art. Every art achieves its infinite scope by combining together elements chosen from its limited resources - items from its catalogue, if you like. The composer of music, working in the classical western tradition, has a very circumscribed range of pitches. The art of composition, until quite recently, has been to combine these notes, as sounded by the various instruments of the orchestra, in accordance with a limited set of rules. Mozart realised that you can easily describe a machine that will combine the elements of a waltz to generate an infinite number of waltzes. Nowadays that’s too easy; your PC will write the waltzes for you, and play them. Electronics gives the composer a control over pitch and timbre that Mozart perhaps dreamt of but could never achieve. But this enlargement of resources does not alter the fact that a piece of music is based on differences of pitch, timbre and dynamics that must combine together.

But combine together to do what? To make some sort of pattern - to arouse expectation, and, one way or another, to satisfy it. An art, though dependent on at least one physical sense, also depends on our minds’ love of abstracting and detecting patterns. Patterns may exist in time - a tune, the rhythm of a sentence; or in space - the structure of a painting; or in time and space - the sequence of moves, for example, that leads to the scoring of a goal. (Sport works in the same way as art; an infinite number of possible games of football can be generated from a set of strictly-defined players, equipment and rules. Even chess, with much simpler resources, allows such a vast number of possible games to be played that, though technically finite, their number is inexhaustible from the point of view of the human brain. Computers are forcing us to realise that every possible game of chess may one day be available in some huge memory device. Of course, the vast majority of possible chess games are presumably very bad ones and of no interest to any human player.)

The point of patterns is that they help us to guess what’s likely to come next. Patterns of human behaviour are an obvious example. As we walk along the street we are constantly assessing the appearance and behaviour of the other passers-by, and each of them is assessing us. We do it automatically, most of the time. As a result we all behave in a civilised way - most of the time. More complex relationships develop in accordance with rules that our culture lays down and recognises. Doing business, starting or ending a friendship or a love affair - these are decisions that we arrive at by attending to each other’s actions and, of course, words. I’m tempted to pursue my line of enquiry into the workings of language, which increasingly seems to me to be the mould and pattern of all the arts and much else beside, but I will resist that temptation here.

Instead, let’s recap and see how all this applies to cooking. All arts demand technical skill: cooking certainly does. Every art is intimately linked with at least one of our physical senses: cooking is linked with taste and smell, and I think with touch and sight and even hearing - think of crunchy food, and the roles that noisy eating and drinking play in different cultures. And whereas most arts require a relatively passive audience, cooking can only be appreciated by people who actively eat the food, and whose appetites - like the cooks other resources - are indeed limited. On these grounds at least, gastronomy can claim high ground among the arts. Every art has unlimited scope but has to do its work with limited resources: the resources of the cook formed the basis for a whole Oxford Symposium (that on Taste, in 1987); as far as I remember, we agreed broadly on flavour, texture and aroma as the principal dimensions of what I would call gastronomic space. Having unlimited scope doesn’t, of course, mean that you can go anywhere you like and do whatever you want; it means that in the areas that are open to you, you can go as far as you feel is necessary. Every art achieves its infinite scope by combining together elements chosen from its limited resources: the cook combines flavours etc. to make dishes, and dishes to make menus - the sequence of dishes in a meal is perhaps as significant as the combining of elements in a dish. At any rate, when we sit down to eat, we have certain expectations about what the meal will consist of and the order in which its dishes will be served. Its elements combine to make some sort of pattern.

Now I would suggest that this hunger of the human mind to detect patterns is a product of evolution - in fact, I think it is pretty generally agreed to be so. (I have never pretended that this paper would contain any original ideas.) Whether we are players or spectators, as the ball moves down the field towards the goal we perceive the pattern of the game developing, and our team - our group - strives to seize and keep control of its development. That is how we win, or, in evolutionary terms, survive and reproduce. But of course nothing ever turns out quite as we expect. In fact our expectations may be utterly confounded, and usually are. Therefore, we learn to handle the unexpected situation.

In life, this can be a deadly serious business. But the whole point of art is that it’s not life; it is play, even though it may be intensely serious play. A producer of horror films once explained the importance of the closed door in racking up audience tension: as the innocent heroine opens it, you think she’s going to find something ghastly behind it - but there’s nothing the first time -  or the second, and maybe the third time - until suddenly, when she’s off her guard and so are you, she opens the door again, and - aaaagh!

Well, I have known this sort of thing happen in restaurants, but that is not what we are looking for. To arouse expectation, and, one way or another, to satisfy it. If you push me for easy examples, I shall probably take them from poetry, or song lyrics - the old-fashioned sort that have rhyme and metre. We enjoy the predictability - the tum-ti-tum of the beat, the anticipation of the line-end. What’s going to rhyme with June? Oh, moon! That’s nice - up to a point, the point at which we get bored. Then we demand a more original rhyme, and a break in the tum-ti-tum rhythm. A good poet, or song writer, takes care to set up a tension between the regularity of the metre and the irregularity of normal speech rhythms, playing with the length and colour of vowels, with the unrhymed line-ends, and with the tension between different levels of language. All these work together to create effects on our senses and intellect that can be extremely complex. Examples are not hard to find, and I don’t want to get sidetracked into literary analysis; but you get my point, I hope. The artist sets up a pattern of expectation in order to shatter it, and masters the rules of his or her art in order to break them.

But merely breaking rules or doing the opposite of what your audience expects isn’t, in itself, art (though some quite durable reputations have been built on it). You must compel your audience to admit, from moment to moment, that what you are doing is better than what they expected: more interesting, more true, more fun. This extra helping of truth and fun is what I call wit. It doesn’t have to be funny (though it often makes us laugh, or at least feel pleasure, as we recognise how much more apt it is than what we thought was coming next).

We tend to associate wit with language; the witty person is the one who can think of the right word or phrase without apparent effort and who utters it with perfect timing and perfect command of expression, intonation, gesture and all the other ingredients of a supremely social act. Wit is wisdom, of course; the two words spring from the same root. And every art, I suggest, flies at its highest pitch when it best commands this humane quality of unforeseen insight. But wit does not depend on words for its expression. Music, painting, architecture, football - all give scope for wit, and perhaps depend on it. Lovers of each of these art forms will be able to supply their own examples.

So where does this leave the cook? If cooking really is an art, and it seems to match up pretty well on all the criteria we’ve looked at so far, then witty food should be not just possible but quite unavoidable. But how is it to be done, or recognised?

 Sri’s comments, after reading the above:

When I was shown the first draft of this, I immediately tried to think of examples - particularly of ones I could bring with me to St Antony’s for people to taste. I suppose the kind of wit that’s intended to shatter your preconceptions does have parallels in the kitchen: a bombe surprise or a baked Alaska, for instance. But such things would be impossible to carry to Oxford from Wimbledon. My samples had to be finger-food, to travel well, be served cold (to an unpredictable number of people), not leave any mess - and still be witty. I wondered if this was what my husband meant by a “limited set of rules”.

I take his point about “gastronomic space” - the tensions between different tastes, textures and so on. Certainly, if I’m developing a recipe, or just improvising something for supper, I aim for contrast, variety, and some kind of overall harmony, a dish that seems well-balanced and “right”. Most of the witty remarks that I’ve heard were responses to some kind of challenge. Putting a cooked dinner on the table, day in, day out, for 30-odd years is certainly that. One of the pleasures of shopping for fresh ingredients in Italy or Indonesia is that what you see on the market stall or the fishmonger’s slab inspires you to want to take it straight home and cook something original and delicious.

For the Symposium, given the limitations, I naturally started thinking of canapes and things which amuse the throat. A good joke, repeated too often, becomes a cliche, and I can certainly think of lots of culinary cliches - so can you. Among canapes, the old pineapple-and-cheese-on-a-stick is an example - lots of contrasts, an unexpected combination, and it seemed terribly clever the first time we bit into one.

One of my particular interests at the moment is fusion food. The concept is attacked by many people, even chefs who cook it wonderfully well, as something that takes away the identity of a cuisine. I cannot quite agree. Successful “fusion” cooks almost always have mixed cultural backgrounds and take ideas and techniques from at least two traditions. I do this myself, and I agree with them that to do it successfully you must have a thorough experience and knowledge of both cultures and both cuisines. When enough cooks in enough countries have this background depth, fusion food will really take off. Such “mixed marriages” have limitless possibilities. But what we have to do, in effect, is to work out new rules for combining the grammars of existing cookeries.

Wit also depends on imagination. A witty remark can resonate in the mind and make us think - but its first impact is often to make people laugh. I’ve never known food, by itself, make anyone laugh, and indeed it would be undesirable for it to do so - we might all choke. True, the pleasures of conviviality and the laughter around the dinner table owe something - owe much - to our sensory and intellectual response to what we are eating. Laughter is ambiguous: we learn to laugh when we are babies, sometimes as a relaxed response to being cuddled, sometimes as mock-fearful response to the mock attack of being tickled. It would be interesting to know whether a baby’s experiences of being breast-fed and then weaned give rise to ambiguous attitudes to food in the subconscious mind.

But, to be practical: I can think of some foods that do not go well together, unless the cook knows exactly how to treat them. Slices of ripe mango, whipped cream, and melted dark chocolate: nicely arranged in a pretty bowl, they can look appetising. But tastes and textures will not speak to each other. Stirring the chocolate and cream together doesn’t help, if anything it makes things worse. But make them into a mousse and serve this with the mango - it looks good and tastes good. What was wrong with the combination we started with? Was it that each ingredient was too exotic from the point of view of the others - chocolate from the Americas, cream from Europe, mangoes from India? (This raises doubts as to whether chocolate can still be regarded as exotic anywhere in the world, but never mind.)

Suppose we replace the mango slices with fresh strawberries. We all love strawberries and cream (and, in passing, I would point out that a lot of food combinations that we take for granted can seem far from obvious to an outsider; what about bread and butter?) However, the chocolate has to go somewhere. Melting it and pouring it over the cream, as before, doesn’t work. Shave or grate a block of it over the cream: the result looks attractive but the texture and mouth-feel of the fragments interfere with the smooth balance of the strawberries and the cream. A mousse will just add another kind of smoothness when what we want is a yummy, meaningful contrast in the mouth.

The solution, of course, is to dip each strawberry halfway in the melted chocolate and let the chocolate harden. You will then have visual contrast (the brilliantly-coloured, smooth-and-bumpy surface of the fruit against the dark gloss - with all that this suggests of nature and art, and the fore-imagined sensation of biting into both simultaneously), and then ... I really don’t have to go on, do I? But this is the same sort of pleasure (though on a more complex level) that we get from pineapple and cheese chunks on a cocktail stick: the sensation of biting into them is fore-imagined because we know what its going to be like. So strawberries half-coated in chocolate and served with cream are on their way to becoming another food cliche, though I’m sure they will run and run.

One of my favourite dinner-party starters is salmon and mango salad, which is based on a Thai dish called Yam Mamuang. My current version is on page 58 of Healthy Thai Cooking. The original was a salad of sour green mangoes and a chilli-hot, sweet and sour dressing; it contained no fish, though it might be served with fish. Most people from southeast Asia find this combination irresistible, but it is too strong for most westerners and wouldn’t make a good introduction to a European meal. But my version brings together salmon fillet, lightly cooked in fish sauce, vinegar and water, with shallots, garlic, lemon grass, ginger, and of course a little chilli; strips of ripe mango; and, for the rest of the salad, sharp-tasting lambs lettuce and rocket, with a few coriander leaves, dressed with the cooking liquid from the fish. This has become quite a popular dish and the recipe turns up, with variations, in all sorts of places. Having recently returned from Italy with some rare and pungent old balsamic vinegar (and balsamic vinegar as old and rare as this is not a cliche, let me tell you), I tried the effect of a few drops in the salmon and mango salad - and this brings about a small transformation, a new dimension added to the “space” of flavours and textures. I think that’s witty. Whether it’s art or not, I leave for others to judge.

But back to the Symposium. Roger and I were delighted by the number of people who attended the session (of which, admittedly, our paper accounted for only one part out of three), and by the debate and questions which were immediately aroused - and inevitably curtailed by the approach of lunch. Unfortunately we were so entranced by the questions and by trying to answer them that neither of us made a single note, and the wit and brilliance of our audience have as a result been lost. Anyone who would like to revive or renew the debate is invited to do so, by e-mail to sriowen@sriowen.com.

The witty food that I brought with me, and which I challenged the audience to identify (with one voice they all called out, “Meatballs!”), was Olive Ascolane (Stuffed Olives), a recipe borrowed, with the authors permission, from Antonio Carluccio’s Complete Italian Food (p. 223). I also gave out lists of ingredients for these and for Quail Egg Koftas, taken (likewise with the authors’ permission) from Canapes and Frivolities (p.73) by Anton Edelmann and Jane Suthering. (I have cut out the lamb, making this a vegetarian version.) The idea here was simply to contrast two approaches to rather similar ends. In the actual cooking, I simplified Antonio Carluccio’s recipe somewhat, and used small olives at the centre of my meatballs, with the mixture formed around them; Carluccio uses the mixture to stuff inside his big Ascolane olives. I could conduct a detailed analysis of the two recipes and their results, rather as one might write a critique of a matched pair of poems, but the best way to compare them is to cook and eat them.

My other witty dish appeared on the lunch table immediately after the session; it was the Flemish Rice Pudding with Frambozen from The Rice Book (p. 338), beautifully made for me by Silvija Davidson. The idea of making rice pudding with raspberry-flavoured beer nearly did make me laugh out loud when I first met it; and whoever first had the idea demonstrated precisely the lateral thinking that is the soul of wit.