Monday, June 15, 2009

Does Transglutaminase Work on Shark Meat?

shark I do believe the phrase "molecular gastronomy" has officially jumped the shark. In what has to be one of the goofiest little bits of prose I've ever read, The Feedbag brings us this gem: Mystery Behind Meat Glue Revealed. The 150-word thriller explaining how "molecular gastronomers" use transglutaminase, a/k/a "meat glue," is cribbed pretty much directly from this equally goofy piece, "What is Meat Glue?", from the Tampa Bay Examiner's resident "Molecular Gastronomy Examiner."[*] The Feedbag piece even duplicates the misspelling of transglutaminase as "triglutaminase" as well as the ungrammatical explanation that it "[is] an enzymes [sic] that catalyzes covalent bonds between free amine groups and gamma-caroxminid [sic] groups of protein or peptide bond [sic] gluatamine [sic]." That super-scientific explanation - minus the misspellings - is lifted directly from (drum roll please) Wikipedia. The Examiner article also references a "trilutaminase" for variety, while Feedbag mixes it up by throwing in the obligatory "Frankensteinish ingredients" comment.

[Sigh.] I don't even know where to start, so I won't. I do enjoy reading Feedbag, but their coverage of "molecular gastronomy" certainly leaves something to be desired. On the other hand, it's probably helpful that we've reached the point that 90% of the time, you can safely assume that someone using the phrase "molecular gastronomy" has no idea what they're talking about.

[*]"Examiners" are freelance, apparently unedited, writers for the paper's website.


  1. I think that is highly possible to glue shark meat. It would especially be good glued to crow for these writers to enjoy!

  2. "Jumped the shark"? And you're complaining about "molecular gastronomy"? You get more adorable every day, Mr. F.

  3. "it's probably helpful that we've reached the point that 90% of the time, you can safely assume that someone using the phrase "molecular gastronomy" has no idea what they're talking about."
    Although I assume you are only half-serious (which is more than I can say for myself), I also call bullshit on that sentence. The only thing I "can safely assume" is that 'Molecular Gastronomy' is a very powerful and influential term that has fallen out of favor with the chefs who, ahem, didn't invent it. Can I safely assume you prefer 'new cookery'? As for your readers, may I suggest they read Herve This's 'Molecular Gastronomy' and decide for themselves.

  4. Ahh, Danny, the hackneyed shark-jumping metaphor was also intentional - as was the cheesy clip-art (though it does add some sorely needed visual stimuli to this otherwise text-dreary blog). You can generally assume that 90% of the time I'm half-serious - yes, more math, but I think overall that makes me 45% serious.

    My real thoughts? "Molecular gastronomy" is a term which has pretty specific origins (as you refer to) and, at least originally, a fairly limited meaning - which was intended to refer to the scientific investigation of cooking itself and not any particular style of cooking or cuisine.

    I cannot off the top of my head think of any professional chef that has self-identified as a "molecular gastronomist" or "molecular gastronomer" though someone may well prove me wrong. I know that a few years ago, Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal and Thomas Keller went out of their way to say that "'molecular gastronomy'" does not describe our cooking, or indeed any style of cooking."

    Even so, in the past couple years in particular, the term has come to be used more and more by mainstream media as a shorthand for any type of cooking that is in any number of possible ways "unconventional" in a contemporary way, whether by virtue of ingredient combinations, use of particular ingredients (such as hydrocolloids), and/or use of particular technologies (i.e. immersion circulators). As often as not, this newer use of "molecular gastronomy" is either itself intended as pejorative or is often accompanied with more express pejoratives of varying degrees, i.e. the "Frankensteinish" comment in the piece that prompted this post. Another example is this piece on the Atlantic Food site which seemed to blame "molecular gastronomy" rather than bad cooking for an unsatisfying meal.

    I don't know that the term has "fallen out of favor" with chefs as much as it was not really used by them at all (in reference to themselves at least), and is now being used in a lazy, slapdash way, often by people taking potshots at food they've never even tried.

    This particular piece (and the "Examiner" piece it was cribbed from) was not so much pejorative as just horribly sloppy and pointless - but it is further evidence of how the term "molecular gastronomy" has crept its way into the media to be used by people with apparently little or no conception of what it means.

    Is it a "powerful and influential term"? I have no idea. I think at this point its usage primarily serves to alienate people by making the cuisine it is used to describe seem unnatural, artificial, foreign and unappealing. It also doesn't sound all that tasty.

    Do I prefer another term? I'm stumped for an answer. "New cookery" doesn't really tell you all that much, does it? (Besides, does anyone other than the English use the word "cookery"?) On a certain level, I'm happy to give up on the effort to coin a term, and just talk about "good cooking" and "bad cooking". And yet - there is clearly something that distinguishes the cooking of, say, Wylie Dufresne and Graham Elliot Bowles from the cooking of Elizabeth Falkner and Suzanne Tracht (to pick examples from my last hour of TV-watching).

  5. Want to know why he is really mad at you? You dissed his day job...

  6. I liked Oseland's "Sci-Fi Food" comment

  7. Danny's not really mad, he's just being himself. But I imagine Danny's spending his daytime hours doing something much more profligate than penning pieces for the Examiner. Almost all of what's there looks like material he'd originally put up in Daily Cocaine.

    For an interesting current discussion on "MG", here's a couple good threads at Cooking Issues: Molecular Gastronomy is Just a Long Four-Letter Word and Molecular Gastronomy - Nils Weighs In.

  8. The first time I heard the phrase 'new cookery' was during an interview I did with Chef Michael Schwartz and Terry Reilly, Director of the Miami Art Museum. I actually like it-it blends the new techniques with the old, homey stuff, and doesn't sound pretentious. But like the hated term 'foodie', I think 'molecular gastronomy' is here to stay. You can always use the phrase, "so-called molecular gastronomists", as Grant Achatz has, to describe himself and his cohorts.
    Re:Daily Cocaine to Examiner-that's called 'repurposing'. A wonderful term that means stealing from yourself (for not a lot of money).
    And Frod: I apologize for my witless misreadings of your humorous bits-I'm a little dense lately, due to my new-found, and utterly trendy, fascination with Rye.

  9. Danny - try the Black Maple Farms 21yr Rye. They have it at MGFD. Its pricey but its a great sipper.

  10. Danny - if you're missing the humor, it's because the writing is weak, not because of the Rye. I'm still not convinced that "molecular gastronomy" in reference to a perceived style of cuisine really has legs, but I suppose we'll see. Which do you think will have more staying power - "molecular gastronomy" or Twitter?

  11. Please BM, do not encourage me. The other night I drank several Manhattans with Jim Beam rye, followed by two more with Wild Turkey rye at the restaurant, followed by two glasses of sav. blanc, followed by a bottle of Barolo, followed by several cognacs, the came back to the house and polished off the bottle of JB with some friends. There was alao a dinner in there somewhere...That being said, I'll def try that Rye...
    Frod-I think both terms will seem quaint in a couple of years...

  12. Also, Sra Martinez carries Michter's bourbon and Michter's rye. Both very good and much more affordable. Beam and Wild Turkey rye? Ouch, that hurts man...

  13. yeah it hurt the next day boyo...