Against pasta: remembering The Manifesto of Futurist Cooking
- May 13, 2022
- By: Josh Mcloughlin
Although tainted by the history of Fascism, the Manifesto and La cucina futurista deserve to be remembered as a brave, bizarre and fascinating attempt to aestheticise gastronomy – even if the ‘abolition of pasta’ was always doomed to fail.
In November 1930, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Luigi Colombo (known as ‘Fillìa’) sat down to eat at the Penna d’Oca restaurant in Milan. But this was no ordinary dinner. The menu included ‘ice cream on the moon’, ‘consumato of roses and sunshine’, and ‘roast lamb in lion sauce’ among other eccentric dishes. Inspired, Marinetti rose to deliver a rousing speech. ‘I hereby announce the imminent launch of Futurist Cooking’, he said, ‘to renew totally the Italian way of eating and fit it as quickly as possible to producing new heroic and dynamic strengths of the race’. Then came his most provocative statement: ‘Futurist cooking will be free of the old obsession with volume and weight and will have as one of its principles the abolition of pasta’.
On 28 December, Gazetta del Popolo published Manifesto della cucina futurista (The Manifesto of Futurist Cooking), a radical plan to reform, politicicise and aestheticise food according to the principles of Futurism:
Having enlarged sculptural possibility with anti-realism, having created geometric architectonic splendour without decorativism and made cinematography abstract, we will now establish the way of eating best suited an ever more high speed, airborne life.
Announcing that ‘men think, dream and act according to what they eat and drink’, Marinetti and Fillìa called on their compatriots to ‘stop the Italian male from becoming a solid leaden block of blind and opaque density’. Their rallying cry struck at the very heart of the culinary tradition: ‘Against pasta’, they cried: ‘an absurd Italian gastronomic religion’.
It was not the first time Marinetti had launched an iconoclastic manifesto. The Manifesto del Futurismo (1909) ‘declare[d] that the splendour of the world has been enriched with a new form of beauty, the beauty of speed’ and valorised motor and aeronautical engineering above the ‘glorified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy and slumber’ of classical art and literature.
The original Manifesto sought to ‘glorify war — the only true hygiene of the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchist, the beautiful Ideas which kill’. Marinetti called the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, for instance, (in which he fought in October–November 1918) an ‘Italian masterpiece […] greater than [Dante’s] Divine Comedy’.
No surprise, then, that Marinetti’s attempt to overhaul Italian food echoed the tenets of the original Manifesto: ‘Since everything in modern civilisation tends towards elimination of weight, and increased speed’, he said, ‘the cooking of the future must conform to the ends of evolution’. Marinetti called for a ‘battery of scientific instruments in the kitchen’, ‘a consistent lightening of weight and reduction of volume of foodstuffs’, and ‘the abolition of traditional mixtures in favour of experimentation with new, apparently absurd mixtures’.
The cooking Manifesto was an immediate sensation, reported in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune (under the wonderfully journalese headline ‘Italy May Down Spaghetti’). In Europe, the event was covered in Le Petit Marseillais, the London Times, and dailies in Germany, the Netherlands, and Hungary.
Furious debate broke out across Italy. The Duke of Bovino, Mayor of Naples, claimed that ‘the Angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli al pomodoro’. Marinetti replied that this merely ‘consecrates the unappetising monotony of Paradise and the life of the Angels’. The Fascist theatre critic Marco Ramperti came out in support of Marinetti: ‘pasta is like our rhetoric’, he wrote, ‘only good for filling up our mouths’.
In December 1931, a special edition of La settimana modenese published cartoons lampooning Marinetti as half-man, half-aeroplane, alongside a poetic defence of tagliatelle condemning Futurists as ‘past their proper cooking time’. The French poet Gabriel Audisio waded in, calling pasta a ‘dictatorship of the stomach’ and condemning its ‘insidious, slow process of rumination […] the unctuous conciliatory rhythm of the sloth’.
Neopolitans protested violently in support of pasta. In San Francisco, a riot sparked at an Italian restaurant caused several casualties. Meanwhile, Marinetti travelled across Europe, stoking controversy by giving lectures on the new cuisine.
In March 1931, Fillìa put theory into practice, opening La Taverna Santopalato (‘The Holy Palate’) in Turin with a model Futurist banquet of fourteen new dishes and a dining area decorated in ‘shimmering Italian Aluminium’.
The plan was that ‘the tavern will not be a simple, ordinary restaurant’ but a sort of salon that ‘will take on the character of an arts centre holding competitions and organising Futurist poetry evenings, art exhibitions, and fashion shows, instead of the usual post-prandial coffee evenings or dances’.
The centrepiece was Fillìa’s ‘sculpted meat’: ‘a symbolic interpretation of the Italian regions, composed of a large cylindrical risole of minced veal […] supported at the base by a ring of sausages resting on three golden spheres of chicken meat’. Other dishes included ‘totalrice’(rice seasoned with wine and beer) and ‘cooked salami served immersed in a concentrated solution of strong black coffee and flavoured with eau-de-Cologne’. A dish created by the painter Enrico Prampolini expressed the Futurist obsession with air travel:
an equatorial sea of poached egg yolks seasoned like oysters with pepper, salt and lemon. In the centre emerges a cone of firmly whipped egg white full of orange segments looking like juicy sections of the sun. The peak of the cone is strewn with pieces of black truffle cut in the form of black aeroplanes conquering the zenith.
Asked what would remain of the old cuisine, Fillìa said: ‘Nothing, not even the saucepans’.
In 1932, Marinetti published La cucina futurista (The Futurist Cookbook), a Futurist recipe book accompanied by a metanarrative account of famous Futurist dinners across Italy and the political and culinary controversies surrounding the Futurist food revolution.
The movement was not quite as radical as Marinetti claimed, however. The French chef Jules Maincave published La cuisine futuriste in 1913, calling for a complete harmony between the table (including crockery, glassware, and decoration) and the application of ‘the latest concepts of science’, anticipating Marinetti’s multi-sensory dining experience by more than a decade.
More importantly, the Manifesto and Cookbook must be understood in the context of Italy’s long history of culinary treatises and recipe books. Cristoforo Messisbugo’s extremely influential Banchetti, Composizioni di vivande et apparecchio generale (Banquets, Compositions of Courses, and General Table Design) (1549) was a bastion of the culinary traditionalism that Marinetti rejected — but it was also a major inspiration.
Messisbugo catalogued everything needed for a lavish court feast. His attention to detail — including not only spectacular food sculptures and eccentric flavour combinations of which Marinetti and Fillìa would have approved, but decoration, music, poetry, theatre and games — created a total dining experience that anticipated the all-encompassing artistic and culinary event of the Futurist banchetto.
Marinetti’s explicit target, however, was Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) (1891). This collection of traditional recipes quickly became the quintessential canon of Italian cuisine, representing everything the Manifesto despised. But one of Artusi’s aims was to push back against the dominance of French cuisine, part of a wider French cultural hegemony permeating across Europe since the eighteenth century. Writing a cookbook in Italian, for Italians, Artusi provided a nationalist culinary model and a belated contribution to the Risorgimento (1848–1871) by restoring native pride in Italian food. For all his repudiation of the traditionalist, bourgeois values underpinning L’arte di mangiar bene, Marinetti adopted Artusi’s gastro-nationalism throughout his adventures in Futurist cooking.
Of course, the cooking Manifesto, like Futurism more broadly, is irretrievably compromised by its Fascism. The Cookbook is filled with racism, violence, and misogyny in the service of Italian nationalism. The ‘abolition of pasta’ lent support to the Battaglia del grano (Battle for Grain), a campaign by Benito Mussolini for national self-sufficiency in the production of wheat to protect Italy from economic repercussions resulting from his invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.
While the long-term effects of Marinetti’s revolution on Italian cuisine were limited — the campaign ‘Against pasta’ certainly failed — contemporary dining reflects some of the key aims of the Futurist food Manifesto. Nouvelle cuisine, though dating back to the 1730s, was only popularised in the 1960s. Its emphasis on lightness, delicacy and fine presentation echoes the Futurist aversion to bulky, dense meals and its celebration of food for the eye and the mind as well as the mouth.
‘Molecular gastronomy’ and the multi-sensory fine dining that gained popularity in the 2000s, with their focus on chemistry and the use of new technologies, realise Marinetti’s dream of a ‘battery of scientific instruments in the kitchen’.
In 2006, Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Harold McGee published a manifesto on the ‘new cookery’ in the Observer. Framed as an ‘international agenda for great cooking’, it even adopted the numbered format of the original Futurist Manifesto. And like Marinetti, it emphasised how ‘Change has come especially fast over the last decade,’ and announced that cooking is no longer limited to ‘narrow definitions and expectations embodied in local tradition.’ The ‘new cookery’, just like La cucina futurista, ‘embrace[d] innovation – new ingredients, techniques, appliances, information, and ideas’, and prioritises ‘the disciplines of food chemistry and food technology’.
Futurism’s culinary experiments are now largely forgotten. The wider movement, shorn of Marinetti’s charismatic leadership and tainted by its association with the defeated Axis powers after the Second World War, effectively died with its founder in 1944. But together the Manifesto and La cucina futurista deserve to be remembered as a brave, bizarre and fascinating attempt to aestheticize gastronomy – even if the ‘abolition of pasta’ was always doomed to fail.