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Star Trek Replicators, Dystopian Futures, And The #foodchem Carnival

Over here at C&ENtral Science, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a food chemistry blogging carnival. Artful Science will return to regularly scheduled programming after we manage to digest all the turkey…

Jean Luc drinking his signature tea

“Tea. Earl grey. Hot.”

I never gave much thought to Jean-Luc Picard’s quintessential beverage request from the Star Trek The Next Generation replicator machine until last week.

I was talking with some friends about an article I had just filed with my editor about note-by-note cuisine. It’s the new passion of Hervé This, one of the co-founders of molecular gastronomy.

As I was describing This’ idea of creating food from chemical scratch, one molecule at a time, I suddenly realized that this is pretty much what Picard’s replicator machine had been doing all along on the Enterprise.

I would like to point out that when a writer (that would be me) comes up with an awesome Star Trek parallel AFTER filing an article with her editor, said writer feels remarkably like she’s come up with a devastating comeback line exactly one minute too late to deliver it to her arch enemy.

Luckily C&ENtral Science’s fearless leader Rachel Pepling started the #foodchem carnival this week, giving me an opportunity to slip my Star Trek analogy in to the public record.

But seriously, I thought I’d use the carnival as a chance to make a few points about note-by-note cuisine that I couldn’t fit into my word count-limited print column for C&EN.

If you haven’t read the piece, here’s a quick recap:

1. “Purveyors of note-by-note cuisine analyze the component chemicals of a finished dish, say a savory reduction sauce, which typically includes thousands of molecules from wine, broth, and other ingredients. Then they re-create the sauce using a subset of those molecules—namely the ones primarily responsible for our sensory experience of the sauce.”

2. Currently note-by-note cuisine can’t yet faithfully replicate your favorite foods. I tried a note-by-note orange cocktail and fish custard, and both tasted pretty awful. Or more precisely, the note-by-note dishes tasted like phantom food: recognizable but not substantial.

OK, down to business:

Several people have asked me why This calls the cuisine it note-by-note. The answer: He’s riffing off the idea of electronic music.

Just like early electronic music producers compiled tunes note-by-note, This wants to make food chemical-by-chemical. Or chemical note-by-chemical note. Or note-by-note.

Currently This is at the stage of working out the top-notes of a particular dish. Namely those big, important flavors, odors and textures that are absolutely essential if someone is to recognize fish custard as fish custard.

Even though This is not yet focused on getting trace flavor compounds in to his note-by-note dishes (as @Dondurma protested on Twitter) I think he’s certainly planning to add these subtleties in next generation note-by-note creations.

I expect the reason his current dishes taste so creepy/insubstantial is that my mouth and nose were missing the trace food chemicals that This has not yet added to the note-by-note recipes.

Early electronic music was rough around the edges, and it was not entirely pleasant to consume. But over the years, electronic music has become a lot more sophisticated and complex. I’d guess note-by-note cuisine will too.

Finally, if This’ dystopian predictions are correct, and we all have to switch to note-by-note diets because fuel become too valuable to cook with or to use in transporting food, I’m going to be glad that This started working on his wonderfully wacky food chemistry project now.

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